Curator of Ethnography, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Few figures in California history have the enduring appeal of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. Every year hundreds of schoolchildren read Scott O'Dell's fictional account, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and many people contact the Museum for information about the Lone Woman. Her story embodies the demise of native peoples and traditions following Spanish and American colonization.
In the early 1800's, Russian and Aleut sea otter hunters clashed violently with Indian people living on remote San Nicolas Island. The mission padres requested that these Indians be moved to the mainland for their own safety, and in 1835 a schooner was sent to pick them up.
As the ship was being loaded, a woman discovered her child had been left in the village and went back to find it. Meanwhile a strong wind arose. The ship was forced to sail and the woman was abandoned on the island, her child apparently killed by wild dogs. The schooner was unable to go back for her, and she spent eighteen years alone on the barren, windswept island. She never saw her fellow islanders again.
In 1853 when she had been all but forgotten, a party headed by sea otter hunter George Nidever found the Indian woman alive and well on San Nicolas. Clad in a dress of cormorant skins sewn together, she lived in a shelter made from whale bones. She was pleased to see her rescuers and willingly went with them, bringing along only a few possessions--water baskets, bone needles, and the feathered dress.
Nidever brought her home to live with him and his wife in Santa Barbara, where she caused quite a sensation. She enjoyed the company of the steady stream of visitors who came to see her. No one, including the local Chumash Indians, could understand her language, which was related to that of native peoples in the Los Angeles area.
In town, the new living conditions and altered diet affected the woman's health. She contracted dysentery and died after she had been on the mainland for only seven weeks. The Lone Woman was baptized conditionally with the Christian name Juana Maria (her Indian name is unknown) and buried in an unmarked grave at Mission Santa Barbara.
It was said that the mission priest sent her feathered dress to Rome, but researchers have found no indication that it was ever received by the Vatican Museum. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed the woman's water basket and bone needles, which were part of the collections of a museum there. Now only memories remain of the Lone Woman and her tragic story.