I was recently reading a book written in the early 1900's on the topic of historic adobes in CA, and there was one sentence about San Nicolas Island. It said San Nicolas Island is best known for the woman who lived alone on a spit of sand there for 18 years. This sparked my curiosity and the following article is based on what I have thus far learned about the woman who was named "Juana Maria" by the padres who buried her at the Santa Barbara Mission in the 1850's. She survived for 18 years, alone, on one of the most desolate of the Channel Islands, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, in the mid-1800's. Her story is both amazing, and tragic.
Since moving to the beach in Ventura last year, I have become aware of these islands because I see them across the ocean from me all year long. Some days in the winter when it is crystal clear out, I can see the actual features of the hills on the islands in the distance. On foggy days, I see no islands, and I can only imagine how many days "Juana Maria" spent enveloped, literally, in a cloud, out in the middle of the ocean. Survival for her must have been brutal most of the time.
According to an 1850 report by the U.S. Coastal and Geodetic Survey, San Nicolas Island "is slightly the farthest from the mainland, and is the driest and most sterile. It is 890 feet high, with bold, precipitous sides of coarse sandstone on 3 sides…Two thirds of the surface of the island is covered with sand and the remainder with coarse grass." The report also said it was nicknamed "Otter Island" due to the large numbers of sea otters on its beaches, and the "Indian name was said to be "Ghaiashat."" An 1899 L.A. Times article says San Nicolas Island is a flat island, "almost as bare as a floor," with 500 foot jagged rock canyons leading down to its beaches, which are covered with sea lions and seals. The article goes on to say the island is approximately 8 miles long, and 4 miles wide, it sits in the middle of the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles, CA, and the island is known for its heavy winds, "surrounded on all sides by ocean waves, sometimes 30 feet high," so powerful they shake the ground.
In a 1987 book by Marla Daily, entitled, "California's Channel Islands: 1001 Questions Answered," she writes San Nicolas Island is 61 miles from the mainland and 28 miles from Santa Barbara Island, which is the nearest island. She describes the island as "flat-topped with a mesa-like profile," and says the north and south sides of the island have steep rock cliffs, explaining the island sits at an angle with the south side's rocks 700 feet high, and the north side's cliffs only 400 feet high. Daily says the western side of the island has shifting sand dunes and the eastern side has a long sand spit extending eastward. Daily says the rainfall on San Nicolas can vary from 3 inches to 21 inches a year, with an average of 8 inches a year, and that there are several fresh water springs, wells and seeps on the island.
In 1899, the Times reported the island contained evidence of dense populations in the past, including a pile or "midden," a mile long, which stands "as high as a man's head" of seashells, particularly abalone, "which must have required centuries to form" as trash heaps, basically, from food sources of the Chumash, primarily. This same article says "large stumps of trees are occasionally found, and the early navigators who have left a record of their visits to the island, speak of trees, bushes, and moss." The California Missions Resource Center reports when Juan Cabrillo landed on San Nicholas Island on Dec. 6, 1603, he said it was "densely populated." In 1895, the Times wrote that few had reasons to go to the island, as Coral Harbor on its north side was a mere 20 feet wide, and was the only harbor in the early 1800's, making it hard to visit the island. San Nicolas Island was windy, and cold, and there was not much vegetation, animal life, shelter, or water. Access to the beaches was challenging, and even mooring in a harbor there was daunting.
It is in this harsh environment, that we begin the story of the "lone woman of San Nicolas Island." Her saga starts with the men of San Nicolas Island being slaughtered by Kodiak otter hunters. According to Daily's book, "sea otter hunting on San Nicolas Island was particularly heavy in 1811 and again in 1815, when the Russian hunter Boris Tarasov was arrested on the island by Spaniards for hunting in Spanish waters. Tasarov and his Aleut companions had taken almost 1000 sea otters in 11 months…" She goes on to write that "as many as 1000 Indians may have lived on San Nicolas Island at one time." Daily writes in 1811 a sea otter hunting ship owned by a Boston firm, was brought from Sitka, Alaska, to San Nicolas Island, loaded with Kodiak otter hunters. "These well-armed Kodiaks, when left upon the island, found the island women to their liking, and killed the men who tried to defend them. By the time the otters were nearly exterminated, so too were the Nicolenos."
