Anyone who grew up reading Scott O’Dell’s classic Island of the Blue Dolphins was probably captivated by the main character. She is a young woman who lives on an island in the Pacific Ocean totally alone. Her entire tribe has left the island, while she remains behind. Many people may not know or realize that O’Dell based his novel on a real event and a real life: that of Juana Maria, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.
Born sometime in the early 19th century — no one knows for certain when — the woman who would eventually be known as Juana Maria of San Nicolas Island spent a significant portion of her life completely isolated from human contact. Though she was ultimately removed from her solitude in 1853, her future off the island was a brief one.
Historians have been able to piece together relatively few facts about Juana’s life. Taken as a whole, they reveal a tragic, heartbreaking story of a woman who, even when found, still remained lost in so many ways. Like the Trail of Tears that Native Americans were forced to take to her east, Juana Maria’s story is one that maps the contours of 19th-century Native American tragedy at the hands of European colonialism.
San Nicolas Island is one of California’s Channel Islands. Juana Maria’s tribe, known as the Nicoleños, lived on the island for somewhere around 10,000 years. Their long history on the island could not protect them from tragedy, however. In 1811 or 1814 — when Juana Maria may have been a small child — disaster struck. A group of Native Alaskan and Russian otter hunters attacked the island and devastated the local population. The tribe’s population had stood at 300 people, and it was reduced to dozens in the wake of the attack.By 1835, the population was around 20 individuals.
In 1835, Juana Maria’s entire tribe was removed from San Nicolas Island. They didn’t leave by choice: Catholic priests on the mainland specifically requested that the entire Nicoleño tribe be evacuated. The priests’ motivations remain unclear. Were they evacuating the tribe because they worried they could not sustain their livelihood on San Nicolas Island? Or, more sinisterly, did they simply want more bodies to convert? Like much of Juana Maria’s story, these questions will probably never get answers.
The rest of Juana Maria’s small tribe was successfully removed from the island by Catholic priests in 1835. Juana didn’t make if off, however. Why was she left behind? There is no definitive answer. One story claims that she was absent from the group as they were being evacuated because she was out looking for her missing two-year-old child. Another story imagines Juana Maria jumping off the boat, believing that her little brother was still on the island. Whatever happened, an approaching storm meant that the ship departed San Nicolas in a hurry, leaving the woman behind.
After several futile attempts at locating the lost woman who failed to depart with the rest of her tribe in 1835, the Captain of a ship called the Peores Nada, a man by the name of George Nidever, finally located Juana Maria in 1853. In his memoir, The Life and Adventures of George Nidever, the Captain recounted the moment they discovered Juana, whom he described as an “old woman,” busily stripping whale blubber.
Instead of darting away from the Captain and his crew, she: “smiled and bowed, chattering away to them in an unintelligible language.” She was “of medium height… about 50 years old but… still strong and active. Her face was pleasing as she was continually smiling… Her clothing consisted of but a single garment of skins.”