Late last year, U.S. Navy Air Systems Command archaeologist Steven Schwartz discovered a hidden cave on San Nicolas Island. The most remote of the Channel Islands, lying 60 miles off the Ventura County coast, San Nicolas is 22 square miles of barren terrain, a sand-flecked speck stranded in the blue. There’s a missile-tracking installation for the Navy there now. Even though evidence points to a near-continuous presence of islanders dating back 8,000 years, the Channel Islands remain tight-fisted with their secrets – secrets veiled by earth, time and entropy.

Schwartz has, for more than 20 years, been looking for one cave in particular: that of Lone Woman, the inspiration for Scott O’Dell’s 1960 Newbery Medal-winning novel The Island of the Blue Dolphins. He’d collected old survey maps that pointed to a place that couldn’t be seen by modern-day explorers. Thanks to recent survey notes brought to his attention, Schwartz realized that he was on the verge of discovering the lost cave dwelling of the Nicoleño tribeswoman, stranded since 1835 after bloody conflicts raged between her Nicoleño tribe and traveling Aleutian otter hunters. It was a war of attrition that left her as the last Nicoleño on the island. The rest were taken to the mainland by a ship sent by Franciscan friars.

She stayed behind, legend maintained, because she had jumped overboard to go back for her infant child — untrue. Grimmer lore insisted that on returning, she’d found that wild dogs (which she befriends in the sanitized 1964 film version of the book) had devoured the child — also untrue. After years of rumors of her existence, she was finally found and taken to Santa Barbara in 1853. When she’d arrived on the mainland, people around her understood neither her songs nor her language. She became, at that point, a curiosity, much like other captive natives who were prodded and paraded during the latter-day Age of Enlightenment that was the 19th century. Seven weeks later, she was dead of dysentery. Renamed Juana Maria, she was baptized and buried at the Santa Barbara Mission. Becoming civilized, it seemed, did not agree with Lone Woman.

Reading The Island of the Blue Dolphins has become a rite of passage for children of a certain age, assigned reading in elementary schools for the past half-century. It is a 6.5 million-copy bestseller that has captured the imaginations of so many children over the decades — and it is the nature of imagination to become curious to see if there’s something more factual behind the fiction. It’s said that legends often contain within them a kernel of truth — and kernels, being what they are, are naturally rather difficult to find. But Steven Schwartz’s team of intrepid diggers, who have spent much of their lives researching Native American culture and life along the California coast, are doing just that. Schwartz and curatorial colleague Lisa Thomas-Barnett spoke recently about the history and latest developments at the dig.


Photo by Chuck Graham
The view from Vizcaino Point on San Nicolas Island.


What is life like on San Nicolas Island today, and what was life like in Lone Woman’s day?

Steven Schwartz: Isolated. There’s certainly a lot more infrastructure today, but it’s still difficult to get out there. You can kind of see the mainland from there at times — 20 percent of the time, if that.

Lisa Thomas-Barnett: … water shortages, food shortages …

Schwartz: … very isolated, and difficult to get to, even with all our modern technology. In her day, probably not any contact with people from other places more than a couple of times a year.  At certain times, people would get together to trade and interact, but still, that would have been pretty limited.

Over the 8,000 years it’s been estimated people have lived there, has the topography changed?

Schwartz: Well, I think it has definitely changed in the last couple hundred years. Shortly after Lone Woman was removed, a sheep ranch was established, and the sheep ranch did quite well at first — until they brought more sheep and even more sheep, and there was a big drought in the 1860s. At that time, they literally ate all the vegetation that was on the island — which allowed for all the sand dunes that had become stabilized to start moving again, and it became really desolate. It’s only the past 40 to 50 years that vegetation has really started coming back in earnest and really establishing itself — but in that 100 years or so of sheep ranching, they lost a lot of topsoil. Massive quantities of sand and sand dunes were just blown away.

So how long between Lone Woman’s removal and the establishment of the sheep ranch?

Schwartz: About four years.


