Photo of the Day

Juana Maria, the lost woman of San Nicolas Island, is as famous for her namelessness as for the lonely adventure she endured. This portrait of a Tongva woman was taken by Santa Barbara Mission photographers Edwin J. Hayward and Henry W. Muzzall and may depict Juana Maria. The photograph was found alongside a picture of Maria Sinforosa Ramona Sanchez Nidever (1812–1892), George Nidever’s wife, with whom Juana Maria had lived after arriving on the mainland. The photograph is now held at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian.

Better Than Nothing

The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

For more than a century, the story of the “Lone Woman” of San Nicolas Island has captured the interest of scholars and laymen alike. The tale was popularised because of the romanticism of a Robinson Crusoe sort of existence by a woman abandoned (18367-1853) on a tiny island off the California coast

This is the story that captivated America in the 19th century. The scene of the drama unfolded where the jewelled tones of the Pacific Ocean have flowed for countless millennia, coursing between mainland and islands in a waterway known as the Santa Barbara Channel.

Few figures in California history have the enduring appeal of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. Her story embodies the demise of native peoples and traditions following Spanish and American colonisation.

In the early 1800’s, Russian and Aleut sea otter hunters clashed violently with Indian people living on remote San Nicolas Island. The mission padres requested that these Indians be moved to the mainland for their own safety, and in 1835 a schooner was sent to pick them up.

As the ship was being loaded, a woman discovered her child had been left in the village and went back to find it. Meanwhile, a strong wind arose. The ship was forced to sail and the woman was abandoned on the island, and her child was apparently killed by wild dogs. The schooner was unable to go back for her, and she spent eighteen years alone on the barren, windswept island. She never saw her fellow islanders again.

In the years after she was left behind, fishermen occasionally reported seeing a figure running along the deserted island’s wind-raked beaches.

In 1853, the woman — strong, of medium height and about 50 years old — was skinning a seal and living in a nearby cave when she was found by Santa Barbara fur traders.

Long before the sea captain and the Lone Woman met, in the earliest days of human history, this area was home only to the  Chumash tribes.  Thousands of these Native Americans lived in the valleys, along the beaches, or on the Islands in the area known as Santa Barbara.

Both branches of the tribe – mainland and island – led similar lives:  They were peaceful, spiritual people.  The gathered sustenance from the hills around them, the beaches and sea that lay before them, and from the blue and starry skies above them.  They fished and swam. They ate seal, fish, mussels, and wild plants.  Their shaman priests led the people in worship and celebration.  They paddled their tomol boats back and forth across the Channel and shared the riches of their life there.

For thousands of years, the Chumash had few natural enemies, very little disease or illness.  They had an abundance of fresh food and water, and plentiful resources to make tools, homes, art –  society.

Their physical needs were met with the rich abundance around them, giving them the opportunity to develop their sophisticated society and an intricate mythology.  They were co-creators, partners with nature, inextricably woven together in the web of life at the edge of the North American continent.

Reggie Lamberth at whale rib remnants, west end San Nicolas Island Photograph by Arthur Woodward, c. 1938-1939

Occidental society had developed simultaneously – but in a different direction.  They developed the desire and the means to expand their worlds – by any means necessary.  As their transportation became more sophisticated, they sought new shores, new worlds to conquer.  In the 16th century, European explorers began to ply the waters of Southern California. The forays into this world were intermittent at first, but increasingly more frequent and more intrusive to the indigenous people.

The Portuguese and English were interested in that part of the world, but it was the Spanish who finally committed their resources to claiming the land – and all within it – for themselves.

In 1782, a Spanish fort, or presidio, was established in Santa Barbara.   Indoctrination and religious conversion were waged against the indigenous people; forced labour and European diseases swept through the Chumash villages, killing thousands. By 1786, the building of the Santa Barbara Mission had been completed. The Spanish divided millions of acres into ranchos, where cattle were raised to supply the entire world with tallow and hides.

