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The castaway tribal woman who spent 18 years alone on an island…

Image credit: Babbage CC BY-SA 3.0

If you are fond of castaway tales, the story of a Juana Maria may not only fascinate you immensely but might also break your heart.

The tribal woman was part of Nicoleño, an Aborigines tribe who used to inhabit the Channel Islands, 61 miles off the coast of California. This woman solely survived on her island for 18 years before she was rescued in 1853 by Captain George Nidever, a fur trapper and sailor by trade.

So how did she end up at this deserted island? For centuries, the Nicoleño tribe had no outside contact with the world until a group of Russian fur traders and then the Spanish invaded the island to poach the seals and sea otters. The Catholic missionaries then began trying to convert the outnumbered Nicoleño and also use them as cheap labor.

In 1835, the Mission Santa Barbara sent a ship to evacuate the remaining natives, who were a handful only, from the island. As the legend goes, Juana Maria was either accidentally left behind on the island by the evacuees or jumped from the ship to get back to her baby boy (who was maulled by wild dogs). In either case, she survived on the deserted island for 18 years on her own.

Ships who used to pass closer to the foggy island would report seeing an “apparition” on the shore who would run and wave. Yet no one ever dared to investigate this sighting. In 1853, Captain George Nidever heard about the ghost rumors and became deeply interested. His two trips to the island made him discover human foot prints. During his third visit, he discovered three whalebone huts and Juana Maria sitting cross-legged in front of them.

Years of isolation had taken its toll and her speech had deteriorated to such an extent that her rescuers couldn’t understand her, but she used to communicate through songs and gestures. Maria survived 18 years solely on seal lard and a will of steel. She willingly left the island with Captain Nidever and began living with him. Sadly, she died merely seven month after her rescue due to an infection that her body couldn’t fight off. Read Ian Harvey’s tragic story about Juana Maria here and see how she has inspired a whole generation.


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Not a castaway and wasn't rescued. She hid from the white men who were forcing her people off the island.

For a romanticized version see the movie Island of the Blue Dolphins, 1964.
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