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L.A. Then and Now

Woman's Lonely Saga Left a Mystery

March 18, 2001|Cecilia Rasmussen

A crew member spotted her high on a ridge, surrounded by several dogs, skinning a seal with a knife made from a piece of iron hoop. Talking to herself as she worked, she occasionally paused to watch the men's progress. Unaware that a crew member was closing in from behind, she first silenced the dogs with a "shrieking cry," then crouched in terror when she saw him.

When all the men were seated around her, she relaxed and served them a meal of roasted

roots. They believed her to be about 40 or 50 years old, of medium height and a "rather thick build." Her hair, once black, was now densely matted and bleached to a dull brown. "Her features were pleasant with an unwrinkled face," wrote Nidever, "but her teeth were worn to the gums." She wore a sleeveless, ankle-length garment tied at the waist and sewn from cormorant skins. A second such dress was in a basket nearby.

After their meal, she placed her belongings in her baskets, which the men carried as she accompanied them back to the schooner. She stopped along the way to wash herself.

For a month, the crew camped on the beach hunting sea otters, while she supplied them with water and firewood and made baskets. The men stuffed a dead sea otter pup and hung it by a string from the ceiling of her shelter.

A crew member who coveted her feather garment sewed her a petticoat of cotton ticking and swapped it, along with a man's shirt and black necktie, for one of her two dresses. One was later sent to the Vatican, where it disappeared.

In Santa Barbara, she moved in with the Nidevers, who protected her from being exhibited as some kind of freak. Although no one understood her, she nonetheless told her story vividly in sign language. She sang and danced for a steady stream of curious guests. She accepted their gifts politely, but when they left, she gave the presents to the Nidever children. She returned the kindness with small gifts of shells, necklaces, bone needles and baskets.

Local Indians tried in vain to converse with her, but no one could understand her language. Messengers were sent to find her kinsmen, but none were located.

Juana Maria's fondness for green corn, vegetables and fresh fruit caused severe attacks of dysentery. In her weakness, she fell from Nidever's porch and injured her spine.

On Oct. 18, 1853, only seven weeks after her arrival, she died. On her deathbed, she was christened Juana Maria. She was buried in the Nidever family plot at the Santa Barbara Mission cemetery. Nearly 75 years later, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a plaque commemorating her.

Nearly a century after her brief sojourn in American civilization, her solitary life became immortalized in the character of Karana in the children's novel "Island of the Blue Dolphins."

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