A Woman to Know: Juana Maria

It is stated she has been some 18 to 20 years alone on the island. — The Daily Democratic State Journal

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

Juana Maria's tribe, the Nicoleño, had been destroyed by white men: by the missionaries forcing them from their island homes and by the fur traders threatening to slaughter any competition for game. No one knows how one woman, the last of her tribe, ended up on San Nicolas island; only that she lived there alone for almost 30 years, regarded as a "curiosity" by travelers who could glimpse her from the shore. She lived there with no other human company, eating fish and wild berries for food. She made her own clothes from seal skin and slept in an island cave. One captain remembers meeting her on shore. He noted her health and vigor, and, yes, some missing teeth. "Her face was pleasing as she was continually smiling," he wrote in his log.

In 1853, she was "rescued" by missionaries and brought to Santa Barbara, but no one could understand her language to decipher her story. The main character in Scott O'Dell's beloved classic Island of the Blue Dolphins is inspired by her. After just two weeks living in civilization, she contracted dysentery. She is buried at the Mission Santa Barbara, where the priest said a prayer for her just-christened name, "Juana Maria."

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