Collecting and sharing the folktales & ghost stories of Southern California. 

These are our stories. Let us tell them once more & re-enchant our world.

Episode 5: THE LONE WOMAN OF SAN NICOLAS ISLAND with guest Dr. René L. Vellanoweth

Susan Burns

20 Jul, 2016


The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island is known by many names and is yet an enduring mystery.



Today's guest is professor and coastal archaeologist Dr. René L. Vellanoweth.

Watch Dr. Vellanoweth's presentation:

"Stranded at Home: Archaeology, History and the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island"

Juana Maria's "Toki Toki" song, sung by Fernando Librado Kitsepawit.

Scott O'Dell's Island of the Blue Dolphins is available at Amazon.


Dr. René L. Vellanoweth

Dr. John Johnson

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History

James Conroy

Podcast Garden

Music and Sound Effects courtesy of


The wild woman who was found on the island of San Nicolas about 70 miles from the coast, west of Santa Barbara, is now at the latter place and is looked upon as a curiosity. It is stated she has been some 18 to 20 years alone on the island. She existed on shell fish and the fat of the seal, and dressed in the skins and feathers of wild ducks, which she sewed together with sinews of the seal. She cannot speak any known language, is good-looking and about middle age. She seems to be contented in her new home among the good people of Santa Barbara.

- October 13, 1853, Daily Democratic State Journal- Sacramento


A century and a half later and that short news article still sums up all of the facts we really know about this mysterious woman who has become legend.  No one will ever know her real name, her real age or how she really came to be left alone on that island for all that time.  The artifacts of her life, which she brought with her when she came from San Nicolas Island to Santa Barbara, were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The cormorant feather dress she had worn while living on the island was reportedly sent to the Vatican, but was subsequently lost. There is not a trace of her in this world to be found - except for the stories… Many of which conflict. None of which are told from her point of view. But what they all have in common is an utter captivation for the last member of the Nicoleño tribe, the female Crusoe, the wild woman, “Karana”, the lost woman, Juana Maria Better-Than-Nothing… the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island.  

The Channel Islands sit off the coast of Southern California between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Native Americans began colonizing


the island chain at least 10,000 years ago. At the time of their first contact with the European settlers, there were two distinct ethnic groups occupying the archipelago: the Chumash, who lived on the Northern Channel Islands (made up of San Miguel island, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz island and Anacapa), and the Tongva, who lived on the Southern Islands (made up of Santa Barbara island, Santa Catalina, San Clemente island, and San Nicolas). San Nicolas is the most remote of the Channel Islands. Semi-arid and largely barren, it lies about 53 miles off the coast of Los Angeles.

At the time that the Chumash and the Tongva inhabited the islands, the waters and shores of the Channel Islands were rich in abalone, whale, fish and sea otter - which supplied the islands’ residents with plenty of food and goods to trade. It was the Tongva who lived on San Nicolas (as well as several other places in and around what is now Los Angeles) – and they were skilled sailors. They were adept at using canoes to trade with neighboring tribes like the Gabrielinos and the Chumash – so getting on and off the island was not a problem for them. It’s worth noting that the Tongva language is now extinct, but they are one of about 30 Native American groups whose language is classified as Uto Aztecan – which basically means that it includes both the Ute language of Utah and the Aztecan languages of Mexico (I promise that this will all become fascinating to you later).

In the early 1540s, Portuguese conquistador Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo explored the California coast, and claimed it on behalf of Spain. Roughly 60 years later, in 1602, Spanish explorer Sebastian Vizcaino landed on San Nicolas and reported it densely populated with the natives we know now as Tongva, but at the time were called by the island-specific name Nicoleños. Not much is known about the San Nicolas islanders from 1602 to 1800 except that by 1800 the population had declined substantially.

Probably by no coincidence, by the 1800s European settlers were on the scene in force. And while fur had been one of the natural resources that the natives of North America were trading with the new colonists, now the colonists were getting these valuable furs by themselves, and companies were set up to fulfil the demands of the market. One such merchant was the Russian-American Company, which (despite its misleading name) was created and controlled by Russia. In 1811, the company began hunting otters along the Californian coast for their highly valued pelts. They hired between 25-30 Kodiak natives from Sitka (Sheetʼká), Alaska as hunters for an expedition along the southern coast to basically do the dirty work for them while they reaped the profit. The Kodiak crew eventually found themselves on the otter-laden San Nicolas island. The Kodiaks were reportedly left alone on the island to harvest as many otter skins as they could over the course of a year in whatever way they saw fit. In that year’s time, the Kodiaks decimated the otter population and they raped and enslaved many Nicoleño women. Nicoleño men who attempted to protect the women were killed. In 1814, the Kodiaks returned - and this visit ended in the massacre of most of the Nicoleño islanders after a Nicoleño man was accused of killing a Kodiak hunter.  By the time the Kodiaks were finally removed for good, there were less than one hundred Nicoleños left. 