In this era, large schooner ships replaced crude, smaller ships, such as the galleons.   Suddenly, the doors of the world were flung open.   Every coastline of the world was now open to exploration – and exploitation.

New beauty and wonders were encountered at every turn.  Europeans wanted orchids, tigers, birds of paradise –  dragon fruit, wildebeest, flamingos – leopards, elephants, coconuts –  and they began to meet the people – of every shade – whose unique societies flourished all around them….

The powerful and dominant cultures of the world – European and Far Eastern – became enamoured of the wild beauty that flourished in rampant elegance, all around the globe.  Soon, potentates, royalty, and the wealthy wished to own the gems and fruits and flowers from afar, to be adorned with exotic animal skins, beautiful feathers, and luxurious fur pelts.

Along the coastline of California, the “fur trade” became especially lucrative. Ships from a variety of countries were plying the coastline for seal, beaver, and sea otter.

San Nicolas is the most remote of the Southern Channel Islands (shown in light green). Semi-arid and largely barren, it is located 60 miles (97 km) from the mainland coast.

In 1811, Captain Whittemore, a fur trader, was in command of a ship owned by Boardman and Pope of Boston.  Whittemore sailed around the Cape toward the West Coast and arrived at the Santa Barbara Channel Islands.  He, too, was searching for sea otters.  He had about 30 Kodiak Indians from Sitka, Alaska, among his crew.  Whittemore deposited the Kodiaks on San Nicolas Island so they could hunt otter while he sailed on to South America.

The Kodiaks were fully armed with weapons and confrontational attitudes.  They were left on the Island, in part, to establish inroads for the Russian fur traders who often stopped along the coastline in their search for seal and otter. It was not long before a bitter dispute arose between the Kodiaks and the Chumash, ending with the shooting death of most of the Chumash men. When Captain Whittemore returned to claim his otter skins and his Kodiak crew, some of the Kodiaks kidnapped Chumash women for themselves and took them back to the Pacific Northwest.

A very small population of Chumash survived, and they remained on the Island as its only inhabitants.  Fur traders continued to frequent the islands, as well.  The world’s wealthiest, luxury-loving consumers were voracious in their demands for the soft, dense otter pelts.

George Nidever (also spelt Nidiver) (December 20, 1802, – March 24, 1883) was an American mountain man, explorer, fur trapper, memoirist and sailor.

Among the fur traders was Captain George Nidever, a sea captain and adventurer who was born in Tennessee. He first arrived in Santa Barbara in 1834. He hunted otter and learned Spanish. He fell in love with Maria Sinforosa Sanchez and the beautiful little Spanish town of Santa Barbara. In 1841, he converted to Catholicism the night before he married his beloved Sinforosa at the Santa Barbara Mission.

Captain Nidever was from Santa Barbara; he was a hard-working family man with a beautiful home. He was hunting otter.

In 1880, Dr Absalom Stuart, a physician in Santa Barbara, wrote an article about the historic events that unfolded in the lives of Captain Nidever and a mysterious, effervescent little woman who lived on San Nicolas Island.  The article, printed in “The Sanitarian” magazine, is entitled A Female Crusoe. Mr Nidever said in substance:

“My occupation has been that of otter hunting. When I came here in 1835, I found two other Americans, Isaac J Sparks and Lewis T Burton, engaged in the same business. “They chartered a schooner of twenty tonnes,  burden-built at Monterey, called Peor es Nada (Better than Nothing), for a trip to the coast of Lower California on another expedition,  leaving Santa Barbara about the first of May 1835.   I did not accompany them.

“Not being as successful as those in charge expected, three months later the Peor es Nada put into San Pedro, the port or landing of Los Angeles, on her return trip.   From San Pedro, she went to the Island of San Nicolas, about seventy miles southwest from San Pedro, and a little further southeast from Santa Barbara, for the purpose of removing the Indians then on the island to the mainland and returned with eighteen men women and children, as told me by Isaac J Sparks.

