If you ever grew up reading Island of the Blue Dolphins then you may have been captured by the amazing story of the main character: a lone woman living out in the Pacific ocean. Her entire tribe left her on an island alone. Well, what you might not know is that this story is actually based on a tragic story: Juana Maria, the lone woman of San Nicholas Island.
Born at some point during the 19th century, she spent a large part of her life completed isolated from all human contact. Though she was finally removed from the island in 1853, her future around other humans and living in society was very brief.
Juana Maria’s story is a tragic reminder of some of the brutalities caused by European colonialism. In 1835, there were only twenty people left in her tribe. Her tribe had inhabited the island for over 10,000 years, but during 1811 a group of local Alaskan or Russian hunters attacked the island. They quickly reduced the tribes 300 strong population down to a couple dozen. And in 1835, the survivors were simply removed by Catholic priests.
The priest’s motivations are not really known, were they saving them or were they simply trying to convert more bodies? Juana Maria was left behind and no one really knows why.
One story is that she was not with the main group and another is she simply jumped off and swam back to the island. Either way, a storm caused the ship to sail off quickly and not return. She was apparently found smiling by Captain George Nidever nearly twenty years later. She was a resourceful woman and was able to live by hunting ducks and seals, building a hut out of whale bones.
Unfortunately, she was the last member of the tribe as the others had perished to diseases, and Juana suffered a similar fate. After so long isolated and alone, her immune system was not ready for human contact. Just a couple of weeks on the mainland and she died from dysentery.