11. Juana Maria: The “Lone Woman of San Nicholas” who spent 18 years stranded on a Californian island.
In 1853, Captain George Nidever and his crew of sea otter hunters landed on the island of San Nicholas in California’s Channel Islands. At 61 miles from the mainland, San Nicholas was one of the most remote. So it came as a great surprise to Nidever and his crew when they found that the island was home to a solitary Native American woman. No one could speak the woman’s language. However, once she was on the mainland, the woman who became known as Juana Maria managed to communicate her story through a series of hand gestures.
Juana Maria had lived her whole life on San Nicholas. It had been the home of her tribe, the Nicolenos. However, sometime in the early 1800s, a group of Russian otter hunters came to San Nicholas and killed most of her people. In 1835, missionaries from the mainland came to San Nicholas to evacuate the survivors. It was they who gave Juana Maria the name by which she became known. However, Juana Maria was left behind when she went to search for her missing child. She never found the infant and missed her opportunity to leave. So, she remained on San Nicholas, forgotten and alone.
For the next 18 years, Juana Maria survived by subsisting off the natural environment. She made fishhooks from seashells and wove baskets and bowls from grasses. She constructed shelter from whalebones and the dried blubber of the seals, which along with fish and seabirds were the central part of her diet. The leftover feathers and skins of her prey provided Juana Maria with ample raw materials from which to make clothes.
When he returned to his family in Santa Barbara, Captain Nidever took Juana Maria with him. However, she did not live beyond a few months. For unable to cope with the change of diet, Juana Maria contracted dysentery. Nothing could save her- even her carers’ attempts to recreate the diet she had become used to on the island. No one ever learned Juana Maria’s true, Native American name. Her story, however, lived on in a children’s novel “Island of the Blue Dolphins.”