“How long the Indians had been residents of the island, how they got there, and by whose authority they were removed, I know not.  One of the Indians,  rather dwarfed in intellect but possessing physical strength equal to three or four ordinary men,  remained at San Pedro;  two of the women were taken as concubines by two Americans living in Los Angeles County;  the balance of the party divided,  part going to Los Angeles and part to San Gabriel Mission.

San Nicolas Island, in the Pacific off the coast of California.

“Those two men who selected their concubines from the party took an active part in having the Indians removed from the island.  According to the information, I have obtained from those consulted, the history of the Indian woman is as follows:

“She was absent gathering wood when the others were taken away, but returned to the camp, or quarters, and finding them deserted, followed in time to be taken aboard the schooner, but not finding her children there – one a baby at the breast and the other about three years old, she plunged into the water and swam ashore in search of them.

“Unable to find her children, she returned to the beach just in time to see the schooner leaving.   She called to those on board,  but the only reply she got and which she remembered to the day of her death, was, “Mañana“… the Spanish word for tomorrow,  evidently meaning that the schooner would return for her tomorrow or the following day.

“She threw herself down on the beach and cried, long and bitterly.   She did not find her children and supposed they were either taken off with the others or carried away and devoured by the wild dogs on the island. She became very sick and lay a long time.

“She could not compute time without either water or food, but finally recovered and forgot her grief in wandering about the island. She lived on a plant resembling the cabbage called by Californians palosanto, and a root known by the name of corcomite,  also a yellow root (the name of which was not given),  and seal, or sea lion blubber.  As she had abalone shellfish hooks and lines made of the sinews of the seal, it is probable she supplied herself with fish from the ocean.”

Juana Maria’s Surviving Possessions. Abalone fishhook. Photo:  Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

A storm arose and prevented the Peor es Nada from returning to San Nicolas Island.  Not long afterwards, the ship was wrecked near San Francisco. The woman remained alone on the Island.

In 1851, Captain Nidever sailed to the Island, hunting otter.  He and his crew saw signs of recent human habitation and wondered if it could be the Lone Woman of legend.  However, after a search, they did not locate anyone.  Again, in 1852, The Captain returned to San Nicolas for more otter.  At the behest of the Mission fathers, he and his crew diligently searched for the woman left behind more than a decade before.  Again, they found evidence of recent human activity, but they did not find the Lone Woman.

On the third expedition to the island, his search party (which included mainland Native Americans) took a different route on the island, convinced the woman had deliberately eluded him the first two times. They soon found a basket filled with cormorant feathers and tools near the shore. In an attempt to prove she was there, they scattered her things along the ground. A few hours later they returned and found the basket carefully repacked. Shortly thereafter, the woman was discovered, surrounded by a pack of loyal dogs.

Upon seeing the strangers, it was reported that she did not hide or run away, but greeted the visitors warmly.  In fact, she began to prepare a meal from her meagre supplies.  She was gracious and welcoming, although no one could understand her dialect, not even the other Chumash who had come with the party from the mainland.

Captain Nidever described her appearance:

The old woman was of medium height but rather thick. She must have been about 50 years old but she was still strong and active. Her face was pleasing, as she was continuously smiling. Her teeth were entire but worn to the gums…. Her covering consisted of a single garment of shag’s skin, the feathers out and pointing downwards, in shape resembling a loose gown. It was sleeveless, low in the neck and girded about the waist with a sinew rope. When she stood up, it extended nearly to the ankles. She had no covering on her head. Her hair which was thickly matted and bleached a reddish brown hung down to her shoulders.

Though there are conflicting reports about the woman’s initial reaction, she soon became friends with Nidevers crew. Unable to glean her real name, the men called her “Better-Than- Nothing,” presumably in honour of the ship she had jumped off of all those years before. The Nidever party stayed on the island for a month, hunting and learning about the woman’s life on the island.

According to the Los Angeles Times:

The woman showed no signs of fear…and offered the visitors food. By signs, she indicated that her baby had been killed years before by wild dogs which infested the island and that she had existed on seafood and seals killed with crude stone weapons….The woman showed them how she killed seals at night, made sinew fish lines from them, and hooks from abalone, which abounded along the shore. She also showed them well-hidden caves and canyons where she hid when marauding Russians and Aleuts visited the lonely isle on foraging and pilfering expeditions.

