TaleBrent Sumner

Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

TaleBrent Sumner
Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island

Summary of the Story

By Steven Schwartz, US Navy Archaeologist, Retired

The story of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island, or Juana Maria, is well known due in large part to the novel, “Island of the Blue Dolphins” by Scott O’Dell. His version of the story is so well known and so pervasive that it tends to obscure the true story. Scott O’Dell was one of the earliest practitioners of historical fiction. O’Dell actually did a fair amount of research and tells a reasonable version of the story from a children’s perspective; however, much of what we now know about the story of Juana Maria, came to light after publication of “The Island of the Blue Dolphins” and provides us a much clearer accounting of the story. By today’s parlance, the Island of the Blue Dolphins can be characterized as “inspired by a true story”.

The publication of Robert Heizer and Albert Elsasser’s “Original Accounts of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island”, published just one year after O’Dell’s novel, brings together for the first time all of the firsthand accounts of the story known at the time. All of these had been available previously, but by bringing them together, Heizer and Elsasser made this information available to a much wider audience. The other significant source of new information comes from a series of articles by Travis Hudson and Thomas Blackburn published in the 1970s and 1980s, based on information collected by John P. Harrington around the turn of the century from various Chumash informants. These focused primarily on the material culture of the Lone Woman, but also include some songs, and various other tid-bits. In addition to these there have been a variety of lesser articles appearing in a wide variety of journals.

Beginning about 2000 a new wave of historical research started to expand our knowledge and appreciation of the true story. Much new information has come to light; recently discovered Russian documents add to our understanding of the circumstances of Lone Woman’s abandonment, the tragic start of the story; archival research into church and census records document the history of the rest of her tribe removed in 1835; and new historical research adds to our understanding of her life in Santa Barbara, the tragic end of the story. Also new archaeological finds that add details about her isolated life on the island: the search to find the cave where she lived, and the amazing discovery of a cache of artifacts that show how she lived and survived (all recent articles attached). This new wave of historical research continues with a number of new projects underway.


Video Segment : Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island


Image Gallery


Teacher-Created Lessons and Resources


Discussion Questions

Lesson Plan 1
English Language Arts & Social Studies
Grade 4

Lesson Plan 2
English Language Arts
Grades 7-12

Lesson Plan 3
Language Arts, Writing, History
Grades 4-8

Lesson Plan 4
Language Arts, Social Studies, History, Science
Grades 4-8

Additional Resources


3D Scan of Artifacts

3D Scans of artifacts brought by the Lone Woman back to the mainland were made possible through the generous support of:

The Nidever Family Collection (Donut Stone)
Marla Daily - Santa Cruz Island Foundation
The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
(Arrow Head and Abalone Fish Hook)
Jan Timbrook
American Museum of Natural History (Whale Baleen Hairpin)
Dr. David Hurst Thomas, Ph.D, D.Sci, RPA


** 3D object print files available for download below. Please fill out the form to access the files.


Additional Resources


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