Laboratory excavation of the boxes slowly reveals the contents. Visible on the top is one of the redwood planks that comprised the box itself. In the large abalone shell are two eccentric fishhook-like ornaments the likes of which have never been seen before. Bird bone hair pins are visible along with a notched bone shaft that would have had a stone or metal tip. The object in the center is a stone smoking pipe. Ground stone blades can be seen just emerging in the lower right corner. Also found were a variety unmodified shells and bones.


Was that coincidental?

Schwartz: 1857 was when the sheep ranch was first established, and she was removed in 1853.  There’s some speculation that part of the impetus for removing the islanders was to make it available. Now, according to local legend, they didn’t really even know she was there. Everyone had assumed she had long died anyway. I’m not sure there’s a real direct connection there, but there’s some thought that removing the natives from the island would make it more available for economic pursuits.

What did you know about The Island of the Blue Dolphins mythos going into this?

Schwartz: When we started this, everyone had read the book, and we started to realize there was a lot of conflicting information — and some of it is just plain bad — so we started reading more and more carefully. And there is talk about Lone Woman living in a cave from very early on. I think everyone just got fixated on the fact that she found in this brush hut, and just ignored that, while she was found in a brush hut, it’s not a place where anyone lives. She lived in a cave nearby. People looked around and couldn’t find a cave, so they didn’t know what to make of that. So no one’s really had the time out there that we’ve had to be able to keep chipping away at that question.

Thomas-Barnett: People thought that she lived at the Cave of (Killer) Whales. They could never find another cave.

What made you start looking for Lone Woman?

Schwartz: We’d looked at the story (of Lone Woman), looked at the historical records, trying to find early accounts, to find any early archival information that would go along with the story to flesh the story out more. I don’t think we really had any aspirations that we were going to find her archaeologically. That seemed like a real needle in a haystack, with all the archaeology there — and for someone who was only there for 18 years by herself, it just never seemed really realistic.  So we never really set out to do that — it just kind of happened to fall in our laps with the discovery that Lisa made of the redwood boxes; the whole cache of artifacts that quite likely are hers, or at least her family’s artifacts. That was just sheer dumb luck. It was just way beyond what we’d ever expected.

Thomas-Barnett: And the thing about going through accounts and documents, trying to get the most accurate picture of Juana Maria, because there’s so much bad information out there about her, is just trying to figure out what’s fact and what’s fiction.


Cal State University, Los Angeles, archaeology students help out clear a cave that has been said to the home of Juana Maria, who was abandoned alone on San Nicolas Island for 18 years.


So what are some of those misconceptions?

Thomas-Barnett: That she was Chumash. (laughs) That she had a kid that was killed by dogs in the half-hour she was gone (on the Franciscan rescue ship). That she had zero contact in the 18 years she was out there; usually a boater did see her every once in a while.

Schwartz: Her child shows up in some of the accounts, but not in the earliest accounts. It kind of sounds a little like the story, as it matured, became a little more romanticized as elements get added to it. 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 … so many different versions that it doesn’t really give you a whole lot of confidence that there’s any real truth to that. And then as we look at the historical record, we find that the number of (natives) involved is a very small number. Four people were taken off the island — four people get on a boat and one kid gets left behind? That just seems a little bit far-fetched. I don’t know of any mother who’d leave a small child; not know where the child was when she was packing up to leave the island. So the story doesn’t really hold a lot of water. The story gets more and more flowery as the years go on. None of these accounts are by anyone who was actually there at the time.

Thomas-Barnett: And remember, no one could speak her language. I’m not really sure how she would convey through pantomime that, “Hey, 18 years ago when I took off for a half-hour, my domestic dogs ate my baby.” The dogs on the island were domesticated, by the way.


Do you have any insights as to what Lone Woman was like as a person?