In return, the crew stuffed a seal for the woman, much to her delight. “She hung it by a string to the roof of her hut, and lying on her back under it would amuse herself for hours at a time by swinging it backwards and forwards.

Although no one could understand the language she spoke, she talked and sang incessantly and was an adept signer. Crewmen were impressed with her resourcefulness — she kept every scrap of food she could, saving bones so that she could suck them to the marrow. She helped the visitors find fresh water and firewood and showed Nidever how to make a waterproof jug using heated stones and asphaltum.

She had kept a record of the time she was on the island. Had a stick with the whole number of days on the island indicated on it by notches. On walls of the cave, she had made a record of every ship she had seen. She would motion for ships to come and take her, but when they came she was afraid and would hide. She dried meat and stuck them in crevices of rocks by the shore high up where the wild dogs or other animals could not get it. The wild dogs had eaten her baby. [They wanted] to sew her skirt out of bed ticking. She was amused. She showed them how she sewed it.

Through sign-language and gesturing, the Captain and his crew made it clear that they wanted her to join them, to leave the island on their ship.

When it was time to leave, she boarded the ship willingly, her clothes and one filled large basket the only remnants of her former life.

She accompanied the crew as they continued their route to the other islands in search of a sea otter.  Finally, they made their way back to Santa Barbara.

As the ship was about to land, the Lone Woman saw a wagon and ox team.

This vision delighted her, so much that, she talked, laughed, danced, and gesticulated, and before that excitement ended, a man on horseback approached, which gave her, even more, pleasure than the ox team.

At first,  it was supposed that she thought the man and horse constituted one animal,  but if so,  the mistake was soon corrected,  for on landing she went up to the horse and carefully examined it. The examination gave her additional pleasure.   She would turn to her late companions and laughingly request them to look at the beast.

Juana Maria’s Surviving Possessions. Donut stone private collection.

She was taken to Mission Santa Barbara and placed in the care of Captain Nidever’s wife, Sinforosa. She became a regional curiosity, and people came from far and wide to see her sing and dance. Nidever was offered a chance to display her as a circus sideshow, which he declined. After so many years alone, the woman seemed thrilled to be with people once again. She was fascinated by the new sights and sounds around her.

The Mission Fathers took a great interest in her, sending to Los Angeles and other places hoping to find someone who understood her dialect, but all failed, even the Pepimaros Indians who were said to have had an acquaintance with the Indians of the Islands.

All of her kinfolks were dead by this time, and none of the other Native Americans or multi-lingual priests at the mission were able to understand her. But her kindness was evident to everyone. She was continually given gifts by visitors which she would accept effusively and then give to the Nidever children.

An unpublished account provides this information concerning the “Lone Woman’s” language: The woman used to come out all alone to the railing on the back porch and put out her arms toward the sea and talk in her language. She talked incessantly in her language, but no one could understand but a few words. Mrs Hardacre heard there were only four words in the vocabulary which could be understood. She would say a word and gesture at a man, another and indicate the sky. She thinks someone wrote them down. People connected with the woman were not much interested and merely wanted the story.

Juana Maria’s Surviving Possessions. Arrowhead (bird point) Photo: Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

Her manners were not rude, and in many things, she was more refined than many who enjoy civilised privileges, yet in many things, she was very much like a child. She wanted everything which she saw that appeared pleasant to the eye or seemed good to the taste, and if fruit was withheld from her, she would plead for it in such a childlike manner that it was hard to refuse her.

Living in a house, with food, excitement, and disappointment began to tell on her. She gradually faded away. At last Mrs Nidever got her seal meat and took it to her. She patted Mrs Nidever’s hand. She could not eat it.

When she was originally found, she was in excellent physical condition, strong and active, but the eating of fruit and vegetables brought on diarrhoea, or dysentery, in about three weeks after she landed, and that – in connection with an injury to her spine received by falling from off a porch.

