When Scott O’Dell published Island of the Blue Dolphins in 1960, it became a massive success, and it remains to this day required reading for many schoolchildren. The novel popularized the true story of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, which had until then been a mostly forgotten piece of California History.
San Nicolas Island was first settled by Native Americans around 6000 BCE. They called it Ghalas-at, and survived on the dry, windy island by taking advantage of the area’s abundant marine life. Because it is very difficult to anchor ships near the island, the natives were largely untroubled by European settlers. They lived alone for centuries, long after mainland Native Americans made contact with first the Spanish missionaries and then the American settlers. At its peak, the native community of Ghalas-at numbered around 300 people.
This changed in the early nineteenth century, when otter fur became fashionable and began to command high prices around the world. Russian fur traders hired native Alaskans from the Aleutian islands to hunt otter for them. These Aleuts — who are the primary villains in the book – first came to Ghalas-at to hunt otter in the early nineteenth century. This was disastrous for the natives, although it is unclear exactly what caused their conflict with the Aleuts. According to one rumor, the Aleuts were stranded on the island by bad weather and became so bored that they started hunting the native men for fun. In any case, the native population of Ghalas-at shrunk to only seven people by 1835.
When word of the island’s shrinking population spread, the Santa Barbara Mission hired a schooner to rescue the remaining natives. For unknown reasons, one woman was left behind. In Island of the Blue Dolphins, Karana is only twelve when she is marooned. However, the real Lone Woman was an adult, probably in her twenties, when she was left on the island. Some believe she dove back in the water because her child had been left behind, though this has never been proven.
People on the mainland were well aware that a woman had been left behind. However, there was no rescue attempt, most likely because it was so difficult to anchor boats at the island. Also, ships were scarce in California at this time, and it would have been very expensive to stage a rescue mission. Ship owners might not have felt it was worth the expense and the danger to rescue one woman.
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, we have very little information about their culture. However, we do know that they had taboos about women using weapons, and this part of O’Dell’s book is historically accurate. Like Karana, the Lone Woman would have had to put aside deeply ingrained cultural beliefs in order to survive (Robinson).
Most of our knowledge about the Lone Woman’s time on the island is based on archeological evidence. In 2012, researchers discovered the cave where the Lone Woman most likely lived. They also found a wooden box containing hairpins, jewelry, and tools. Archeologists 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 (Howry). It probably washed up on the island or was left behind by Aleut hunters.
Otter hunters continued to visit the island periodically, and one of them, George Nidever, noticed evidence that someone was living there. However, he visited the island three times before he finally found the Lone Woman in 1853. According to Nidever, she was wearing a cormorant-feather skirt and had two large dogs who obeyed her commands – both details that O’Dell used in the novel.
Although the Lone Woman seemed thrilled to meet the hunters, she could not speak their language. However, she joined their camp for the three weeks they spent hunting otter, and willingly joined them when the time came to leave. According to Nidever, she danced and clapped as their ship approached the mainland.
By the time the Lone Woman was rescued, all the other members of her tribe had died off, victims of the infectious European diseases that killed so many Native Americans in the nineteenth century. When she was brought to the California mainland, no one could speak her language. However, she was offered a home at the Santa Barbara Mission, where the staff named her Juana Maria. She became something of a tourist attraction, and although she could not talk to her visitors, she sang and danced for them. Unfortunately, she died of dysentery only two weeks after being rescued (Robinson).