It was 1853 on San Nicolas Island, the most remote of California's eight Channel Islands. Sixty-five miles southwest of Point Mugu, in Ventura County, one visitor reported the island's "shifting sand dunes, its 90-foot fog shrouded peak, its deep cut canyons, its bleak cliffs and the crashing seas breaking over its rocky shores" made it "just about one of the most desolate places on earth." This isolated isle had once been home to a thriving group of native people known as the Nicolenos. Now it was supposedly uninhabited, though sailors sailing by occasionally reported seeing a human figure waving her arms, running towards them on the foggy shore. In 1853, Captain George Nidever set out on his third trip in search of this legendary apparition. The year before, his crew had discovered footprints in the sand. This time, they found what they were looking for near three whalebone huts in a clearing among the sand dunes. Crewman Carl Dittman recalled the moment of discovery:
She was seated cross legged on the ground and was engaged in separating the blubber from a piece of seal skin which was lying across one knee and held by one hand. In the other hand she grasped a rude knife, a piece of iron hoop thrust into a rough piece of wood for a handle....Outside there was a high pile of ashes and bones showing that she had lived in this place for some time. Baskets of grass and vessels of the same material made in the shape of a flagon and lined with asphaltum, used to hold water, were scattered about. On a sinew rope stretched between two poles several feet above the ground were hanging pieces of seal blubber, while near her was the head of a seal from which the brains already putrid were running.
The discovery of the lone woman put an end to a speculative mystery that had brewed in coastal California for eighteen years. But as was often the case for native people in the "new world," her "discovery" would soon lead to her death.
The Nicoleno tribe lived and flourished on San Nicolas Island for around 8,000 years. In fact, the huge number of town sites scattered across the three-by-nine mile isle have led some archeologists to speculate that it may have been a vacation spot for other Native American groups from the mainland. The Nicolenos were seafaring people, using canoes to trade with neighboring tribes like the Gabrielinos and the Chumash. The waters and shores of San Nicolas were rich in abalone, whale, fish and sea otter, supplying residents with abundant food and ample goods.
In the early 1800s, strangers in the form of Russian, American, and native Aleut hunters from Alaska began appearing on the island in search of sea otter pelts, so valuable they were referred to as "soft gold." In 1811, a group of 30 fierce hunters, employed by the Russian-American Company, invaded the island. They stayed for over a year, dramatically reducing the sea otter population. They also raped many Nicoleno women. Nicoleno men who attempted to protect the women were killed. A series of battles and sneak attacks ensued, and the Nicoleno population was decimated. The hunters eventually left, but returned in 1815 with Russian hunter Boris Tasarov. This time, they were stopped from doing further harm by Spanish authorities who arrested them for illegal hunting.
However, the damage was already done. By 1835, there were only 18-20 Nicolenos left on San Nicolas Island. After hearing of their plight, missionaries sent a ship called Peor es Nada (Better than Nothing) to "rescue" the remaining islanders. Once all the Nicolenos were on board, one woman begged to be put ashore, claiming her baby was still on the island. Before the crew could restrain her, she jumped overboard. Due to adverse weather or just plain spite, the ship left shortly thereafter, leaving the lone woman behind. The rest of the remaining Nicolenos dispersed to different missions on the mainland, and almost all soon died. Many thought the woman had suffered a similar fate and had drowned in the turbulent sea (the Peor es Nada itself sank off the coast of San Francisco a month after the "rescue").
Over the years, the legend of the lone woman grew. There were occasional sightings by passing sailors, and a strong oral tradition at the missions kept the story alive. Around 1850, an otter hunter visiting the island claimed to have found her hut. That year, a padre from the Santa Barbara Mission sent a local otter hunter to look for her. The hunter found nothing. A year later, George Nidever, a colorful fur trader and rancher, was titillated enough by the mystery -- as well as by reports of the abandoned island's huge seal and sea otter population -- to make the choppy journey to San Nicolas. He was unable to locate the woman during his first two trips.