One day she fell from her chair and sunk into unconsciousness – Her life was terminated four weeks later, or seven weeks from the time she landed….

Santa Barbara Plaque about Juana Maria.

Nidevers sent for the priest. He came and buried her. It was said that she was buried at Nidevers lot in the old Mission burying ground. They took her body in a wagon covered with flowers.

The Captain’s wife, Sinforosa Nidever, had tried her best to make the Woman comfortable in her new home.  When Sinforosa saw that the Western diet did not agree with the Woman, she attempted to help her return to her natural diet – roots, fish, seal, and natural plants.  But the Lone Woman would not do without her newly-discovered fruits, and vegetables, eggs, and beef. Mrs Nidever was said to treat the Woman as a sister, and they had developed an effective and affectionate communication between them.  She greatly mourned the loss of her new friend, the Lone Woman.

On her deathbed, the woman was baptised by the Catholic priests, who gave her the name, Juana Maria…. (Her Indian name is unknown) and buried in an unmarked grave at Mission Santa Barbara.

Though her death was blamed on an overindulgence of rich food, a simple illness that she had no immunity to was probably the real cause.

Very little is known about how the Lone Woman survived her 18 years on the island. Because the native population of Ghalas-at was so small, and there is very little information about their culture. However, it is known that they had taboos about women using weapons the Lone Woman would have had to put aside deeply ingrained cultural beliefs in order to survive.

Most of the knowledge about the Lone Woman’s time on the island is based on archaeological evidence. In 2012, researchers discovered the cave where the Lone Woman most likely lived. They also found a wooden box containing hairpins, jewellery, and tools. Archaeologists are “90 percent sure” that it is the Lone Woman’s cave because of an empty bottle from the nineteenth century that would have held hot sauce. It probably washed up on the island or was left behind by Aleut hunters. Otter hunters continued to visit the island periodically, and George Nidever, noticed evidence that someone was living there. According to Nidever, she was wearing a cormorant-feather skirt and had two large dogs who obeyed her commands.

The other side of the Nidever tombstone, this one dedicated to his wife Sinforosa and children.

When she had been all but forgotten, Nidever found the Indian woman alive and well on San Nicolas. Clad in a dress of cormorant skins sewn together, she lived in a shelter made from whale bones. She was pleased to see her rescuers and willingly went with them, bringing along only a few possessions–water baskets, bone needles, and the feathered dress.

When she was finally rescued, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island became famous for her unusual story and remained well known in California for decades after her death.

The Lone Woman was an adult when she was left behind, and in her fifties when she was rescued. Archaeological discoveries have revealed scraps of information about how the Lone Woman survived on the island – for instance, it is now known that she probably lived in a cave and spent time making jewellery for herself. However, most of her time on the island remains mysterious.

It was said that the mission priest sent her feathered dress to Rome, but researchers have found no indication that it was ever received by the Vatican Museum. The 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire destroyed the woman’s water basket and bone needles, which were part of the collections of a museum there. Now only memories remain of the Lone Woman and her tragic story.

Like the case with Juana Maria herself, not much is known about the tribe that once populated San Nicolas Island. Today they are called the Nicoleño, although they were given this name by outsiders– not themselves. Although most of the tribe eventually moved to the mainland, many of them died shortly thereafter because they were very vulnerable to disease. Most of what we know about the Nicoleño is based on archaeological evidence found on the island.

George Nidever’s Tombstone. Photo Matt Kettmann

Captain Nidever and his family grew to be some of Santa Barbara’s most well-respected citizens.  In addition to the chapter in his life that bisected with the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, Captain Nidever was an intrepid sea captain, a world traveller, an avid and successful hunter….and always, an adventurer.

He traversed the continent while hunting for otters and grizzly bears.  He crossed the Rocky Mountains to enter California.  He enlisted in the California Regiment of Mounted Volunteers during the war with Mexico.  He was with John C Fremont when California was claimed for the United States. Nidever purchased San Miguel Island, built a ranch, and raised livestock there for years.

