Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island (Juana Maria) - Chumash

By Julia White
The Chumash were a large, aristocratic nation living on the California coast stretching from the Channel Islands off Santa Barbara, inland to Bakersfield, and from Monterey Bay south to the Santa Monica Mountains. As the Spanish missions were built on Chumash land, the Natives were captured and moved onto mission ground. This round-up included those Chumash living on the Channel Islands in the Pacific Ocean.

When the Spanish arrived at San Nicholas Island to transport those living there, the seas were stormy and treacherous. One woman noticed that her young child had been left behind, and jumped overboard to return for it. The intense storm made it impossible for the ship to wait for the woman, or to return for her. Even though the priests offered a $200 reward for her safe removal from the island, the treacherous seas, tides and winds were too much for the bounty hunters. Even seal, otter and whale hunters who worked the island over the years were never able to find this lone woman.

Finally, after 18 years, a hunting expedition unexpectedly came upon her house built of whale bone, and the woman herself peacefully sewing with a bone needle and seal skin thread in front. After a month of sign language and cajoling, she was finally persuaded to board their ship with promises that she would be taken to her people. However, after all these years, there was no one left who could speak or understand her language. All questions about her survival and the fate of her child went unanswered, but it was clear that she had lived well, and was strong and healthy. Her Native name was never known or, if known in the beginning, was never recorded.

Once she arrived at the mission, priests quickly baptized her Juana Maria. She contracted fatal dysentery at the mission and, 7 weeks after her "rescue", the Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island was dead. It is estimated that she was only 38 years old. The personal possessions, clothing and artifacts brought from the island were given to the California Academy of Sciences after her death. Sadly, all of this was subsequently destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. A luxurious cape of seal skin and feathers was presented to the Vatican, but was lost and never found.

The fact of her survival, her exquisite artifacts and clothing, all fascinated the white population, and she was looked upon as a real-life Robinson Crusoe. Several historical accounts and romantic novels have been published about Juana Maria. One book, "Island of the Blue Dolphins", won the Newberry Medal for children's literature, and was subsequently made into a motion picture. The Lone Woman is buried at the Santa Barbara Mission


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