Woman’s Lonely Saga Left a Mystery


The world knows of Ishi, ballyhooed as “the last wild California Indian” and the last of his Yahi tribe, who stumbled out of the wilderness into the gold mining town of Oroville in 1911.

But more than 50 years earlier, another sole survivor, the “Lone Woman” whom the priests named Juana Maria, was taken from the only home she had ever known and where she lived alone for 18 years--San Nicolas Island.

The mystery of her origins may be tied up with another and sadder story: the notorious massacre that wiped out most of the men of the island when she would have been a young child.


This wind-swept wilderness--one of two Channel Islands now under Navy control--was named for a saint, but it served as the setting for sinners, in the massacre of the Nicoleno tribe.

For thousands of years Nicolenos had scratched out a living on this 3-by-9-mile semidesert island, navigating its choppy waters in their canoes. These handsome natives lived peacefully for many generations--but the arrival of sea otter hunters at California’s coast ended that.

In 1811, when Juana Maria would have been at least a toddler, hunters began scouring the California coast for the “soft gold” of extraordinarily lush otter pelts with a ruthlessness that almost brought the creatures to extinction. An American sea captain under contract to a Russian-American trading company had hired 30 fierce Kodiak Indians from Alaska to hunt otters. He dropped them off on remote San Nicolas Island.

The Kodiaks lost no time in slaughtering almost all of the native males and taking the women as slaves. And then the Kodiaks disappeared. History isn’t clear on whether they simply left, or whether Nicoleno women avenged their husbands by killing the murderers as they slept.

Some scholars speculate that Juana Maria was younger than her contemporaries believed, and may have been the child of a forced coupling between a Kodiak man and a Nicoleno widow. Other historians believe that she arrived with her family sometime after the massacre, and was not a Nicoleno at all.

From the two songs and four words transcribed by Juana Maria’s rescuer, Pamela Munro of UCLA’s Department of Linguistics found that her language showed the influence of the Luisenos of Northern San Diego County and of the Juanenos near San Juan Capistrano. Both traded with the American Indians of the Channel Islands.


By 1835, about 20 Nicolenos remained, Juana Maria among them. Unable to hold off Mexican and American forces or better-armed tribes, they were removed by the missionaries of Santa Barbara.

As they were boarding the schooner Peor es Nada, Juana Maria discovered her infant was missing and dived overboard. Ashore, she frantically searched for the baby basket she had fastened to a tree. Finding signs that her child had been eaten by wild dogs, she sat alone, weeping for days, near death.

Meanwhile, the other Nicolenos aboard ship were taken to Los Angeles, and most went to the San Gabriel Mission. A Nicoleno named Black Hawk, who had suffered a head injury during the massacre more than two decades earlier, moved in with some hunters at San Pedro. He soon became blind, and fell from a steep bank and drowned.

Plans to rescue Juana Maria were put on hold while the Peor es Nada hauled lumber to San Francisco, where it capsized and sank. Ships were few and far between then, and interest in her rescue faded.

Alone on the island, Juana Maria proved quite resourceful. She cast fishing lines with hooks made from shells. She built a hut of whale bones. She replaced her worn clothing with garments made from the feathers of cormorants.

At night, she silently crept to the seams in cliff crags to snatch the sleeping birds from their roosts. She used a bone needle and threads made of seal sinews to sew their shiny green feathers together, carefully matching them so the finished garment looked to be made from solid material.


In 1850, 15 years after Juana Maria jumped ship, Father Gonzales of the Santa Barbara Mission paid shipowner Thomas Jeffries $200 to find her. But Jeffries was more interested in the money, and his half-hearted attempt failed; he merely circled the island without touching land.

Still, his casual search led to her rescue. Jeffries’ tales of frolicking seals and barking sea otters caught the attention of George Nidever, a Santa Barbara fur trapper and adventure-seeker. Twice, Nidever sailed to San Nicolas to hunt sea otters and valuable sea gull eggs, all the while looking for Juana Maria.

They found her footprints and possessions scattered far and wide. One crewman claimed he saw her running along the shore, beckoning and shouting. But fierce wind and rain kept the ship away. In 1853, Nidever and his crew made a third trip. This time they found “the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.”

A crew member spotted her high on a ridge, surrounded by several dogs, skinning a seal with a knife made from a piece of iron hoop. Talking to herself as she worked, she occasionally paused to watch the men’s progress. Unaware that a crew member was closing in from behind, she first silenced the dogs with a “shrieking cry,” then crouched in terror when she saw him.

When all the men were seated around her, she relaxed and served them a meal of roasted

roots. They believed her to be about 40 or 50 years old, of medium height and a “rather thick build.” Her hair, once black, was now densely matted and bleached to a dull brown. “Her features were pleasant with an unwrinkled face,” wrote Nidever, “but her teeth were worn to the gums.” She wore a sleeveless, ankle-length garment tied at the waist and sewn from cormorant skins. A second such dress was in a basket nearby.

After their meal, she placed her belongings in her baskets, which the men carried as she accompanied them back to the schooner. She stopped along the way to wash herself.


For a month, the crew camped on the beach hunting sea otters, while she supplied them with water and firewood and made baskets. The men stuffed a dead sea otter pup and hung it by a string from the ceiling of her shelter.

A crew member who coveted her feather garment sewed her a petticoat of cotton ticking and swapped it, along with a man’s shirt and black necktie, for one of her two dresses. One was later sent to the Vatican, where it disappeared.

In Santa Barbara, she moved in with the Nidevers, who protected her from being exhibited as some kind of freak. Although no one understood her, she nonetheless told her story vividly in sign language. She sang and danced for a steady stream of curious guests. She accepted their gifts politely, but when they left, she gave the presents to the Nidever children. She returned the kindness with small gifts of shells, necklaces, bone needles and baskets.

Local Indians tried in vain to converse with her, but no one could understand her language. Messengers were sent to find her kinsmen, but none were located.

Juana Maria’s fondness for green corn, vegetables and fresh fruit caused severe attacks of dysentery. In her weakness, she fell from Nidever’s porch and injured her spine.

On Oct. 18, 1853, only seven weeks after her arrival, she died. On her deathbed, she was christened Juana Maria. She was buried in the Nidever family plot at the Santa Barbara Mission cemetery. Nearly 75 years later, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a plaque commemorating her.


Nearly a century after her brief sojourn in American civilization, her solitary life became immortalized in the character of Karana in the children’s novel “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”