He was a father to six children.

George Nidever made a name for himself in Santa Barbara and the Channel Islands as an American otter hunter and maritime tradesman. He arrived in Santa Barbara in 1835 and made at least two hunting expeditions to the islands. During his second trip, he went out with an African American hunter who went by the name Black Steward, as well as local hunter Isaac Sparks. They made Santa Rosa Island their headquarters and made an interesting arrangement for shelter:

On the N.E. side of the island and close to the present [1878] wharf, there is a large cave. Its entrance is hardly larger than an ordinary doorway, but [the cave is] so large inside that a hundred persons could occupy it with ease. Here we kept our provisions and other supplies.

While on that second tour, an incident that would prove to be a turning point in coastal otter hunting history also became legendary in Santa Rosa Island lore. Nidever retold the story to a historian in 1878:

About the first of January [1836] Sparks and some of our men saw a brig…and remarked casually that they were perhaps N.W. Indians [Aleuts]. Coasting or trading vessels being frequently seen in the Channel and the N.W. Indians not having visited these parts for some time, we all took it for granted that the craft seemed to be a trading vessel. This appearance of the N.W. Indians would not have surprised us, as we knew they were likely to come at any time, and have talked the matter over long before, we had agreed to fight them at least as long as we could; to this, the Portuguese also agreed. Sparks and Black Steward while hunting together before had been driven up into the island by these Indians and their supplies captured, but we determined to defend ours as long as it could be done.

One morning a few days after sighting the brig, we were hunting off the head of the Santa Rosa [Island]. It was very foggy, and at about 7 o’clock we started an otter and began running it towards the head of the island.

Black steward was about 1/4 mile from shore, I was nearly opposite him and distant about 300 or 400 yards farther out, while Sparks was between us and a little to the rear. Just as we were rounding the point the Black-Steward called out, “Here come the N.W. Indians.” Sure enough, just ahead of us coming out of the fog were 5 or 6 canoes pulling with might and main to cut us off from the shore. Each canoe had two Indians and some of them a third. When Black Steward called to us, the foremost canoe was but a few hundred yards away and the other only a short distance in the rear.

The fog had prevented us from discovering them, while our shooting had indicated to them our exact position. At the first alarm, we made a straight line for the shore and our men needed no urging to exert themselves. We all made for a small cove or bay just below the point and lined with thick bushes. Black Steward was the first to reach the beach. Jumping out as soon as his boat grounded, he turned and fired on the foremost canoe, but the powder having partly escaped from his gun the ball fell short. A moment later Sparks reached shore and almost at the same time I jumped out on the beach beside him, amidst a shower of buckshot, the Indians having already opened fire. At that moment the first canoe was not over a hundred yards away and the others close behind. Sparks fired at the foremost canoe, wounding one of the Indians, who fell but raised again just in time to receive my shot, which settled him. This was a reception they little expected and they turned back until a safe distance from us, exchanging shots with us in the meanwhile.

Nidever and his companions continued to shoot at the attackers from the cover of the bushes, killing three and wounding up to five. He stated that thirteen canoes made the attack and that the Indians’ muskets had an “incredible” range of up to a mile. The Indians retreated to the brig, now visible through the lifting fog. The three men buried their supplies and canoes in the sand and waited in hiding for any sign of invaders. Their companions on the island had hidden in the hills as they heard the noise of the attack. The group had agreed to avoid the cave so as to not give its location away.

The following morning the Indians returned in their canoes, apparently pretending to hunt along the shore near the cave.

They gradually approached the cave, passed by it, and repassed it as if without any intention of landing; finally, they proceeded to a point 300 or 400 yards below and there stopped to fish in the kelp just opposite it. Loath to lose this chance, we instructed Black Steward and O’Brien to remain and keep a lookout while we crept down to the point to get a shot at them if possible.