Santa Barbara Plaque about Juana Maria
In August of 1835, the Santa Barbara Mission sent the Peor es Nada schooner to the island to bring the remaining island inhabitants to the mainland. An 1899 L.A. Times account reads, "After the Indian women were ready for embarking, one of them made signs that her child had been left behind, and she was permitted to go in search of it. While she was absent a strong wind arose, which threatened the security of the schooner, and they were compelled to set sail and leave the unfortunate woman and her child behind." The women from the island were taken to the San Gabriel and Los Angeles Missions. One lone woman was thus left behind on the island.
In an L.A. Times article dated March 18, 2001, Cecelia Rasmussen writes another version of how the woman was left alone on the island. She says there were 20 native islanders still living on the island when they all boarded the ship "Peor es Nada," and began to sail to the mainland. Then the woman known as "Juana Maria" realized her baby was not on board. When the ship would not turn around to get her baby, she jumped ship and swam back. The article says the woman sat on the beach and cried for days alone when she returned to the island and found her baby eaten by wild dogs.
As time went by, people forgot about the woman on the island. An 1895 L.A. Times article speaks of Professor George Davidson, who was on the 1850 survey of the Channel Islands , and I wonder why that survey of the islands, which provided detailed measurements and descriptions of the islands, did not pick up "Juana Maria." But in 1851, Captain John Nidever sailed to the island in search of sea otters, and saw footprints and other evidence of human life but the weather hurried his trip off the island before he had time to explore further. In 1852, Captain Nidever again sailed to the island and saw a basket hanging in a tree. In the basket was "a sort of gown made of bird skins, a sinew rope, bone needles, abalone fish-hooks, etc." Again, the weather forced him to sail away without further exploration. Finally in July 1853, Captain Nidever sailed to the island with the purpose of finding the woman. For several days, his party of an Irishman and 4 "Mission Indians," searched the island for the lone woman, and finally found her in a small shelter "made of brush," on the west side of the island.
According to an 1899 article, when they found the woman in 1853, she was skinning a seal. "She was dressed in a gown made of bird skins. It was cut low in the neck and reached to the ankles. Her hair was a yellowish-brown, probably caused in part from exposure, as it had previously been black, and it was now matted. She appeared to be about 40- 50 years old." She reportedly offered the men some roasted "nuts," and then they signaled for her to come with them to their ship, "which she did without hesitation." The men kept her with them on the island for a month, as they hunted sea otter pelts, and she helped them with fresh water, food, and firewood. Marla Daily writes of the lone woman's rescue that the men found her inside her shelter "roasting wild onions" and that she "proudly offered the men the wild onions she was roasting."
Captain Nidever said her footprints and belongings were scattered all over the island. (The party also found dried seal blubber hanging from poles on a prior trip, leading them to believe the woman was still there.) She was described as attractive and with no wrinkles when found, yet her teeth were said to be worn to the gums. When found, she wore her handmade dress of feathers, which was sleeveless and ankle-length, and tied at the waist. She had a second similar dress in a basket when found. She traded one of her dresses to one of the men who found her, in exchange for a petticoat, a black tie and a man's shirt. She made fishhooks from shells and dresses from the skin and feathers of cormorants, sewn with handmade bone needles and seal sinew thread. She snuck up on the rocks at night to steal birds and their eggs from their nests. When she was discovered, she reportedly was very excited and happy to see people and she talked incessantly even though no one could understand her. On San Nicolas Island, the lone woman's shelter, made of whale bones and seal skins, with a 2 foot wind break/fence around it, was supposedly found. There is a 1939-1941 photo of "Juana Maria's" whalebone hut in the L.A. County Museum's San Nicolas Island Collection (http://www.nhm.org/research/anthropology/Pages/chislands/pgsnichsurveyphoto.html).
In an L.A. Times article from June 15, 2004, entitled, "Marooned," Joe Robinson writes that this island had been an indigenous settlement for 8,000 years and was called "Ghalas-at" by its inhabitants. The article says a native population of 300 was reduced to 7 by 1835, after the otter hunters' massacres on the native men of the island. This article says the woman may not have jumped overboard, but rather was "away in the mountains" when the others were taken to the mainland. Robinson says that the original story was just that she was left behind, but later, stories of her jumping overboard emerged. But people knew, from the beginning, that one woman had been left behind. Although she could see the other islands and mainland some days, usually, her island was in a cloud of fog, and she would have had an intense feeling of isolation out there. She was left with the huts, bowls, necklaces and tools of her people, but the people, themselves, were all gone.
