Island of the Blue Dolphins Cave is Found


Arts & Culture

The Island of the Blue Dolphins was my home; I had no other.

After more than twenty years of searching, a Navy archaeologist believes he has found the cave on San Nicolas Island occupied by The Lone Woman—better known to many as the protagonist of Scott O’Dell’s 1960 classic, Island of the Blue Dolphins. The Newberry Medal–winner was based on the true story of a Native American woman left behind when the rest of the Nicoleño tribe was evacuated from the channel islands by missionaries after the population was decimated by Russian fur traders; one story has it she returned to the island to search for her missing child.

The Lone Woman passed into legend and was reportedly glimpsed throughout the next eighteen years by passing ships off the California coast. In 1853, Captain George Nidever encountered the woman on San Nicolas. In his memoirs, he related that 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.” A Sacramento paper reported on the finding of the woman whom the missionaries unceremoniously rechristened Juana Maria:

The wild woman who was found on the island of San Nicolas about 70 miles from the coast, west of Santa Barbara, is now at the latter place and is looked upon as a curiosity. It is stated she has been some 18 to 20 years alone on the island. She existed on shell fish and the fat of the seal, and dressed in the skins and feathers of wild ducks, which she sewed together with sinews of the seal. She cannot speak any known language, is good-looking and about middle age. She seems to be contented in her new home among the good people of Santa Barbara.

But after only seven weeks, unaccustomed to the diet of the mainland, she died of dysentery. (O’Dell spared his protagonist, Karana—and his young readers—this fate.) She was buried at Mission Santa Barbara. But despite her “discovery,” and the fact that an 1879 map of San Nicholas was clearly marked with the words “Indian Cave,” no one had ever been able to find the Lone Woman’s shelter on the twenty-two-mile island.

Now, Steve Schwartz believes he has. According to the L.A. Times,

“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.

Excavators have also come across a stash of tools, which may have belonged to the Lone Woman.

Cave, image via Los Angeles Times.