We reached the point unseen and were about to fire when the men at the cave raised the cry that the Indians were landing. We ran back just in time. Just before we reached the cave Black Steward and O’Brien both fired at the two Indians in the first canoe but missed them. Our shots brought down one of them, whereupon [they] turned and put off, firing as they went. They again went off to the brig.

The two days following, the brig lay becalmed, without any further attempt of the Indians to return. On the third day, they sailed away and we never saw them again.

Nidever later found that the attacking ship had been an unlicensed British otter hunting vessel. He felt that the incident “was a severe blow to the N.W. Indians who had for several years been the terror of the coast. This was the first reverse they had met with.” While Nidever did not tell of any return to Santa Rosa Island to hunt, he continued hunting in the area with his own license and later settled for a while on San Miguel Island. He is best known for his part in finding the lone woman of San Nicolas Island in 1853 and bringing her to the mainland. George Nidever was lucky to see Santa Rosa Island in an almost pristine state. He lived out his long life in Santa Barbara where he died in 1883.

Juana Maria’s Surviving Possessions. Whale baleen hairpin. Photo: American Museum of Natural History

In 1939, archaeologists discovered Juana Maria’s whale-bone hut on the northernmost end of San Nicolas, the highest point of the island. The location of the hut exactly matched the descriptions left by Nidever. In 2012, archaeologist Steven J. Schwartz reported finding a site that may have been Juana Maria’s cave. In 2009, University of Oregon archaeologist Jon Erlandson found two Nicoleño-style redwood boxes eroding from a sea cliff, covered by a whale rib and associated with several asphaltum-coated woven water bottles, and threatened with destruction from winter storms. The site is located on the north-west coast of San Nicolas, where Juana Maria is believed to have spent much of her time. The boxes, salvaged by Erlandson, René Vellanoweth, Lisa Thomas-Barnett, and Troy Davis, contained more than 200 artifacts, including bird-bone pendants, abalone shell dishes and fish hooks, soapstone ornaments, sandstone abraders, red ochre, a Nicoleño harpoon tip, glass projectile points and metal artifacts, and several Native Alaskan toggling harpoon tips.

Rene Vellanoweth, an archaeology professor at Cal State L.A., inside the cave he believes was the home of Juana Maria, the woman made famous in the novel “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”

For months they worked together to reveal details of the cave where the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island may have lived, painstakingly removing bucket after bucket of sand — 40,000 in all.

Navy archaeologist Steve Schwartz, who was helping lead the project, was impressed by one of the Cal State L.A. students taking part in the high-profile dig: Tom Holm, a filmmaker who was eager to weave the team’s archaeology lessons into a documentary based on the work.

And Holm felt blessed to work shoulder-to-shoulder with experts, marvelling at their knowledge of the 19th-century Native American woman who survived on the Channel Island for 18 years, abandoned and alone.

In April 2012, they were inches away from relics that would flesh out the real-life story of the woman who inspired the novel “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” one of the 20th century’s most popular novels for young readers and required reading in many California schools. But commanders at the naval base on the island about 65 miles south-west of Point Mugu ordered Schwartz to halt the dig.

The archaeologist was especially dismayed by a terse question embedded in the order: “Is the work you’re doing out there legal?”

But something else stung. The shutdown grew out of allegations by none other than Holm, who had brought members of the Pechanga tribe to the island amid concerns that works in and around the cave was possibly out of compliance with federal laws enacted to protect cultural resources.

The closure interrupted research on one of the most significant historical finds in California history — and led Schwartz, 57, to retire early in anger and frustration.

“It’s heartbreak. A travesty,” Schwartz said. “We may never learn what archaeological riches that cave is guarding.”

Steve Schwartz inside the cave believed to have been the home of an Indian woman who lived on San Nicolas Island, abandoned and alone, for 18 years.

 

Schwartz had already spent more than 20 years searching for the cave when, in 2012, its precise location was confirmed in the field notes and compass bearings of a 19th-century government surveyor. One of his field stations on the island, the surveyor wrote, was “100 yards eastward of the large cave formerly inhabited by a wild Indian woman who lived there alone for 18 years.”