Robinson also speculates that perhaps the rich marine life and animals on the island may have been what kept her sane in the aloneness. He says the island had wild dogs, birds, elephant seals, and sea lions. She survived due to the wide range of seafood around the island and a few roots and tubers in the dirt. She cooked food in a part of her whalebone hut which was covered with seal skins. They say she could have made fire with the sparks of marcasite stones, but that it would have been easier to just keep a fire going all the time. On the island's north end, by the springs where she got her fresh water, archeologists have found much evidence of what she ate and how she ate it. There are 538 archeological sites on the island. The woman supposedly fished and foraged in the tidal pools and grasses and may have hunted sea mammals or eaten ones that washed up dead on shore, due to some spine bones from dolphins researchers have found among the bones left from her food remnant piles. There is speculation she used the cliffs to watch for dolphins. Robinson also reports, "When it came time to leave, she gathered every scrap of her possessions - a necklace, fish hooks, a bone needle, awl, stone mortar, rope and all available food, including a rotting seal's head with brains spilling out." She clapped and danced as they came to the mainland.
Finally the men and the lone woman arrived in Santa Barbara to much fanfare. Although the woman was animated and gregarious, no one could be found that spoke her language. It was speculated that she forgot her native language over the 18 years alone on the island and that she perhaps made up her own language during that time. She was able to sign things to people and made it clear to Captain Nidever that when she returned to the island for her baby, it had been eaten by wild dogs. She also signed to him that she could see ships sailing by but none came for her.
Once in Santa Barbara, the woman was excited at seeing an oxen cart, and when she saw a horse and rider, she thought they were one, thus when the rider dismounted, she was amazed, and went up to him, feeling his clothing in awe. She reportedly gorged on food once on the mainland, and some form of stomach condition is blamed for her death. The only official record of Juana Maria is in the book of baptisms and deaths from the Santa Barbara Mission, where her death was recorded on Oct. 19, 1855. In 1899, it was reported "she died about 4 weeks after landing at Santa Barbara, or two months after her rescue."
Regarding her belongings, in 1899, the L.A.Times reported, "After her death, her gown of bird skins, and various trinkets, were sent to Rome, where they may probably still be seen among the curiosities of the Vatican." Later reports say her belongings never reached the Vatican and were never seen again. The other dress, and the rest of her belongings, got lost in a fire in a museum in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Throughout the latter half of the 1800's, "relic hunters" came onto the island removing archeological items and disturbing native sites, thus much of the evidence left by the woman, and the people she lived with there, is gone. The L.A.Times archives are full of stories about such "relic hunting" excursions. On Nov. 1896, a trip to San Nicolas Island is advertised to search for "skulls and other relics." On May 4, 1897, the L.A. Times ran a story saying Bendix M. Baker returned from San Nicholas Island on May 3, and "he brought with him a large number of curios such as stone mortars and pestles, bone needles, bone knives, abalone-shell trinkets, and fish hooks and human skulls. These curios are relics of the aborigines of the island, now many years extinct." In searching the L.A. Times archives during the late 1800's, one can easily trace the private pilfering of archeological sites on San Nicolas, as well as the other, Channel Islands.
In 1899, San Nicolas Island is described as having many mounds of shells on the interior of the island, where "though miles from the water's edge, the whole surface of the ground is seemingly covered with shells, presenting a picture of unparalleled gorgeousness in the sunlight, every prismatic point giving off reflections as brilliant as that of myriads of diamonds. Many of these shells are yet whole, and of extraordinary size. The coloring is exquisite, the garishness having been softened by age, many of them no doubt centuries old." By 1899, the L.A. Times reported once again only one person living on the island: "the island has but one human inhabitant, the lone sheepherder of San Nicolas." There was reportedly a "Chinese hut" made of stones by Chinese fishermen "many years ago" (in 1899). The hut was 15 x 30 feet, and had heavy walls, but the harsh winds pelted the house with sand and by 1899, the hut was almost buried to the roof. The only other structure reported on the island in 1899 was the lone sheepherders' hut. It was reported in 1899 that there was a mile or so of rock on the island covered by hundreds of thousands of birds that slept there at night. The birds, at dawn, leave the rocks in single file, then return the same way in the evening. Seal colonies were also reported in the late 1800's, and one expedition said 3 men threw out fishhooks into the island's waters and caught 75 yellowtail in one hour.
Years after the lone woman lived there, the island was used for sheep ranching from 1870 - 1940's. The last of the sheep were removed in 1943 by the U.S. military. The U.S. military now owns the island and the public is not allowed on the island any longer. The Navy forbids anyone to go within 100 yards of the island due to military security and the island has radar at the coves to monitor visitors nowadays.