By the early 1830s, the Nicoleño population had further declined. The Catholic missionaries of California’s coast, who regularly took advantage of the various threats to Native Americans in order to draw them into the mission system, decided it was time to “rescue” the remaining island natives and bring them to live in the missions where they were converted to Catholicism and used as laborers.

In November of 1835, at the direction of the California missions, the schooner Peor es Nada (which is Spanish for “Better than Nothing”), left Monterey with instructions to remove the remaining 20 or so people living on San Nicolas. And while the “Better than Nothing” might have arrived on the island as a well-intentioned savior, the truth is that “Nothing at All” might have been the islanders’ preference over what can be only described as a forced eviction. Remember that these were a sea-faring people who regularly traded with other tribes in boats of their own.


Despite whatever their true wishes may have been, the Nicoleños were assembled on the beach by a European captain and then brought on board the Peor es Nada. In one version of what happened next, it is suggested that due to an approaching storm the crew did not conduct a proper head count and sailed away to the mainland hastily - unfortunately leaving at least one person (and maybe two) behind. By other accounts, it was a child who was initially found to be missing among the crowd and, upon this realization, the child’s mother pleaded to be left on the island to find him.  Others say that it was only as the ship was sailing away that the escaping Nicoleños realized that a woman and her child were not on board. The most dramatic version of the story tells of a woman actually boarding the boat along with all of the others, but then diving overboard and swimming back to the island after realizing her younger brother had been left behind. Whatever the actual reasoning was for the woman’s absence on the voyage from San Nicolas to Santa Barbara, someone certainly did know she was missing – because the rumor of there being a woman left alone on the island was there from the beginning. And it persisted.    

Once the Nicoleños arrived on the mainland, they were dispersed to different missions across the Southland… most of them likely dying within a matter of months of minor illnesses for which they had no immunity. It was assumed by many that the lone woman back on the island had suffered a similar fate, or that she had drowned in the turbulent sea. And though there had been a tentative plan to sail the Peor es Nada back to San Nicolas to find her, the ship with the unfortunate moniker sank off the coast of San Francisco a month later.

Over the years, the legend of the lone woman grew. There were occasional sightings by passing sailors, and talk at the missions kept the story alive. But that wasn’t all. Despite the popular theme to this story being that the lone woman had no human contact for the 18 years she was alone on the island - that is not entirely true. Curious adventurers had made a habit of travelling to the island to see for themselves this living folk legend – and at least a handful of them were not disappointed. One of many newspaper articles published about interactions appeared on January 7, 1847 - twelve years after she was left alone on the island and six years before she was brought to the mainland. This is an excerpt from that story which appeared in the Atlas – a newspaper out of Boston.  The author refers to her as “a female Crusoe...” And after bringing their readers up to speed on how she came to be on the island, had this to say of reports of encounters with the lone woman:

“…Since our Crusoe became the sole monarch of the isle, San Nicolas has been visited perhaps ten or twelve different times, by different individuals; there she has continued to be found, with none to dispute her right — alone, solitary and forsaken.

Her dress, or covering, is composed of the skins of small birds, which she kills with stones, and sews them together with a needle of bone and the light sinews of the hair seal, sometimes found dead among the rocks. Her only food is a shell fish, of the muscle species, with now and then a still smaller fish, which the surf sometimes throws on the beach. She never remains long in one spot; but is constantly wandering around the shores of the island, sleeping, which she seldom does, in small caves and crevices in the rocks.

During the last few years, it has been very difficult to obtain any communication with her. At the approach of the white man she flees, as from an evil spirit; and the only way to detain her, is by running her down, as you would the wild goat of the mountain, or the young fawn of the plains.

Those who have seen her at the latest period, report that she appears to have lost all knowledge of language; that she makes only a wild noise altogether inhuman; and, when taken and detained against her will, becomes frightened and restless; that the moment she is liberated, she darts off, and endeavors to secrete herself in the world of grass, or amongst the rocks which hang over the never-ceasing surf.

Every endeavor has been made, and every inducement offered, by different individuals, to prevail upon her to leave the island, but in vain. The only home she appears to desire, is her own little isle. Her last hope, if she has any, is, to finish her journey alone. She has no wish now, to hear again the sweet music of speech. Its sounds are no longer music to her ear — and, as for civilized man, his tameness is shocking even to her dormant senses.