Schwartz discovered the cave — 20 feet high, 75 feet long and packed with sand — under a rock overhang. Digging out the sand, Schwartz and his team uncovered two sets of initials and a date etched near the cave’s arching mouth: “September 11, 1911.” They also found two glass pepper sauce bottles, remnants of late 19th century seamen.

At first, Holm was excited to be taking part in the dig, led by Schwartz and Rene Vellanoweth, Holm’s archaeology professor at Cal State L.A.

But Holm’s views began to change after meetings with Pechanga elders who questioned his instructors’ explanations of artefacts unearthed on the island. Holm also fumed over T-shirts worn by Vellanoweth and his team members that said “San Nicolas Cave Archaeology,” because, as he put it, “we did not have permission to do anything other than remove sand.”

After stewing over the perceived violations for months, Holm invited three members of the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians to accompany him on a tour of the cave. A few weeks later, the tribe, fired off letters demanding that the Navy stop archaeological research in the cave and at 549 other sites across the island.

Now, the cave is closed indefinitely while its fate is being negotiated between the Navy and the Pechanga tribe, which is claiming cultural affiliation with the island’s mysterious ancient people, who for 8,000 years scratched out a living eating mostly shellfish, sea lions, small fish and roots.

“We’re only trying to do what’s right by our ancestors,” Mark Macarro, the tribe’s chairman, said.”We must ensure that all applicable federal laws are followed.”

Archaeologist Steve Schwartz felt betrayed when the Navy ordered a halt to work at a site it took him 20 years to find: the cave believed to be the home of a 19th-century Native American woman who lived on San Nicolas Island, abandoned and alone, for 18 years.

As a rule, when it comes to digging up artefacts, the Pechanga’s preference is avoidance. Federal agencies are required to consult with a federally recognised tribe before undertaking a proposal that may adversely affect cultural resources it is affiliated with. The Pechanga aims to assume that role.

The tribe hinges its claim on its interpretation of the only four words uttered by the Lone Woman that were written down, and two songs she reportedly sang, after she was finally brought from the Island to Santa Barbara.

No one understood a word of the Lone Woman’s language beyond that she called a hide “tocah,” a man “nache,” the sky “toygwah” and the body “puoochay,” according to badly spelled transcriptions made under unknown conditions by unidentified non-linguists. Her songs are mostly “vocables,” or nonsense syllables.

Many archaeologists who are knowledgeable about the earliest inhabitants of the Channel Islands say a preponderance of skeletal and DNA data affiliates the island with Gabrielino Tongva Indians, who occupied the greater Los Angeles Basin and the southern three islands: Santa Catalina, San Clemente and San Nicolas.

However, the Navy announced it had determined that the Pechanga were culturally affiliated with the remains of 469 people and 436 objects that have been removed from San Nicolas Island and are now stored in museum and university collections throughout the state.

The designation, which does not specifically apply to the cave, is expected to give the tribe a greater role in determining the extent of future archaeological research on the island. The tribe says it has not yet decided what to do with the artefacts.

For now, at least, the mystery of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island will remain unsolved.

Statue of Juana Maria and child in Santa Barbara, California.

Over the ensuing decades, San Nicolas remained a lonely, rocky outpost. Basque sheepherders occasionally lived there in isolation. By 1937, there was also a small Navy compound on the island, where radio operators sent weather reports to the mainland. The island is now a naval base, home to munition sites and special installations. It is closed to the public and is rarely mentioned in profiles of the Channel Islands.

But the legend of Juana Maria lives on. The classic children’s book “The Island of the Blue Dolphins,” based on her story, is still read by thousands of school children.

Bioarchaeological data suggests that between 6,000 and 2,000 years ago the Southern Channel Islands were colonised by the Tongva peoples, who may have absorbed earlier island residents (probably speakers of the Hokan languages). Linguistic evidence suggests that Juana Maria spoke Nicoleño, a Tongvan dialect, and was not of Native Alaskan ancestry.

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