Schwartz: That’s hard to say. So far, the best indication we have is, there was a newspaper reporter who went to Santa Barbara and saw her and spoke with George Nidever, the captain of the boat that took Lone Woman from the island. When they got her back to Santa Barbara, Nidever left her with his wife. And the reporter sat and talked with his wife — and that gives us a little more information. Apparently Lone Woman was quite happy — she was brought into this whole new world; she would sing and dance quite a bit. They had a lot of difficulty getting her to sleep in a bed; they had trouble getting her to sleep inside the house. They basically kind of had to drag her inside because she’d always had that outdoor life. 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. She didn’t care for bread.  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. The first thing she saw that really amazed her was a horse. 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.

How much of your time have you devoted to this search?

Schwartz: I’d been working out here on the island for about 24 years. I haven’t spent my entire time looking for her, but every so often a piece of information pops out, and we’ll track that down and get excited. A day or two a year, something kind of happens — in the last five years or so, things have really started to happen. A lot of new information comes forward, a lot of archival information. Newspaper articles we’d managed to track down, and then we’d had the discovery of the redwood boxes — a whole cache of artifacts – and then finally being able to locate where the cave was. That’s all been the last three years. It’s all kind of been building up over the years.


Cal State professor René Vellanoweth and Navy archaeologist Lisa Thomas-Barnett carefully excavate redwood box contents in lab.


So what’s the fascination with San Nicolas Island for you?

Schwartz: I think it’s still a really interesting place. It’s isolated, it’s kind of exotic. It’s always been that way; not many people have been there or had the opportunity to go out there. The archaeology is tremendous; there’s been a lot of archaeology done over the years. A lot of it is unpublished. We’ve been very lucky in finding a lot of notes and photographs over the years and knitting it together. It’s kind of like a giant detective story.

Who else is on the team that’s helping you?

Thomas-Barnett: There’s also Rene Vellanoweth, the chair of the anthropology department at Cal State, Los Angeles. We’re also talking to the Russian archives to explain the early part of the story. We work with various other museums, other archaeologists, other historians. It’s been Rene and Lisa and me for the past 20 years, but there’s a lot of other people who work diligently.

What was it like for you when you first found what you thought were the artifacts?

Thomas-Barnett: It wasn’t something we were looking for — we stumbled across it. It was quite mind-blowing. We were looking at somebody else’s project. When we were actually taking the artifacts out of the box, there’s about three hours of film footage of me and Rene sitting across from each other, brushing things away, and this stuff was coming out, and it was just hours of “Have you ever seen one of those before? I’ve never seen one like that!” And we really thought that between these two little wooden boxes, we were going to get about two dozen artifacts — it was closer to 200. One box alone had something like 170 artifacts. Not only local native artifacts, but there were Aleutic Indian artifacts in there, and arrow points made from bottle glass. We’d never found a composition like this, ever out there.


Juana Maria’s grave marker at the Santa Barbara Mission. 


Where were the artifacts found?

Thomas-Barnett: Away from the cave. It was hidden on the edge of a cliff, and there was a little niche there and there were the two boxes full of artifacts, three water bottles and a couple of other individual artifacts stuffed behind the boxes — possibly so they didn’t get robbed by Aleutian Indians or fur traders coming by, or random boaters. Or maybe that was just normal to stash stuff around the island. It’s a hard-to-reach spot, not easily seen. That’s one of the reasons we’re thinking that it’s Juana Maria’s: she kept gathering up all these artifacts after the Aleutic Indians left, but she wouldn’t know how to replicate them, but she could hide them off so no one else could take them. They would have had great value for her.

How does this rank with your other Native discoveries along the California coast?

Thomas-Barnett: That’s the pinnacle. (laughs) It really doesn’t get any better than that, to find something that has not only local Native material but foreign Native American artifacts in it, and then proof of contact with Europeans, Russians or other islands.

Schwartz: It’s very rare in archaeology, at least in this part of the world, to be able to pinpoint any find to a specific individual. To have such a narrow time period that you’re looking at, this is exactly what we’d need to find, to pinpoint the context of these finds. It’s just something you never find around here.