To all appearance, she is strong, healthy, and content to be alone. What can reconcile her to her lot, who can conjecture? Humanity may hope that contentment may continue to be hers, to the last hour; for she is destined to lie down and die alone, on the cold shore of her isolated home, with no one to administer to her last wants, and none to cover her cold body, when the spirit shall have left the day...”

Visits from curious adventurers continued. And in around 1850, an otter hunter who had visited the island claimed to have found her hut. That same year, Father José González Rubio of the Santa Barbara Mission paid a man named Thomas Jeffries $200 to find the lone woman and bring her back to the mainland – but Jeffries too was unsuccessful. However, the tales that Jeffries told upon his return captured the imagination of yet another adventurer: George Nidever, a Santa Barbara fur trapper and accomplished sailor.

Nidever was already familiar with the Channel Islands, having made many trips out to hunt game.  And so he began to take these hunting trips specifically to the San Nicolas Island with the foremost intention of stocking his fur stores – but if he managed to come across the legend herself in his travels, then so much the better.  Nidiver saw nothing on his first trip to the island to indicate that a mystery woman was there at all. But on his second attempt, one of Nidever's men discovered human footprints on the beach and pieces of seal blubber left out to dry. The details of the third trip, in July of 1853, was reported in Captain Nidiver’s memoirs The Life and Adventures of George Nidever.  On this trip, Nidever’s party (which included mainland Native Americans) took a different route on the island, as Nidever was convinced the woman had deliberately eluded him the first two times. His party soon found what they were looking for when they stumbled upon three whalebone huts in a clearing among some sand dunes. They also found a basket filled with cormorant feathers and tools near the shore. In an attempt to prove she was there, they emptied the basket and scattered her things along the ground. When they returned to the spot a few hours later, they found that the basket had been carefully repacked. Shortly thereafter, the lone woman herself was discovered, surrounded by a pack of loyal dogs. Captain Nidever described her appearance:

"The old woman was of medium height but rather thick. She must have been about 50 years old but she was still strong and active. Her face was pleasing, as she was continuously smiling. Her teeth were entire but worn to the gums.... Her covering consisted of a single garment of shag's skin, the feathers out and pointing downwards, in shape resembling a loose gown. It was sleeveless, low in the neck and girded about the waist with a sinew rope. When she stood up, it extended nearly to the ankles. She had no covering on her head. Her hair which was thickly matted and bleached a reddish brown, hung down to her shoulders."

Nidever’s crewman Carl Dittman also recalled the moment of discovery:

"She was seated cross legged on the ground and was engaged in separating the blubber from a piece of seal skin which was lying across one knee and held by one hand. In the other hand she grasped a rude knife, a piece of iron hoop thrust into a rough piece of wood for a handle....Outside there was a high pile of ashes and bones showing that she had lived in this place for some time. Baskets of grass and vessels of the same material made in the shape of a flagon and lined with asphaltum, used to hold water, were scattered about. On a sinew rope stretched between two poles several feet above the ground were hanging pieces of seal blubber, while near her was the head of a seal from which the brains already putrid were running."

Unable to speak her language or understand her name, the men called her "Better-Than-Nothing," presumably in honor of the ship she had allegedly jumped off of all those years before, and… well, they had to call her something. The Nidever party stayed on the island for a month, hunting otter and learning about the woman's life by watching her hunt and prepare food.

As a gift of sorts, the crew stuffed a seal for the woman, which she was delighted by: "She hung it by a string to the roof of her hut," Dittman remembered, "and lying on her back under it would amuse herself for hours at a time by swinging it backwards and forwards."

Although no one could understand the language she spoke, Nidever claimed that she had used hand signs to tell him her child was killed and torn to pieces by the wild dogs that dominated the island.  That may or may not be true, but what was eventually witnessed by everyone on the mainland was that Better-Than-Nothing talked and sang incessantly and was an adept singer. Nidever’s crewmen were impressed with her resourcefulness -- she kept every scrap of food she could, saving the bones so that she could suck them to the marrow. She helped them find fresh water and firewood, and showed Nidever how to make a water proof jug using heated stones and asphaltum. According to Nidever, when it was time to leave she boarded the ship willingly, her clothes and one large basket filled with tools and trinkets being the only remnants of her former life.


Upon the group's return to Santa Barbara, the woman was astonished by early 1800’s civilization - particularly with European clothing and food. She was dumbstruck by ox-carts and all the many horses. When she saw a man on a horse for the first time, she thought they were one creature. She was so amazed when the rider dismounted that she had to go over and touch them both.

