Juana Maria, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island
Island of the Blue Dolphins is a book written by the American author Scott O’Dell about a girl stranded on an island in the Pacific. This popular children’s novel is based on a real story of a woman left on an island off the California coast for 18 years. The protagonist in the Island of the Blue Dolphins was modelled after Juana Maria, better known as the ‘Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island’.
Fur was one of the natural resources that was traded between the natives of North America and the European colonists. By the 1800s, the colonists were getting these valuable furs by themselves, and companies were set up to fulfil the demands of the market. One such merchant company was the Russian-American Company, established and controlled by Russia. In 1811, the company began hunting otters along the Californian coast, as the pelts of these animals were highly valued. A group of Kodiak natives from Alaska, said to number between 25 and 30, were hired as hunters for this expedition.
At some point during the expedition, the Kodiaks were left on San Nicolas Island to hunt for the seals. Although the island was remote, it was not uninhabited, as it was home to a Native American tribe known as the ‘Nicoleños’. The Kodiaks came into conflict with the islanders, and slaughtered most of the Nicoleño males. The women were then taken as slaves. History is unclear regarding the fate of the Kodiaks. Whether they simply left the island, or were killed by the Nicoleño women is anybody’s guess, as they subsequently vanished.
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San Nicolas Island, in the Pacific off the coast of California. Public Domain
For the Nicoleños, however, their population drastically declined following the encounter with the Kodiaks. It has been suggested that by the time the Kodiaks were gone, less than a hundred Nicoleños were left on the island.
By the early 1830s, many Nicoleños had abandoned their island, and the Santa Barbara Mission organized an operation in 1835 to bring the remaining islanders (numbered at fewer than a dozen) to the mainland. The operation managed to bring all but one of the islanders to the mainland. This islander was Juana Maria.
A photograph of a Native American woman, believed to be Juana Maria, of the Nicoleño tribe. Public Domain
According to one version of the story, Juana Maria was boarding the rescue schooner Peor es Nada (meaning ‘Better Than Nothing’) when she realized that her infant was missing. She left the schooner and went back to her village to find her child, only to discover that he/she had been killed by wild dogs. In the meantime, the schooner was forced to leave as a storm was approaching. Not everyone believes in this popular version of the story, however, and an alternative version suggests that due to the approaching storm the crew did not conduct a head count and left for the mainland hastily, unfortunately leaving Juana Maria behind. Although the Peor es Nada intended to return to San Nicolas Island when the weather cleared, it sank while entering the harbor at San Francisco.
As a result, Juana Maria spent the next 18 years of her life on an island isolated from the rest of the world. Over the years, several attempts were made to find her, though none succeeded. This was probably due to the fact that Juana Maria was living in a cave for most on her time on the island. This choice of dwelling may have also allowed Juana Maria to stay hidden from the Russians and Kodiaks who returned in search of otters from time to time. In 2012, it was reported that the cave where Juana Maria lived in had been discovered by archaeologists after 20 years of searching.
In 1853, Juana Maria herself was found by George Nidever, a fur trapper. Nidever had been requested by the Santa Barbara Mission to search for her, and this was his third attempt. Juana Maria was pleased to see Nidever and his crew, and was willing to return with them to the mainland. In Santa Barbara, Juana Maria caused quite a sensation, and received many visitors, which she apparently enjoyed. Seven weeks after she arrived on the mainland, however, Juana Maria died of dysentery, and was buried in an unmarked grave at the Santa Barbara Mission. Thus ends the story of Juana Maria, the lone woman of San Nicolas Island and the last surviving member of her tribe.