She inspired a best-selling children’s novel, but no one ever knew her real name. She survived 18 years alone on a windswept island, and died just seven weeks after being rescued.
She was the last surviving member of her people, a small tribe of Native Americans known as the Nicolenos. She spoke a language no one could understand. Her people were all but wiped out in a battle with Russian and Native Alaskan fur hunters.
She was christened Juana Maria by the priests at the Santa Barbara Mission, but to the locals she was the Wild Woman of San Nicolas Island who sometimes danced and sang songs in her own mysterious language.
San Nicolas is the most remote of the Channel Islands, and has been inhabited for 10,000 years. But when a ship named the Il’mena dropped anchor off the island in 1814, it signaled the beginning of the end for the people living there.
Juana Maria must have been a young girl on that fateful day, for on board the Il’mena were 50 Alaskan hunters and two Russians, Timofei Tarkanov and Iakov Babin. The Nicolenos had no way of knowing their arrival signaled the end of their way of life as well as their eventual extinction.
Russia had been trying to extend its influence in the New World since the days of Peter the Great. After claiming Alaska for its own in 1741, it established its first settlement at Three Saints Bay in 1784. In the years that followed Russian ships began appearing off the coast of California, seeking to get in on the lucrative trade in seal and otter pelts. When the Russians and Alaskans landed on San Nicolas Island, the stage was set for tragedy.
According to an 1818 report by an official of the Russian-America Co., the Nicolenos killed one of the Alaskans in a dispute over a woman or furs. Directed by Iakov Babin, the Alaskans proceeded to massacre the Nicolenos. How many were killed is unknown, but when the surviving Nicolenos were evacuated in 1835, less than 20 remained out of a population of 300.
Juana Maria was one of the survivors, and she was left behind to fend for herself when the evacuation ship Peores Nada departed. The remaining Nicolenos were eventually taken to the San Gabriel Mission near Los Angeles. Soon all were dead from diseases to which they had no immunity.
No one knows why Juana Maria remained on the island. Some accounts say she jumped off the boat before it sailed, in search of either her child or her small brother. Whatever the reason, she would spend the next 18 years in solitude, living in a cave and surviving on roasted roots, ducks and seals. When she was found in 1853 she was described as “smiling,” with clothing that consisted of “a single garment of skins.”
Juana Maria was brought to the Santa Barbara Mission, where she was given the name she is remembered by. After only seven weeks she contracted dysentery and died on Oct. 19, 1853, leaving behind more questions about her life than answers.
Juana Maria is remembered as the inspiration for the classic children’s novel “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” Her statue stands at the corner of State and Victoria streets in Santa Barbara. Archeologists continue to excavate San Nicolas Island, searching for answers to the mysteries she left behind.
In the single photograph thought to be her, the face is grave but not sad, serious but not without hope. Like Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile, Juana Maria’s countenance is as enigmatic as her life.