Eventually, she was taken to the Santa Barbara Mission, but was still unable to communicate with anyone. The local Chumash Indians could not understand her, so the mission sent for a group of Tongva who had formerly lived on Santa Catalina Island - but they were unsuccessful as well. In an effort to try to decipher her speech or find someone else who spoke it, unidentified people were able to transcribe four of the woman’s words during her short stay in Santa Barbara: "tocah" (animal hide), "nache" (man), "toygwah" (sky) and "puoochay" (body). But having no luck finding anyone at the Santa Barbara Mission to bridge the language gap, Captain Nidever took Better-Than-Nothing to stay at his home, where she was nursed by his wife Sinforosa Sanchez Nidever. Word spread of her arrival and soon “half the town came down to see her." Nidever was offered a chance to display her as a circus sideshow and, to his credit, he declined.

Better-Than-Nothing apparently enjoyed visits by curious Santa Barbara residents, singing and dancing for her audiences. After so many years alone, the woman seemed thrilled to be with people once again. One of the songs she sang is now known as the "Toki Toki" song. Knowledge of this song came from a Ventureño man named Malquiares, another otter hunter belonging to Nidever's expedition to the island and heard the Lone Woman sing it.  Malquiares later recited the words to a friend Fernando Kitsepawit Librado. In 1913, Librado sang it to a linguist/ethnologist who recorded it on wax cylinders. These are the lyrics:

Toki Toki yahamimena (repeat 3 times)
weleshkima nishuyahamimena (repeat 2 times)
Toki Toki...(continue as above)

Librado also recited the words to a Cruzeño man named Aravio Talawiyashwit, who translated them as "I live contented because I can see the day when I want to get out of this island." However, given the lack of any other information on the woman's language, this translation's accuracy is clearly dubious, or perhaps it was an intuitive guess. 

The Lone Woman of San Nicolas became an object of fascination. A paper of the day reported every tiny bit of information they could find out about her, including that she was “very fond of shellfish, coffee, and liquor of every sort.” Everyone was impressed with her attitude. She was kind, "always in good humor and sang and danced, to the great delight of the children..." She often visited town and rarely returned without some present having been given her. She was also continually given gifts by visitors to the Nidever home, which she would accept effusively and then give to the Nidever children. 

Unfortunately, as was often the case for native people in the New World," her "rescue" would soon lead to her death. Just seven weeks after arriving on the mainland, Better-Than-Nothing became ill with symptoms of dysentery. Nidever claimed that after years of little access to nutritious food, her newfound fondness for green corn, fresh fruit and rich desserts caused the fatal illness – but more than likely she came into contact with a virus for which she had no immunity. Upon her death, the Fathers from the Mission, who had visited her regularly, christened her with the name “Juana Maria” – which was most certainly better than Better-than-Nothing and is how she is popularly referred to today. She was buried in the cemetery at Mission Santa Barbara in an unmarked grave. 


There is some disagreement in history as to whether the grave Juana Maria was buried in was a group grave used for Native Americans at the time or the Nidever family plot. Either way, her burial is recorded in the book of burials of Santa Barbara Mission by Father González Rubio, as entry # 1183. Juana Maria's water basket, clothing and various artifacts, including bone needles which had been brought back from the island, were made part of the collections of the California Academy of Sciences -  but were reportedly destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. It was said that a mission priest sent her famous feathered dress to Rome, but researchers have found no indication that it was ever received by the Vatican Museum. Upon her interment, Father González Rubio made the following entry in the Mission's Book of Burials:

"On October 19, 1853 I gave ecclesiastical burial in the cemetery to the remains of Juana Maria, the Indian woman brought from San Nicolas Island and, since there was no one who could understand her language, she was baptized conditionally by Fr. Sanchez."  

In 1928, a plaque commemorating her was placed at the site by the Daughters of the American Revolution.

As for San Nicolas Island, it has remained a lonely place since Juana Maria’s rescue. Basque sheep herders occasionally lived there in isolation. By 1937, there was also a small Navy compound on the island, where radio operators sent weather reports to the mainland.

In 1939, archaeologists re-discovered Juana Maria's whale-bone hut on the northernmost end of San Nicolas, the highest point of the island. The location of the hut exactly matched the descriptions left by Captain Nidever.


In 2012, Navy archaeologist Steven J. Schwartz reported finding a site that may have been Juana Maria's cave and, in 2013, archaeologists discovered a cache of artifacts eroding from a sea cliff on the northwest coast of San Nicolas - where Juana Maria is believed to have spent much of her time. The cache consists of two redwood boxes containing more than 200 artifacts, including bird-bone pendants, abalone shell dishes and fish hooks, sandstone abraders, red ochre, glass fragments, a harpoon tip and nails, and soapstone ornaments. Whether any of these things actually belonged to Juana Maria, or whether they are artifacts from the population that lived there before her years of isolation is unclear – but they are beautiful and fascinating nonetheless.



