San Nicolas Island (USA): 'Island of the Blue Dolphins' woman's cave believed found

A Navy archaeologist and his crew are digging out a cave on San Nicolas Island that seems likely to have sheltered the woman made famous by the 1960 award-winning book.

Steve Chawkins

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Rene Vellanoweth of Cal State L.A. shows a cave on San Nicolas Island where it's believed the Native American woman who came to be known as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas lived from 1835 to 1853. Navy archaeologist Steve Schwartz had searched the island for the cave for 20 years without success. (Steve Schwartz, U.S. Navy)

The yellowing government survey map of San Nicolas Island dated from 1879, but it was quite clear: There was a big black dot on the southwest coast and, next to it, the words "Indian Cave."

For more than 20 years, Navy archaeologist Steve Schwartz searched for that cave. It was believed to be home to the island's most famous inhabitant, a Native American woman who survived on the island for 18 years, abandoned and alone, and became the inspiration for "Island of the Blue Dolphins," one of the 20th century's most popular novels for young readers.

The problem for Schwartz was that San Nicolas, a wind-raked, 22-square-mile chunk of sandstone and scrub, has few caves, all of them dank, wet hollows where the tides surge in and nobody could live for long.

Year after year, he scoured the beaches and cliffs, drilled exploratory holes, checked the old map, pored over contemporary accounts and conferred with other experts, all in vain. If he could find the cave, he could find artifacts — clues that would flesh out the real-life story that inspired Scott O'Dell to pen the 1960 novel that won the Newbery Medal and became required reading in many California schools. More than 6.5 million copies are in print and teachers frequently assign it between the fourth and seventh grades.

If he found the cave, he might solve mysteries about the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas" and her Nicoleño tribe, which was left devastated by a massacre in 1814 by sea otter hunters from Alaska.

With the help of recently unearthed notes written in a fine script by a 19th century government surveyor, Schwartz now believes he's found it.

"We're 90% sure this is the Lone Woman's cave," Schwartz told several hundred fellow researchers last week at the California Islands Symposium in Ventura. Further excavation is necessary, he said, adding that a crew of students has painstakingly removed about 40,000 buckets, or a million pounds, of sand from a cavern at least 75 feet long and 10 feet high.

In a separate discovery that also could shed light on the Lone Woman and her people, researchers stumbled across two redwood boxes poking through a steep, eroding cliff. The containers, probably made from recycled canoe planks and held together with the tar that washes onto island beaches, hold more than 200 stone blades, harpoon points, bone fishhooks and other implements.

"We find amazing stuff every time we go to the Channel Islands, and this may be the most amazing find of all," said Jon M. Erlandson, a University of Oregon archaeologist who has explored the islands for more than 30 years.

It may never be known just who left the cache of tools, he said, but "it's at least a reasonable hypothesis" that it was the Lone Woman, who is known to have stashed useful items at a number of places around the island.

About 60 miles off the coast, San Nicolas is a lonely Navy base dotted with installations designed to track missiles. It also has more than 540 known archaeological sites, some with evidence that people have lived on the island for more than 8,000 years.

For many Nicoleños, life ended in the early 1800s. Russian fur traders brought groups of Alaskan sea otter hunters to San Nicolas, where they engaged in repeated fights with native men over women and furs. The Nicoleño population dwindled from perhaps 300 to a few dozen, dropping most sharply after a particularly savage battle in 1814.

By 1835, the few Nicoleños left were struggling. Whether motivated by compassion or a need to increase the ranks of mission laborers, Franciscan fathers from the mainland sent a ship for them. All but one made the trip to the mainland aboard the Peor es Nada, loosely translated as "Better than nothing."

The holdout came to be known as the Lone Woman. According to legend, she jumped overboard and swam for shore when she frantically realized that her baby had been left behind. Less romanticized theories hold that she told the captain she'd show up with her child but a sudden storm forced him to shove off without her.

What's known is that a solitary woman lived in the sand and fog of San Nicolas for the next 18 years. On the mainland, her legend grew. A time or two, fishermen reported seeing a fleeting figure on the deserted island. In 1850, a padre at the Santa Barbara Mission commissioned a sea captain to find her.

The captain sailed to the island but found nothing to indicate the woman was still alive. However, his account of the plentiful seals and sea otters piqued the interest of George Nidever, a Santa Barbara rancher and fur trader. In 1852, Nidever found footprints on the beach. The next year, he found the Lone Woman.

"The old woman was of medium height but rather thick," he later reported. "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."

The woman, who was skinning a seal when she was found, shared some roasted roots with Nidever and his men. She was staying above rolling dunes, in a hut she'd built from whale bones and brush.

According to Schwartz, her people probably lived in more substantial houses, but tribal taboos would have kept females from learning to build them. The hut was no more than a windbreak, he said, and Nidever's accounts said she lived in a cave nearby.

Just where was an open question until UC Berkeley archaeologist Scott Byram showed Schwartz the field notes written by a U.S. Coast Survey mapmaker who was sent to San Nicolas. One of his survey stations, he noted, was "100 yards eastward of the large cave formerly inhabited by a wild Indian woman who lived there alone for 18 years." The surveyor helpfully provides compass bearings that led Schwartz to a spot he had previously rejected, a shallow depression beneath a rock overhang.

So began a long, frustrating dig. Beneath a thick layer of sandstone, Schwartz and his crew found a vast deposit of sand. Scooping out the sand, they found what began to look like the opening of a cave. Digging further, they came across a tapered glass bottle — the kind that held pepper sauce that spiced the bland fare of seamen between 1840 and 1865.

"That's when we got really excited," he said.

It was evident they'd started to dig out a cave that had been filled in with sand by the fierce San Nicolas winds. Near its mouth, they found two sets of initials etched in rock and a date: Sept. 11, 1911. Schwartz figures that at some point it had become "an impromptu fishing camp," as suggested by a layer of bones and shells in the same area.

More work is needed. Ground-penetrating radar might reveal a layer of relics from the Lone Woman's era — perhaps even the markings she was said to have made on the walls. And below those, Schwartz said, there could be a layer of artifacts that attest to what her ancestors ate, how they hunted, what they worshiped — "the whole record of human and environmental history" preserved in sand.

After a month on the island with Nidever and his crew, the Lone Woman left her home for Nidever's in Santa Barbara. Native Americans and priests who spoke various Indian tongues couldn't understand the songs she sang or the four words she used repeatedly.

But she was adept in signs. She indicated that wild dogs had devoured the baby she'd gone back to retrieve. But her grief was long past, and in Santa Barbara she seemed curious and happy. Nidever turned down offers to display her in San Francisco.

After seven weeks, she died of dysentery.

"The food of civilization, of which she partook in excess, did not agree with her," said the Times in 1899.

On her deathbed, the Lone Woman was baptized and named Juana Maria.

Juana Maria is buried at the Santa Barbara Mission. A dress she made of cormorant feathers reportedly was sent to the Vatican, though no record of it exists. Nidever's adobe house — Juana Maria's final home — has long since been razed, according to researcher Susan L. Morris, who located the site and spoke at last week's conference.

Most of the property is beneath the 101 Freeway. A small weedy portion is fenced off, unexplored.