Nobody spends two decades without human contact by choice. It happens, but only as the result of horrific situations like the genocide of Indigenous peoples or extreme miscarriages of justice. But there is an exception: Juana Maria. Long before the “man of the hole” was doomed to spend his last 26 years in solitude, Juana Maria was stuck, almost entirely alone, on an island off the coast of California for around 18 years – and the reason, most likely, was sheer luck.
Not much is known for sure about Juana Maria – the woman remembered today as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island. We don’t know what language she spoke, or what her original name was. We do know she was born toward the beginning of the 19th century – although we don’t know exactly which year – and we know she was a member of the Nicoleño tribe, from San Nicolas Island, in the Channel Islands territory of southern California.
Why did she end up living alone for so long? Unlike the man of the hole, she wasn’t the last of her tribe – although she was one of the last. As a child, she would have been witness to a bloody massacre of her tribespeople at the hands of Native Alaskan otter hunters who had sailed from what was then Russian America to hunt for fur.
The Alaskans had lost one of their crewmembers, they said, to a Nicoleño murderer, prompting the killing spree in retribution. By the 1830s, there were only a handful of Nicoleños left – twenty or so at most, according to the recollections of the American frontiersman, explorer and bona fide “mountain man” George Nidever.
So, when a group of Franciscan friars from the mainland’s Mission Santa Barbara sent a schooner named Peor es Nada – literally, “Better than Nothing” – the Nicoleños left the island they’d called home for the last 10,000 years or so. Like so many displaced Americans through the centuries, they ended up in Los Angeles.
Except two of them. Juana Maria stayed behind, along with her young son – and nobody really knows why. Some said it was simply an accident; others that she had jumped off the boat and swum to shore after realizing her son hadn’t boarded.
“It kind of sounds a little like the story, as it matured, became a little more romanticized as elements get added to it,” Steven Schwartz told VC Reporter back in 2013. A U.S. Navy Air Systems Command archaeologist, he had spent his life looking for Juana Maria’s cave dwellings on San Nicolas, and together with a team of archeologists he aimed to put together as much of the facts of Juana Maria’s story as possible – but separating the myth from the truth was never going to be easy.
“You can read where she had a child, you can read where she had two children, you can read where she mistakenly left the child behind, went back to get the child, and found that the child had been eaten by wild dogs, or you can find that she jumped off, swam back to shore, only to find that her child did get on the boat,” he explained. “[There are] so many different versions that it doesn’t really give you a whole lot of confidence that there’s any real truth to that.”
Whatever the reason, the pair were left on the island alone for the next 18 years – several boats returned over the years, but none ever found them. At some point, Juana Maria’s son, now an adult, was attacked by a shark or an orca off the coast of the island and died, leaving his mother alone, nearly 100 kilometers removed from her friends on the mainland.
Eventually, in 1853, Juana Maria was found. She was wearing a dress made of feathers that she had sewn together with sinew, and living in a house made from whale bones and rushes; she seems to have survived on seal fat and fish, and despite this resourcefulness she was immediately dubbed “the wild woman” of San Nicolas.
“The handicraft shown in the manufacture of her needles, sewing stuffs, baskets, water vessels – to make all of which a piece of the blade of an old knife seems to have been her only tool – is certainly curious,” reported the 3 November 1853 edition of the Marysville Daily Herald. “The water jugs are made of split sea-grass woven tightly together in flask form, and the bottom and part of the sides daubed over with asphaltum, springs of which are on the islands. She has a piece of netting made of sinews, some eight feet square, the knitting of which is precisely similar to that made for fishing.”
However, even once she had been taken to the mainland, her isolation continued. “No person has yet been found that can understand or speak her language,” the article noted.
The problem was that, although Los Angeles was home to many Indigenous people by the mid-19th century, the Nicoleño language seems to have been relatively unique – modern analyses based on the very few words we do know she used has placed it as living on the Takic branch of the Uto-Aztecan language family, similar to the Tongva and Tataviam languages that were once widespread across what is now Los Angeles County.
There seem to have been a few people around who were able to talk with Juana Maria, and she was well-known for her songs, but the details of what she said, and what language exactly she said it in, have been lost.
“The first thing she saw that really amazed her was a horse,” said Schwartz. “She’d never seen an animal as big as a horse. To see a person riding a horse must have been something pretty amazing to her.”
Unfortunately, life among others seems not to have agreed with her after near two decades of isolation. She was baptized in October 1853 – a rite we’ll never know if she actually agreed to – shortly before her death from dysentery in Santa Barbara, California. It had been just seven weeks since she left San Nicolas.
She may not have had a long time on the mainland of the new State of America, but accounts suggest she did at least have a good time.
“Apparently Lone Woman was quite happy,” Schwartz said. “She was brought into this whole new world; she would sing and dance quite a bit […] People would come and bring her little gifts, and of course these gifts had no value to her, so she would give them to all the little kids around the house.”
“If you were taken to some far-off land somewhere and plopped down, you’d be kind of amazed and excited about what was going on, too.”