The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

CHANNEL ISLANDS—Imagine being all alone on a barren island, the rest of civilization only a few miles away, for 18 years. This was the life of the lady known as Juana Maria, who spent 18 years living solo on San Nicolas Island – one of the Channel Islands just off the Southern California coast.

The story of Juana Maria was memorialized in Scott O’Dell’s 1960 children’s novel, “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” Juana Maria’s story is also the subject of a film screening at Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. The film, “The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island,” narrates Juana Maria’s time on San Nicolas Island.

Juana Maria, according to the scholarly publication JSTOR Daily, was “discovered” on San Nicolas Island in 1853, living inside “a hut made of whalebones and brush.”

“She was wearing a dress made of cormorant feathers sewn together with sinew. She had been on the island by herself for 18 years,” a 2016 story published by JSTOR Daily said. “They called her ‘the wild woman,’ ‘the lost woman,’ and ‘the last of her race.’ Catholic priests baptized her Juana Maria. In his award-winning book, O’Dell called her Karana. But that woman of San Nicolas is as famous for her namelessness as for the lonely adventure she endured.”

San Nicolas Island traces its roots to the Nicoleño tribe, which used the land as part of its network of trading. The Russians, however, challenged the tribe’s domain in the Channel Islands, according to JSTOR Daily. The Spaniards were interested in the island, as well. Sea otters were quite popular on the island – which made San Nicolas a popular destination for fur traders and hunters.

Nothing is forever, though, and the trade economy dried up by the 1830s. Catholic missionaries soon came through the area and, eventually, tried to recruit the last band of Nicoleños on San Nicolas Island. JSTOR Daily’s article on Juana Maria stated a schooner was sent to the island in 1835 as a “benevolent rescue mission or forced eviction,” picking up the last group of people living on the island.

“What happened next has been the subject of much debate. The ship’s captain, Charles Hubbard, apparently didn’t have much trouble persuading the remaining Nicoleños to board the ship and go to Santa Barbara. But two of the island’s residents didn’t get on,” JSTOR Daily’s in-depth story of Juana Maria stated. “Some say that as the ship was sailing away, the escaping Nicoleños realized that a woman and possibly one child of their party were not on board. Others say that when a woman realized her young son was still on the island, she jumped off the boat and swam back to shore. Several boats returned to the island to look for them, but they never found a soul.”

Juana Maria found a way to survive on the island, all by herself, according to JSTOR Daily and other accounts of her time on the island.

“Alone on San Nicolas, she killed seals and wild ducks and made a house of whalebones. She sewed, fished, and foraged, living on seal fat. She sang songs and crafted the tools of life: water jugs, shelter, clothing,” the JSTOR Daily story said. “Perhaps she looked toward the mainland and waited. But we’ll never know – by the time she was rescued nearly two decades later, nobody could understand her language.”

Want to know more about Juana Maria and her time on San Nicolas Island? “The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island” screens Oct. 10 at the Santa Barbara Maritime Museum. Visit www.sbmm.org for more information.

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