Discovery of Juana Maria, a drawing by James Gibbons
The heart-breaking story of a native woman abandoned on the island of San Nicholas for almost twenty years
Captain George Nidever had arrived in California in 1834. He was a renowned hunter known for his skill in tracking sea otters along the coast and on the Channel Islands. Nidever was also an accomplished sailor, at one time employed as a pilot by government surveyors when they developed maps of the coast and the islands.
San Nicholas is the most remote of the Channel Islands, and lies about 53 miles off the coast, west of Los Angeles. Viscaino landed on San Nicholas on December 6, 1602. He reported it densely populated. The Southern Channel Islands (Santa Catalina, San Clemente and San Nicholas) appear to have been inhabited by people of the Takic branch of the Uto Aztecan language. They were skilled sailors. Not much is known about the San Nicholas Islanders from 1602 to 1800 except that by 1800 the population had declined markedly. In 1811, a group of 25-30 Kodiaks from the Russian camp at Sitka (Alaska) were landed on the island to hunt otter and seal.
The Kodiaks apparently feuded with the island men over the women. By the time the Kodiaks were finally removed, there were less than one hundred Indians left. By the early 1830s, with the Indian population in decline and many villages abandoned, the padres organized the removal of all remaining Indians from the Channel Islands.
The last island to be evacuated was San Nicholas. The Peores Nada, captained by Charles Hubbard, landed on the island in 1835 and began to load the Indians on board. A child was found missing and his mother pleaded to be left on the island to find him. She was described as a light-complexioned woman between 20-30 years of age. She disappeared into the mist and wasn't seen again for eighteen years.
The Peores Nada intended to return when the weather cleared but the ship struck an object entering into the harbor at San Francisco, and sank. Several efforts were made in subsequent years to find the "last" Indian but none succeeded until Captain Nidever discovered her in 1853. Captain Nidiver reported on the encounter in his memoirs The Life and Adventures of George Nidever. The party consisted of himself, another hunter named Charley Brown, "an Irishman we called Colorado from his florid complexion" and four Mission Indians. They landed on the island in July, planning several months hunting.
Shortly after their arrival, they found an "old woman" stripping blubber from a piece of sealskin. According to Nidiver's account, instead of running away "she smiled and bowed, chattering away to them in an unintelligible language." She was "of medium height... about 50 years old but ...still strong and active. Her face was pleasing as she was continually smiling... Her clothing consisted of but a single garment of skins." Nidever had been requested by the Fathers at (delete the) Mission Santa Barbara to "bring the lost woman off [the island] in case we found her" and that is what they did about a month later.
Upon the group's arrival in Santa Barbara, the woman was astonished and delighted at the signs of civilization. She was particularly intrigued by an ox-cart and all the horses. Word spread of her arrival and soon "half the town came down to see her." The good Captain took the woman to stay at his home, where she was nursed by his wife Sinforosa Sanchez Nidever.
The “Lone Woman of San Nicholas” became an object of considerable fascination. She often visited the town and seldom returned without some presents. The Fathers from the Mission visited her. Everyone was taken with her attitude. She was "always in good humor and sang and danced, to the great delight of the children..." Through sign language, it was determined that she was indeed the woman left in 1835 and, sadly, that she never did find her child.
Juana Maria (the name given her by the padres) became ill of dysentery and died after just seven weeks on the mainland. She was buried in the cemetery at Mission Santa Barbara. All her personal possession were given to California Academy of Sciences but these were destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.