In Santa Barbara’s history-loving circles, the name Nidever is right up there with De la Guerra, Carrillo, and Ortega. While the latter men shaped the city’s terrestrial history, Captain George Nidever was an adventurous seafaring pioneer of the Santa Barbara Channel, arriving here in the 1830s to hunt otter and then sticking around to marry Sinforosa Sanchez at the Mission, ranch for awhile on San Miguel Island, retire to his property at Nidever Hill, where the Santa Barbara Zoo sits today, and pen the popular memoir The Life and Adventures of George Nidever. But most of all, he’s known for finding, in 1853, the “lone woman of San Nicolas Island,” a Chumash native named Juana Maria who missed the last missionary boat to the mainland in 1935 and survived alone for nearly 20 years. (It wasn’t much of a rescue, however, for once on the mainland and living with the Nidevers, she died seven weeks later from dysentery.)
For such a legendary figure, it’s surprising to learn that Nidever’s final resting place has been a mystery for decades. That changed this year, however, when Santa Barbara history buff Alex Gryzwacki did some investigating and located the graves of Nidever, his wife, and his children at Calvary Cemetery on Hope Avenue in Santa Barbara. To commemorate the discovery, the Santa Cruz Island Foundation raised money for an upright stone tombstone and, on Saturday, November 1, the foundation’s director Marla Daily brought together donors, volunteers, and Nidever descendants for an 11 a.m. blessing of the gravesite by Bishop Thomas Curry. “These are all contributors,” explained Daily before the service as she greeted everyone. “These are people who care about the Channel Islands.”
Among other proud attendees were Nidever’s great granddaughters – and closest living descendants – Margaret Smith, 92, and Helen Shapero, 87, who, like others at the ceremony, had traveled for hours to take part, coming from such Southern California towns as Carlsbad, Newport Beach, Riverside, and La Ca±ada Flintridge. And Juana Maria’s legend was also well represented by the crowd: Laurence and Joan Rock Bailard own two of her last earthly possessions – an abalone fish hook and an arrowhead – while the Leslie family, descendents of George Nidever’s brother John, own a mysterious stone weapon of hers that made its way to the mainland from San Nicolas Island.
With the ethereally cloudy morning sky occasionally giving way to warm rays of sunshine, Daily kicked off the brief program by introducing these and other attendees, and giving a brief explanation of Nidever’s legacy. (See some of that in the accompanying, albeit shaky, video.) Then Bishop Curry presided over the blessing, which he noted was on the Feast of All Saints Day, and sprinkled holy water on the tombstone in the traditional Catholic manner, for Nidever converted to the religion a day before he was to marry Sanchez. And then Gryzwacki explained his path to discovery.
As graves registration officer for the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War, Gryzwacki knows how to find dead people. He searched the Santa Barbara Mission‘s death records, and discovered that Nidever died on March 24, 1883, at age 81, and was given his last rites by Father Jose Godriol (or Godiol). But there was no burial location noted, so Gryzwacki decided to search out Sanchez’s grave, which was also unknown at the time. He determined that, after Nidever’s death, she moved to a property on lower Santa Barbara Street, which still stands today. She died on August 12, 1892, and was buried at the Catholic cemetery.
At the time, the Catholic burial ground was the Cieneguitas Cemetery, located on Hollister Avenue. But it was abandoned in 1895, and family members slowly began moving their relatives’ remains to other cemeteries as it fell into disrepair. After some detective work, Gryzwacki found the original burial map of Calvary Cemetery, Santa Barbara’s Catholic burial ground, and saw that the Nidevers’ daughter Isabel Beal had purchased a plot there for $1 in 1900. Listed on the map were the burials of Jacob and Marcus Nidever, and a later notation that said “The remains of Mr. and Mrs. Nidever.” He then also found George Nidever’s burial card, which he assumed must indicate a transfer.
Putting all the evidence together, Gryzwacki believes that Nidever, when he died, was buried near his adobe on Nidever Hill. Then, when that property sold, Nidever was moved by Beal to the Cieneguitas Cemetery, where he was at some point joined with his wife’s remains. And then, after burying her brother Marcus at Calvary Cemetery, Beal moved her parents away from the crumbling Cieneguitas to be with the rest of the family. Today, Beal is also buried near her parents, as are three of her siblings.
After the ceremony, the couple dozen in attendance drove up the mountain to the La Cumbre Canyon Ranch for a barbecue hosted by Robin Gauss, who did the engineering on the tombstone to assure it won’t tilt or sink. That engineering – teamed with the strong foundation built by Ozzie Daros, who hails from one of Santa Barbara’s longtime stonemasonry lineages – will assure that everyone knows where George Nidever lies for the generations to come.