What Archaeologists and Historians Are Finding About the Heroine of a Beloved Young Adult Novel

New scholarship reveals details about the Native American at the center of the classic Island of the Blue Dolphins

A pod of dolphins swim along a boat in the Channel Islands National Park, California.
A pod of dolphins swim along a boat in the Channel Islands National Park, California Aurora Photos / Alamy Stock Photo

A long-beloved children’s classic, Island of the Blue Dolphins is Scott O’Dell’s 1960 imagining of one of California’s most enigmatic historical figures. It tells the story of Karana, a young Nicoleño girl left behind on a remote island off the coast of southern California. Karana, only 12 years old at the book’s beginning, turns out to be adept at hunting, building and tool-making, and quickly becomes a strong, capable young woman surviving in an unforgiving wilderness. For kids all over the country, reading the book in language arts classes, Karana is a powerful symbol of their growing independence. Through her, they can imagine themselves making their way in the world alone—and thriving.

O’Dell’s heroine was based on a real-life figure who became an international sensation in the 19th century: the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. Newspaper readers in that era would have heard of a woman who lived undiscovered on an island, without human contact, for 18 years. By the time she made it to the mainland, the story went, no one alive spoke her language. But how much truth was there to this story, and what do we really know about the woman O’Dell named Karana?

To write Island of the Blue Dolphins, O’Dell conducted extensive research, drawing from turn-of-the-century retellings of the Lone Woman’s story, the journals of George Nidever (the otter hunter who brought the Lone Woman to the mainland), and anthropological accounts of various California native tribes, which he used to bring the little-understood Nicoleño tribe—the Lone Woman’s people—to life. Anticipating an era of greater sensitivity toward Native Americans, O’Dell portrayed Karana and her tribe as sympathetic and complex.

However, according Sara Schwebel, a University of South Carolina professor whose critical edition of Island of the Blue Dolphins was published last year, O’Dell’s novel also relies heavily on “noble savage” and “last Indian” tropes, which he inherited from his sources. He represents Karana as living simply and harmoniously with nature, especially with the many animals she befriends. He treats her as the last holdout of a Native American civilization, soon to be absorbed into a colonial world that doesn’t understand her culture or her language.

But new scholarship reveals that many of the details O’Dell drew from are incorrect—the product of sensational reporting or local lore. Moreover, there’s now evidence that the Lone Woman may not actually have been alone at all and that she was ultimately able to communicate with some Chumash people  on the mainland.

“Everyone loves a good mystery, and it’s a mystery story,” says John Johnson, the curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. And some of that mystery may never be unraveled.

Until recently, what scholars knew about the Lone Woman could be summed up in a few brief sentences: In 1835, 21 years after a hostile encounter with Kodiak otter hunters left the Nicoleño decimated, a Spanish ship called the Peor es Nada sailed to San Nicolas Island, the harshest and most remote of southern California’s Channel Islands, to collect those who remained. (Most of the island tribes had long since moved to the mainland, but San Nicolas was less accessible.) A single woman was left behind and lived there, by all accounts thriving, for years.

“The story of the Lone Woman truly went viral,” says Schwebel.  As early as 1847—six years before she left the island—the Boston Atlas reported the dramatic—but likely fantastical—detail that the Lone Woman had leapt off the ship carrying her tribe away and swum back to San Nicolas, and noted that crewmen still sighted her as their ships sailed away.

In 1853, Nidever, an American otter hunter, came to the island on a hunting trip, and persuaded the woman to return to Santa Barbara with him. She died of dysentery within seven weeks of her arrival, and was conditionally baptized Juana Maria at her death. Buried in an unmarked grave in the Santa Barbara Mission cemetery, her birth name will forever be unknown; a plaque commemorating her story stands in the graveyard.

Published references to her have been found as far afield as Germany, India and Australia, dating from the 1840s into the early 20th century. “The story was much more pervasive than researchers originally thought,” says Schwebel, who is in the process of assembling a digital archive of more than 450 documents related to the history. “People originally thought of the Lone Woman story as a California story.”

Carol Peterson, an educational coordinator for the Channel Islands National Park, recalls receiving a constant stream of enthusiastic calls over the years from kids who’d read Island of the Blue Dolphins and wanted to know more about the Lone Woman and life on San Nicolas. “We were spending hundreds of hours trying to find this information,” she says. Finally, she decided, they needed “one place where all of this can be collected.”