Over the years, the remains of at least 469 individuals and 436 funerary objects have been unearthed on San Nicolas Island. Some are in a facility on the island, but the bulk of them were scattered among six different museums in the state of California. In March 2015, the U.S. Navy published findings that the Nicoleños shared a "group identity" with the modern-day Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians. This determination was made based on a UCLA study by linguist Pamela Munro that the Toki Toki song that Juana Maria used to the sing and the four words of hers that were recorded before her death, connected the Nicoleño language with that of the Luiseño Indians (Luiseños is one of several Spanish names given to groups by the Catholic fathers based on their proximity to the Missions – in this case, the Mission San Luis Rey de Francia. In reality, the people the Catholic father called the Luiseños, called themselves Payómkawichum at the time. There are six federally recognized tribes of Luiseño bands in Southern California today.). In the 1800’s, the Luiseños was one of several groups that traded with the San Nicolas islanders and their language likely had some influence.


Because of the result of the Navy’s findings, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians now has rights to those remains and items. The Pechanga Band does not have control over the cave, but the Navy's finding of "shared group identity" means that they get to say who gets to dig where. For now, they have halted all archaeological research on the island. “What (this) decision means is that nearly 500 human remains, and hundreds of burial and sacred items will finally be afforded the respect and dignity they have long deserved under federal law,” said Pechanga Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro in a UT-San Diego story.

Not everyone is happy about the news. In 2012, a crew of archaeologists were "inches away from relics that would flesh out the real-life story" of Juana Maria, according to the Los Angeles Times, when they were ordered to halt their dig.

San Nicolas Island is now a naval base, home to munition sites and special installations. It is closed to the public and is rarely mentioned in profiles of the Channel Islands. While it is officially uninhabited, and used by the Navy for weapons testing, but due to Naval operations there is a presence of around 200 people at any given time.


The legend of Juana Maria, however, lives on. Scott O’Dell’s classic children's book The Island of the Blue Dolphins, which based on Juana Maria’s story, is still read by thousands of school children every year.

But Karana (as she was named by Scott O’Dell), or Juana Maria (as the fathers at the Mission called her), or Better–than-Nothing (as she was nicknamed by Nidever’s men), or the Lone Woman (as she is known to history), lost all traces of her true self upon the shores of San Nicolas. We’ll never know if she really intended to be left behind by the others, or if she truly wanted to return to Santa Barbara with Captain Nidever. All we have are the stories from others – mere shadows of a folk legend who suddenly became flesh and just as quickly evaporated back into lore. But while the truth will never be known, the legend will never be forgotten. I suppose that’s better than nothing.



California Missions Resource Center 

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History 

Mears, Hadley. “Juana Maria Better-than-Nothing: The Strange Tale of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island”. KCET. July 30, 2015  


Dhwty. “Juana Maria, the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island“. March 14, 2015. 

“'Island of the Blue Dolphins' Woman Connected to Pechanga Band, Says Navy”. Indian Country Today Media Network. March 5, 2015. 

SCORE History/Social Science Project 



-The portrait of the Tongva woman was taken by Santa Barbara Mission photographers Edwin J. Hayward and Henry W. Muzzall and may depict Juana Maria. The photograph was found alongside a picture of Maria Sinforosa Ramona Sanchez Nidever (1812–1892), George Nidever's wife, with whom Juana Maria had lived after arriving on the mainland. The photograph is now held at the Southwest Museum of the American Indian.

- Statue of Juana Maria and child in Santa Barbara, California at the intersection of Victoria and State Street.

 - A plaque commemorating Juana Maria at Santa Barbara Mission cemetery, placed there by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1928.

-Juana Maria Language Table and Native American Tribal Map are from the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History exhibit: "Chumash Life".

-Juana Maria's cave, the abalone fishing hook and whalebone hairpin are from the Santa Cruz Island Foundation.



Fact from Fiction

  • ​Despite the persistent story that Juana Maria jumped off the Peor es Nada, no one really know how she came to be left alone on the island.
  • The statue of Juana Maria that sits on a busy intersection in Santa Barbara, shows her holding an infant - presumably the one she lost to feral dogs on the island. But we don't actually know if such a child ever existed.
  • Dysentery is a bacterial borne disease - not something one gets from eating a new diet.  So, it's more likely that Juana Maria died from exposure to germs she had no immunity for - and not merely because she was eating a large amount of fruits and vegetables.
  • Though she is now popularly known as "Juana Maria", this was not a name she was ever called during her life.