Juana Maria | The Woman Who Inspired Island Of The Blue Dolphins - The Comprehensive Minds

Juana Maria | The Woman Who Inspired "Island Of The Blue Dolphins"

Juana Maria

In a story of incredible survival, Juana Maria spent 18 years alone on an island after missionaries abducted every other person of her tribe. She lived on San Nicolas, part of the channel islands just off the coast of California. Her tale, both tragic and inspiring, fascinated so many and even served as inspiration for Scott O'Dell's children's novel, Island of the Blue Dolphins.


The woman who would one day be known as Juana Maria spent 18 years of her life alone on a deserted island after missionaries abducted every other member of her tribe. Juana and her people lived on the three-by-five-mile island of San Nicolas in the Channel Islands off the coast of California. 

Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo allegedly discovered the archipelago in the mid 16th century. But the island chain actually holds the paleontological evidence of the earliest human inhabitants in North America. By the time Cabrillo was the first European to set foot in California, the Nicoleño has already lived there for around 10,000 years. 

They existed in harmony with nature as well as coexisting with the Chumash and the Gabrieleno tribes on neighboring islands. However, in 1811, 30 Russian fur traders and Alaskan hunters hired by a Russian-American Company descended on the island. They proceeded to decimate not only the otter population, but the interlopers occupied themselves by raping the native women and killing the men who tried to protect them. 

A massive battle broke out in 1814. And when the dust settled, the once-thriving community of 300 Nicoleño had been whittled down to around a dozen. By the 1830s, that number had dropped to roughly 20 people. Some accounts put the remaining number as low as seven. This opened the door for Christian missionaries to make their move. 

Franciscan friars in Santa Barbara either hoped to rescue the survivors or replace the church's native labor force that was dying by the thousands. In 1835, a schooner named the Peor es Nada or better than nothing arrived at the northern tip of San Nicolas

Every member of the Nicoleño tribe boarded the vessel, except for two-- Juana Maria and a child who was either her brother or her offspring. No one really knows what happened. 

The Woman Who Inspired "Island Of The Blue Dolphins"

Some versions of the story have her staying behind looking for a missing child. Others have her dramatically jumping off the boat when she realized the child wasn't with her. But the earliest accounts said that Juana Maria simply didn't make it on board. And what happened next is still a mystery

According to romanticized versions, several boats went back but came up empty-handed. Others said there was a storm that wouldn't allow for a rescue attempt. One said Captain Charles Hubbard and his men were unable to go back because they had to deliver a shipment of lumber to Monterrey and there were no other ships available to make the journey. It's more likely that no rescue attempt was considered. 


Also Read: The Siberian Woman Lived In Isolation For 35 Years

Every story more dramatic than that didn't surface until the 1880s. Regardless, Juana was presumed dead by the members of her tribe. Occasionally, a sailor reported seeing a solitary woman on one of the Channel Islands running towards them and waving her arms as they passed. A 49er sailing to California during the Gold Rush even wrote about her in his journal. 

A year later, an otter hunter reported seeing her hut. George Nidever's effort to corroborate the story bore little fruit. He saw some footprints in the sand and a basket on one of his trips, but it wasn't until 1853 on his third trip to the island that he and his hunting party found a basket of tools. 

Thinking the owner of the basket was deliberately eluding them, the men dumped the contents on the ground. When they returned later, everything was back in the basket. A few hours after that, they found Juana herself. And at this point, she was around 50 years old. She wore a garment that was fashioned out of green cormorant skins and had constructed a hut made of whalebone. 

In fact, her surroundings looked as civilized as could be considering her situation. There was a seal blubber drawing on the poles. She had a brush fence and even had some domesticated dogs. Everything in the village would be handled by men or women of the tribe had been expertly handled by Juana. 

She warmly greeted the visitors, sharing her food with them, and excitedly spoke in a language that nobody could understand. But that didn't stop them from striking up a friendship. Juana kept them company during the three weeks they hunted on the island helping them around their camp and showing them around the place that she had called home. 

Juana Maria | The Woman Who Inspired Island Of The Blue Dolphins

When it was time for them to leave, the woman that they had taken to calling Better than Nothing needed little convincing to pack up her few belongings and join them. Friars gave Juana Maria her name, but we'll never know what her actual name was. No other tribe could understand her. And no one from her tribe lived long enough to be there for her arrival in Santa Barbara

While she was staying with Nidever and his wife, Juana is said to have used sign language to describe how her child had been killed by wild dogs. But even that tragic tale didn't diminish her friendly demeanor or her fascination with her new surroundings. 

She had never seen things like horses before. Legend has it she thought a horse and its rider were one beast and she was shocked when the man dismounted. Because her diet on the island had been limited, Juana was enamored with things like fresh fruit, coffee, and alcohol. Everyone around her fed off her enthusiasm. 

Island of the Blue Dolphins

Juana's new food preferences were considered interesting enough to make the papers. The language barrier and the uninhibited nature she developed by spending almost two decades by herself turned Juana into a curiosity for the public. 

She took it all in stride, though happily performing her native songs and dances for anyone who would visit. But as was common with indigenous people being introduced into a new environment, her immune system was weak. And Juana passed away a mere seven months later from dysentery. To make matters worse, nearly all of her belongings were destroyed in the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. 

But Scott O'Dell's 1960 novel Island of the Blue Dolphins took inspiration from her tale and helped keep her legend alive. The novel's premise, much like the real-life story, centers on the mysterious woman who braved the wilds of nature and against all odds survived alone on an island for 18 years.

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