San Nicolas Island is a hell of a place to get marooned. Part of the archipelago of the Channel Islands off the California coast, it’s windswept and largely barren—so much so that the U.S. Navy considered it a candidate location for the first tests of the nuclear bomb. It has a modern nickname, though: the Island of the Blue Dolphins. And the woman who inspired this book by Scott O’Dell, the granddaddy of all young adult historical fiction, still confounds historians.
She confounded her contemporaries, too. In 1853, men discovered her on San Nicolas 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.
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.
Long before Cabrillo “discovered” the Channel Islands in the 1500s, the Nicoleño, a tribe thought to have lived there for 10,000 years, inhabited them. None of the newcomers bothered to learn much about the Nicoleño until the arrival of Catholic missionaries in California, though there are reports of tribe members relocating to Spanish missions.
That all changed in 1811. Although the Nicoleño had traded with their neighbors for years—traveling to and from other islands in their canoes—they did not bargain for the sudden interest taken by a group of Russian fur traders in San Nicolas’s natural riches, a pelt-hunter’s paradise flush with seals, particularly the valuable sea otter. Accompanied by groups of Alaskan sea otter hunters, the Russians attacked the Nicoleño tribe, raping women and massacring men.
Everyone wanted a piece of the sea otter action. Spanish authorities decided to try to assert rights over the island. They arrested Boris Tasarov, one of the Russian hunters, but it was too late. Not only were there just a handful of Nicoleño men left, but also the sea otter population had dwindled. This left the island’s remaining residents particularly vulnerable to Catholic missionaries, who took full advantage of the era’s many threats to draw native populations into the mission system, where they were used as a labor force and converted to Catholicism. In 1835, a group of Franciscan friars from Mission Santa Barbara learned that only a small group of Nicoleños remained on the island. They sent a schooner called the Peor es Nada (“Better Than Nothing”) to San Nicolas in what could be seen as either a benevolent rescue mission or forced eviction.
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. 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.
* * *
When the woman of San Nicolas was rescued in 1853, the Robinson Crusoe comparisons began almost immediately. Like Crusoe, she seems to have adjusted to life alone: When she was found, she was living in as civilized a setting as could be imagined on an island awash with abalone shells and wrapped in mist from endless waves. An observer recorded a large pile of bones and ash, grass baskets, water flagons, and ropes made of sinew.
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. 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.
Did 18 years of solitude erode the woman’s own tongue? Or did her entire people disappear in the meantime? It’s unclear. The mission Indians who assisted the rescue party didn’t speak her language, but everybody seems to have assumed that once she rejoined other indigenous people, she’d be able to talk about what had happened to her. One contemporary scholar wrote that she told George Nidever, the captain of the schooner that rescued her, that “her child was killed and torn to pieces by the wild dogs with which the land is overrun.” For weeks, she showed the crew her San Nicolas, walking them through her daily activities, singing them songs, and helping them hunt. They called her “Better Than Nothing” and relished her company. She seemed to feel the same way, and she let them take her to Santa Barbara when they left.
When the woman made it to the mission, nobody there could understand her either. Chumash people, who had traded with the Nicoleño, couldn’t speak her language, and when missionaries sent for Tongva people from Santa Catalina Island, which is not far from San Nicolas, they were unable to communicate with her.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like for the woman to encounter Santa Barbara after years of solitude. It had long been more of a city than a church. During its heyday, years before, the mission had thousands of heads of cattle. It was a prosperous farm that depended on the power of its “neophytes,” or Indian converts. The Santa Barbara in which the lone woman came to live was much different than the one her fellow Nicoleños would have encountered 18 years before.
In the intervening years, thousands of native people had died on mission lands. In 1841, six years after the Nicoleños were evacuated to the mission, priests recorded the death of the 3,997th Chumash “neophyte,” or native worker, likely due to one of the all-too-regular epidemics that swept through the mission’s native labor force. The mission was eventually liquidated, and Santa Barbara became a bustling young city, fueled by the Gold Rush and filled with all different kinds of people.
To live there, among such new things and without a language that anyone recognized, must have been confusing at best and traumatic at worst. The woman reportedly took it in stride—observers noted her delight in things like horses. A paper of the day reported “she is very fond of shellfish, coffee, and liquor of every sort.”
“She had long since lost the power of speech and had reverted to a semiwild condition,” one narrator told an Army lieutenant named L. L. Hanchett. At the mission, onlookers brought other onlookers and asked her to perform her incomprehensible native songs. (One was recorded later. Even today, linguists are unsure what language she spoke. Some scholars even claim she wasn’t Nicoleño at all.)
If she had found someone who understood her, perhaps her story would not have been as mysterious and compelling. But she didn’t, and observers were quick to attribute her inability to communicate to a kind of feral wildness—or romantic freedom from social norms—that obliterated any of the very civilized habits she seems to have maintained on San Nicolas. And the idea stuck.
Want more stories like this?
“After living alone so long, [she] had become completely uninhibited—a child of nature,” wrote Margaret Romer for a Historical Society of Southern California magazine in 1959, over a century after the woman was taken to Mission Santa Barbara. “Naïve, she conformed to no customs. She would sing whenever she felt like it—which was most of the time, for she was a happy soul.” Romer claims that the woman stayed behind on the island because she was distracted by her missing two-year-old—and that due to her fellow Indians’ inability to communicate with their rescuers, “no one else knew about [the woman] and her innocent little trouble-making toddler.”
Perhaps because of her lack of language, there is no record of the woman objecting to her surroundings or the new name that was assigned to her by missionaries: Juana Maria. And she had no ability to object to her own forced Catholic conversion; by the time she was baptized on October 19, 1853, just seven weeks after her arrival in Santa Barbara, she was dead.
* * *
There’s a point in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe where the castaway Englishman is almost content with his solitude. He has pets and food and a place to live, but he still has one fear: the cannibalistic “savages” who threaten his survival and occasionally maraud around “his” island. Although he has long since resolved not to kill them—aided by a paternalistic “they know not what they do” philosophy—he still lives in fear that they will hunt him down and attack him. After 23 years of life alone, he finally faces them head-on.
When he does, Crusoe meets the man he calls “Friday,” an indigenous person he rescues from peril, converts to Christianity, and gives a new name. Friday becomes his companion, a de facto grateful servant. “How frequently, in the course of our lives, the evil which in itself we seek most to shun, and which, when we are fallen into it, is the most dreadful to us, is oftentimes the very means or door of our deliverance,” muses Crusoe. He is writing from the safety of his new life and old identity—one he reassumes after more than 28 years of solitude.
Juana Maria, or Karana, or Better Than Nothing, or the Lone Woman, didn’t have the benefit of her old identity. She didn’t leave behind any accounts of her time on the island, or any record of her thoughts about her dead baby, her missing family, her strange rescuers. There are still artifacts of her time on what O’Dell called the Island of the Blue Dolphins, but the Navy halted an archaeological project in 2015 after objections by the Pechanga band of Luiseño Indians. Behind each effort to quantify or learn about the woman seems to lie another mystery. Every new attempt to pin her down leads to another dead end.
Perhaps she was a female Robinson Crusoe—or maybe she was a failed Friday, a woman who, when given a new identity and a new name, eluded definition rather than become a servant. In the years since her discovery, the woman of San Nicolas has refused to give up her secrets. Even her dress of cormorant feathers is lost, destroyed in the Great Quake of 1906. And so we must content ourselves with imagining her life alone on San Nicolas, hunting seals and singing to herself. That’s better than nothing—or, perhaps, more than enough.