On the third expedition to the island, his search party (which included mainland Native Americans) took a different route on the island, convinced the woman had deliberately eluded him the first two times. They soon found a basket filled with cormorant feathers and tools near the shore. In an attempt to prove she was there, they scattered her things along the ground. A few hours later they returned, and found the basket carefully repacked. Shortly thereafter, the woman was discovered, surrounded by a pack of loyal dogs. Captain Nidever described her appearance:
The old woman was of medium height but rather thick. She must have been about 50 years old but she was still strong and active. Her face was pleasing, as she was continuously smiling. Her teeth were entire but worn to the gums.... Her covering consisted of a single garment of shag's skin, the feathers out and pointing downwards, in shape resembling a loose gown. It was sleeveless, low in the neck and girded about the waist with a sinew rope. When she stood up, it extended nearly to the ankles. She had no covering on her head. Her hair which was thickly matted and bleached a reddish brown, hung down to her shoulders.
Though there are conflicting reports about the woman's initial reaction, she soon became friends with Nidever's crew. Unable to glean her real name, the men called her "Better-Than- Nothing," presumably in honor of the ship she had jumped off of all those years before. The Nidever party stayed on the island for a month, hunting and learning about the woman's life on the island. According to the Los Angeles Times:
The woman showed no signs of fear...and offered the visitors food. By signs she indicated that her baby had been killed years before by wild dogs which infested the island and that she had existed on seafood and seals killed with crude stone weapons....The woman showed them how she killed seals at night, made sinew fish lines from them, and hooks from abalone, which abounded along the shore. She also showed them well hidden caves and canyons where she hid when marauding Russians and Aleuts visited the lonely isle on foraging and pilfering expeditions.
In return, the crew stuffed a seal for the woman, much to her delight. "She hung it by a string to the roof of her hut," Dittman remembered, "and lying on her back under it would amuse herself for hours at a time by swinging it backwards and forwards."
Although no one could understand the language she spoke, she talked and sang incessantly and was an adept signer. Crewmen were impressed with her resourcefulness -- she kept every scrap of food she could, saving bones so that she could suck them to the marrow. She helped the visitors find fresh water and firewood, and showed Nidever how to make a water proof jug using heated stones and asphaltum. When it was time to leave, she boarded the ship willingly, her clothes and one filled large basket the only remnants of her former life.
She was taken to Mission Santa Barbara and placed in the care of Nidever's wife. She was a regional curiosity, and folks came from far and wide to see her sing and dance. Nidever was offered a chance to display her as a circus sideshow, which he declined. After so many years alone, the woman seemed thrilled to be with people once again. She was fascinated by the new sights and sounds around her. When she saw a man on a horse for the first time, she thought they were one creature. She was so amazed when the rider dismounted that she had to go over and touch them both. All of her kinfolk were dead by this time, and none of the other Native Americans or multi-lingual priests at the mission were able to understand her. But her kindness was evident to everyone. She was continually given gifts by visitors which she would accept effusively and then give to the Nidever children.
Only a few weeks after she arrived at the mission, she died. Though her death was blamed on an overindulgence of rich food, a simple illness that she had no immunity to was probably the real cause. On her deathbed, the woman was baptized in the Catholic faith and given the name Juana Maria. She was buried at the Santa Barbara mission.
Over the ensuing decades, San Nicolas remained a lonely, rocky outpost. Basque sheep herders occasionally lived there in isolation. By 1937, there was also a small Navy compound on the island, where radio operators sent weather reports to the mainland. The island is now a naval base, home to munition sites and special installations. It is closed to the public and is rarely mentioned in profiles of the Channel Islands.
But the legend of Juana Maria lives on. The classic children's book "The Island of the Blue Dolphins," based on her story, is still read by thousands of school children. As recently as this year, archeologists continued to dig up portions of the island. Navy archeologist Steve Schwartz uncovered a cave that he believes may have been used by Juana Maria. However, as of March 2015, all archeological work on the island has been halted due to a dispute between the Pechanga tribe (who claim kinship with the Nicolenos) and the Navy.
We know precious little about Juana Maria Better-Than-Nothing. Her thoughts during eighteen years of abandonment and isolation are lost to time, as is her real name. We do know she risked her life to save her baby, and that once she was "found," her kindness and strength impressed all who encountered her.