Native Village 
Youth and Education News

January 1, 2013

'Island of the Blue Dolphins' woman's cave believed found
Condensed by Native Village

California: Island of Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell is the story of a young Native American woman who becomes stranded on one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California. She lived there by herself for almost 20 years

Many readers don't realize the story is based on a real person.  And now there may be physical evidence, too.

When Lone Woman went to the island in 1835, California was part of Mexico.  Spanish, Russian, and American sailors hunted sea otters along its shores. 

When she was found by Captain George Nidever in 1853, California was part of the United States. 

There were no longer any of her people -- the Nicoleños -- to listen to her story, but Lone Woman managed to tell part of it in sign language. Sadly, she died at the Santa Barbara mission within seven weeks of being found. Now others are trying to complete the story for her.

Schwartz struggled to find the cave's location. An 1879 map of San Nicolas Island shows a big black dot on the southwest coast. Next to it were the words "Indian Cave." The spot's exact location was an open question until a surveyor provided compass bearings leading to a shallow depression beneath a rock overhang.

So began a long dig. Beneath a thick layer of sandstone, Schwartz and his crew found a vast deposit of sand. Scooping out the sand, they found what began to look like the opening of a cave. Digging further, they came across a tapered glass bottle — the kind that held pepper sauce that spiced the bland fare of seamen between 1840 and 1865.

"That's when we got really excited," he said.

It was evident they'd started to dig out a cave filled in with sand from the fierce San Nicolas winds. Near its mouth, they found two sets of initials etched in rock and a date: Sept. 11, 1911. Schwartz figures that at some point it had become "an impromptu fishing camp," as suggested by a layer of bones and shells in the same area.

Lone Woman, who may have lived in that same cave, had been skinning a seal when she was found. She shared some roasted roots with the Nidever.

Above the rolling dunes, Nidever had found a hut Lone Woman built from whale bones and brush. But that was merely a windbreak, Schwartz believes. He thinks the Nicoleños probably lived in more substantial homes, but tribal taboos may have kept females from learning to build them.

So Lone Woman probably lived in a cave.

After a month on the island with Nidever and his crew, Lone Woman left her home for Nidever's in Santa Barbara. Native Americans and priests who spoke various Indian tongues couldn't understand the songs she sang or the four words she used repeatedly.

But Lone Woman was adept in signs. She indicated that wild dogs had devoured the baby she'd gone back to retrieve. But her grief was long past, and in Santa Barbara, she seemed curious and happy.

Nidever turned down offers to display her in San Francisco.

 After seven weeks, she died of dysentery.

"The food of civilization, of which she partook in excess, did not agree with her," said the Times reported 1899.

On her deathbed, the Lone Woman was baptized and named Juana Maria.

Juana Maria is buried at the Santa Barbara Mission. A dress she made of cormorant feathers was reportedly sent to the Vatican, though no record of it exists.

Nidever's adobe house — Juana Maria's final home — has long since been razed.

In the cave, Schwartz hopes that ground-penetrating radar might reveal relics from the Lone Woman's era — perhaps even the markings she was said to have made on the walls. Below those, Schwartz hopes to find a layer of artifacts that attest to her ancestors diet, how they hunted, what they worshiped — "the whole record of human and environmental history" preserved in sand, he said.  

Read more of her story!
Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

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