Now the park service, collaborating with a wide range of experts on the Lone Woman and on the area’s history, biology, botany and geography, is developing a multimedia website designed to provide background information for the children’s book—and house the constant stream of new information coming in. “The more information we have, the more information we look into, the more sources that are available, it just compounds and increases,” says Steven Schwartz, an archaeologist. “It’s like an explosion that keeps growing bigger and bigger.”

Island of the Blue Dolphins: A Newbery Award Winner

Far off the coast of California looms a harsh rock known as the island of San Nicholas. Dolphins flash in the blue waters around it, sea otter play in the vast kep beds, and sea elephants loll on the stony beaches.

A major breakthrough came when Schwartz, a Navy archaeologist who’d spent his 25-year career on the island, discovered what is believed to be the Lone Woman’s San Nicolas cave, hidden for decades by sand and other sediment, and a separate cache of tools and ornaments in redwood boxes. The cave was emptied of sediment by a team of archaeologists and students, and optimism ran high—Schwartz was confident that he’d be able to shed light on the Nicoleño people and on the Lone Woman’s time on the island.

But the dig was halted when the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, which claimed ethnographic affiliation with the Lone Woman, objected to the treatment of human remains and funerary objects on the island. The Navy granted the claim, and excavation has been halted indefinitely.

At this point, four separate bands of Native Americans have claimed ethnographic affiliation either with the Lone Woman’s tribe, the Nicoleño, or with an older, pre-Nicoleño society that lived on the island about 3,000 years ago. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) grants recognized descendants and tribes rights to certain kinds of artifacts, including human remains and sacred objects. San Nicolas Island is rich in Native American artifacts, many of which are protected, and archaeologists have been digging there since 1875.

Some of the objects that Schwartz and others have found will likely be reburied, but the fate of the cave and the redwood cache are undecided, and the Pechanga Band did not respond to requests for comment about Lone Woman-related artifacts. For the foreseeable future, excavation and lab analysis have been shut down, and Schwartz, now retired, isn’t optimistic that they’ll start up again in his lifetime.

But the Lone Woman’s future doesn’t hinge on those findings—her paper trail offers its own rich source of information. Beginning in the early 2000s, local researchers—Schwartz included—began to dig out new information from church documents, newspaper reports, the copious notes of ethnographer John Peabody Harrington, who was fascinated by the native peoples of California, and other historical archives.

The fate of the Nicoleños was revealed in a 2016 academic article: the Peor es Nada transported them from San Nicolas Island to a port near Los Angeles, and records place at least four of them in Los Angeles after 1835. One of these, baptized Tomás at the age of five, was still living when the Lone Woman came to Santa Barbara, although it’s unlikely that he knew of her arrival. “The story started to change,” Schwartz says.

In particular, there’s a new, tantalizing hint in Harrington’s notes. To start with, the Lone Woman wasn’t unable to communicate with others once she arrived in Santa Barbara:  he suggests three or four Native Americans familiar enough with her language to converse with her.

“The story she communicated was that she stayed behind to be with her son...and they lived together for a number of years,” Schwartz says. “One day the boy was in a boat fishing, there’s some disruption, the boat flips over, and the boy disappears,” possibly the victim of a shark attack.

For Schwartz, the story makes sense, and explains why the Lone Woman was willing to leave the island when Nidever offered: for the first time, she truly was alone.

Uncertainty is an enduring feature of the Lone Woman’s story. The body of knowledge about her life is still changing and growing, but it will always be thin. Johnson, the museum curator, finds the blanks in her story more intriguing than the truth could ever be: “I like to read murder mysteries, and I like to read that same thing into my profession. I can be a new set of eyes looking at the evidence,” he says. For Schwebel, the strength of O’Dell’s novel comes not from his research, but from his skillful imagining of that long, intriguing 18-year blank. When you don’t know all the facts, “that’s when you have room for fiction.”

As Yvonne Menard, a Channel Islands National Park spokesperson, points out, islands have their own mystery. They produce their own unique, highly diverse ecosystems through speciation and island dwarfism. (The Channel Islands have their own example: the delightfully named pygmy mammoth, now extinct.) But islands, in stories from The Odyssey to Robinson Crusoe, have also been a powerful symbol of separation from the people who love us and the ties that bind us. Without context, our dreams, accomplishments, tastes, and values are far less meaningful. Imagining who we are, what we would be without those things, many of us will only draw a blank.

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