Unearthing our history: Local scientists reveal fate of 'Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island'
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Unearthing our history: Local scientists reveal fate of 'Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island'

From the 2019's Best: Collection of the top stories of the year on SYVNews.com series

Just 100 miles southwest of the Santa Ynez Valley is an oval-shaped, 22 square-mile island shrouded in mystery. San Nicolas Island is considered the most remote of California's Channel Islands off the coast of Ventura.

Archaeological evidence suggests it was occupied by humans for at least 10,000 years.

On Tuesday, Aug. 27, the Santa Ynez Valley Historical Museum opened up their Carriage House to the public to host a lesson in the island's history and scientific discovery.

Guest speakers John Johnson, Ph.D. Curator of Anthropology, Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and his colleague and historical researcher Susan Morris, took the stage to discuss their research before a packed crowd eager to learn about "The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island" and the fate of her people.

The story told in the 1960s children's novel Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O'Dell, is that of a young woman in her mid-20s named Karana. She stayed stranded and alone on the island for many years before being taken to the mainland by ship, only to find her people were not there.

The history behind the book's adaptation, according to Johnson, though loosely accurate, introduced the story of Karana to the mainstream, sparking intrigue about the young woman's story.

"99% of what we know about the culture and language of local native people is due to John Harrington's research," he said, explaining that Harrington was an American linguist and ethnographer for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., specializing in the indigenous peoples of California, especially Chumash.

San Nicolas Island, where Karana and her people lived, is part of the Southern Channel Islands that includes San Clemente, Santa Barbara, and Santa Catalina islands.

These islands experienced a dramatic decrease in population during the first decades of the 19th century as a result of interaction with Europeans, Americans, and peoples of the Pacific Rim, according to the research team's paper titled "The Nicoleños in Los Angeles: Documenting the Fate of the Lone Woman’s Community." It was published in the Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology in 2016.

After a devastating battle with rival tribe the Kodiak Islanders, which massacred the people of San Nicolas Island known as Nicoleños, the remaining Nicoleños left and migrated to the mainland as recorded in sacramental registers held by the Catholic Church, Johnson said.

Looking through Harrington's notes archived and retrieved from the Smithsonian, the research team discovered that the last to be removed from San Nicolas Island was the "Lone Woman."

"She was actually a woman of 50 or 52 when she left the island," Johnson said. "She had been on the island for 18 years, which means she was 32 years old when she decided to stay behind — she was an adult woman."

And she was not alone as once thought.

It was discovered that prior to living alone, other Nicoleños had been removed from the island in 1835 before she decided to stay behind with her son. Five of those individuals were later traced back to Southern California using the L.A. Plaza Church records.

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A basket owned by Juana Maria, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, is on display at the Santa Ynez Historical Museum on Tuesday.

According to Johnson, Carl Dittman, a sailor, hunter, and rancher George Nidever and company who traveled to the island in 1853 to hunt sea otters, were the first to find the Lone Woman on San Nicolas Island. 

He further said that the Lone Woman, once brought to the mainland, explained that she had chosen to stay on the island because her son didn't want to leave. But as a teenager he drowned when a shark attacked him while out fishing.

Harrington's notes gathered from Dittman and Nidever, and researched by the Santa Barbara team, described the Lone Woman's living situation.

"They found her in a hut constructed from whale ribs," Johnson said.

Once brought back to Santa Barbara by ship, her people could not be traced. She was the last surviving member of her tribe, the Nicoleños.

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Susan Morris, a historical researcher and expert on the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, talks about Juana Maria, to an audience at the Santa Ynez Historical Museum on Tuesday.

And because she spoke a dialect of Gabrielino, says Johnson, which Chumash elders and other natives could not understand, much of the Lone Woman's story was left to pantomiming.  

He said they later found two Indians that could understand her, one partially and another fluently — both from Mission San Fernando.

Seven weeks after arriving in Santa Barbara, the Lone Woman succumbed to dysentery. She was given the name "Juana Maria" by a priest on her deathbed.

Today she is buried at Old Mission Santa Barbara.

Steven Schwartz, a senior archaeologist for the Navy on the Channel Islands for over 25 years, and a contributor to the Natural History Museum's research team, has traveled to San Nicolas Island various times, according to Johnson, and was able to locate the cave that the Lone Woman lived in which Harrington described in his notes.

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Chumash beads are on display at the Santa Ynez Historical Museum.

"He was finally able to locate the cave due to survey notes. The cave was obscured and filled in with sand," Johnson said.

Johnson traveled to the island with Schwartz in 2012, shortly after the cave was found. 

"Many people could have lived in there comfortably," Johnson said of the approximately 18-foot high and 70-foot deep cavern. "The island really is a beautiful place." 

San Nicolas island is currently controlled by the United States Army.

"At this point, there has been no further archaeological investigation of the cave," he said.

Lisa André covers Valley Life for Santa Ynez Valley News. 


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