So her infant child wasn’t torn to shreds by wild dogs, and she wasn’t completely alone for 18 years. But she did watch a ferocious sea monster kill her teenage son while he was fishing in a canoe, and was mostly solo for the decade that followed, save for some passing ships. That’s the more true but still tragic life of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, who stayed on the remote Channel Island when the other natives left in 1835 and remained until 1853, when she came willingly to Santa Barbara with Captain George Nidever.
Christened Juana Maria once baptized on the mainland, the woman’s life story was fictionalized in Scott O’Dell’s classic 1960 book The Island of the Blue Dolphins, and her Robinson Crusoe-esque saga remains a fascinating tale for people of all ages. But the real reason she stayed on San Nic remained rather nebulous until a team of researchers scoured the archives to paint a more complete picture of her life.
“Really, it’s been the technology that has allowed us to do all this new research and change our view of the whole story,” said Steven Schwartz, who recently retired after serving for the U.S. Navy as San Nic’s primary archaeologist for 25 years. “We can tell a much different story now than we could have even just 10 years ago.”
Thanks to newly digitized data, particularly the Smithsonian-housed papers of anthropologist J.P. Harrington, Schwartz — along with independent researcher Susan Morris, Museum of Natural History anthropologist John Johnson, and Channel Islands National Park education specialist Carol Peterson — uncovered information from conversations the woman had with people in Santa Barbara. “We’ve been told that no one could talk to her, but that doesn’t seem to be quite so true,” said Schwartz. “There were people who could communicate in some degree. If you spend enough time with gestures and charades, you get what that person is trying to say. And a couple common words make a big difference.”
In this case, Juana Maria’s contemporaries repeated to Harrington what she told them: When the 1835 boat left, her boy was missing, so she stayed behind to find and care for him; and that they lived a decent life for many years, until a shark or whale attacked him. To Schwartz, that better answers why she stayed — the original story that her infant was missing never made much sense, nor did death from wild dogs, which didn’t exist on the island — and why she didn’t opt to leave with one of the many known ships that stopped at the island during her exile.
“When Nidever comes in 1853, she’s more than happy to go. Why this change in attitude all of the sudden?” asked Schwartz. “The son is no longer with her, so she has no reason to stay.”
Their research has also turned up other interesting tidbits, like her disdain of cooked fish, as she preferred it raw. She also disliked bread, beef, pork, and tea, but liked green corn, rice, coffee, candy, potato, and squash. And the researchers also provided descriptions of her appearance to artist Holli Harmon, who painted a new portrait that now hangs at the Museum of Natural History.
The part of the story that doesn’t change, though, is the end. Juana Maria’s arrival in Santa Barbara was a regional sensation, with newspapermen and sailors coming from all over to see her. And imagine her experience, seeing buildings, cows, horses, and so much more for the first time. “She certainly was happy and amazed by everything she saw,” said Schwartz of her first few weeks. “Then she starts to get sick and slowly fades away.” She died of dysentery in October 1853 and is buried in the Nidever family plot at Mission Santa Barbara, where a plaque commemorates her now less mysterious life.
The lecture about these new discoveries is on Thu., Dec. 13, 7 p.m., at the Channel Islands National Park visitor center (1901 Spinnaker Dr., Ventura). For more info, visit nps.gov/subjects/islandofthebluedolphins.