Island of the Blue Dolphins

Am I alone in not realizing that Island of the Blue Dolphins, the book everyone reads in middle school about the girl living alone on a deserted island, is based on a true story? I’m staring into the yawning chasm of my own ignorance here.

The Channel Islands are a group of eight islands 25 miles or so off the coast of California, between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Despite their small size and appreciable distance from the coast, they offer some of the earliest evidence of human settlement and seafaring in North America. The northern islands were home to tribes of Chumash people, who may have numbered 15,000 at their peak, fished for swordfish, and by one lightly-regarded hypothesis were visited by seafaring Polynesians in 500 AD. The southern islands, meanwhile, were home to tribes of Tongva people.

Juana Maria
Juana Maria

The area around LA, and especially the islands, was mostly ignored by the Spanish until the arrival of missionaries near the end of the 18th century (weird to think of this happening while the Revolutionary War was going on on the other coast). Spanish diseases and forcible relocation quickly decimated both tribes. The Nicoleño (Tongva), on the island of St. Nicolas, had mostly escaped this fate until 1811. That’s when a group of Alaskan fur traders rolled in and started a miniature war over sea otters, a detail largely mirrored in Blue Dolphins. By the 1830s as few as seven Nicoleños were left. In what was meant as an act of Christian compassion, a “rescue” ship was sent for them, but the ship’s captain panicked in the face of a storm and left one woman behind.

She stayed there for eighteen years, until a mountain man found her. She was doing just fine, thank you, full of seal meat and ensconced in a whale-bone hut, looking hardly worse for the wear. She went back to the mainland with the man, where contemporaneous accounts tell us she was happy to eat fresh fruit and see, you know, other human beings.

Unfortunately we don’t actually know whether she was happy, distressed, or had been rendered quite mad from two decades of isolation, since there was no one left who spoke her dialect. The others who’d left the island had died within a year of reaching the mainland, and Juana Maria—a name given to her out of convenience since we don’t know hers—died within two months. Christ that’s depressing.

Side note: The Channel Islands are national park now, and archaeologists recently found the cave where she lived. Further reading here, here, and here. More on the Chumash and Tongva people.

Appeared in: island trivia roundup