The lone woman of San Nicolas Island

May 2016
To celebrate O'Dell's birthday we have explored the real-life story that inspired his work
To celebrate O'Dell's birthday we have explored the real-life story that inspired his work.

Today (23 May) is author Scott O'Dell's birthday. He is best-known for his historical fiction works, which include several novels about California and Mexico.

Perhaps the most famous of these is his novel Island of the Blue Dolphins, which was first published in 1960 (and appears on the Kumon Recommended Reading List).

The book's plot is based on the true story of a woman stranded for 18 years on San Nicolas Island, the most remote of California's Channel Islands, and the central character faces many trials that the real woman, Juana Maria, must have faced whilst there.

To celebrate O'Dell's birthday we have explored the real-life story that inspired his work:

Juana Maria was a Native American woman who was the last surviving member of the Nicoleño tribe. She is commonly known as the 'Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island'.

In late November 1835 a ship, under the command of Charles Hubbard, sailed to San Nicolas Island to remove the people living there. Upon arriving, Hubbard's party gathered the tribe and brought them aboard.

According to reports, a violent storm erupted and the ship's crew, fearing imminent danger, sailed off, leaving Juana Maria behind. Although a different account tells of Juana Maria diving overboard after realising her younger brother had been left behind. (This is less likely to be true as it wasn't mentioned until the 1880s, but it is the account told in O'Dell's novel.)

In 1850 Jose Gonzelez Rubio, who was Father of the Santa Barbara Mission, attempted to find Juana Maria. He was unsuccessful, but inspired a further attempt by fur trapper George Nidever.

On George's third expedition to the island, in 1853, he found human footprints on the beach, along with pieces of seal blubber that had been left out to dry. Further investigation led them to find Juana Maria, who was dressed in a skirt made of out feathers. She had been living on the island in a hut made out of whale bones.

Juana Maria was taken to the Santa Barbara Mission, but was unable to communicate with anyone. Recordings of her singing suggested she spoke one of the Uto-Aztecan languages native to Southern California. Juana Maria enjoyed visits by curious Santa Barbara residents, often singing and dancing for those who came to see her.

It is reported that Juana Maria was fascinated with everything she encountered upon her arrival on the mainland; she was in awe of the horses, the clothing, and the food.

She stayed with Nidever, who described her as a woman of "medium height... She must have been about 50 years old, but she was still strong and active. Her face was pleasing as she was continually smiling. Her teeth were entire but worn to the gums."

The story of Juana Maria is so interesting and exciting, and Scott O'Dell's novel beautifully builds up a picture of what life must have been like alone on the island. To celebrate his birthday, why not pick up a copy of Island of the Blue Dolphins and immerse yourself in a story of storms, strength and survival. Happy birthday Scott O'Dell!