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18 years of solitude

Marooned

June 15, 2004|Joe Robinson | Special to The Times

San Nicolas Island — A near-gale screams the loneliness of this remote outpost, an overgrown boulder that's a whipping post for weather sweeping across the Pacific. It's spring, sunny -- and about 45 degrees with wind chill. Winter jackets are zipped to the neck. Gloves would be nice. And you start to wonder how a woman dressed in only cormorant feathers could have survived alone for 18 years in this blasted, treeless landscape where even the ravaged rocks tell you they got a raw deal.
"They found her right around here," shouts Steven Schwartz, an archeologist and environmental planner for the U.S. Navy. Tall, genial and sporting a gray beard circa Kenny Rogers' mid-"Gambler" period, Schwartz is straining to be heard over a thundering wind that delivers the sharp tang of seal droppings from the throng of flippers on the rocks below.
San Nicolas is home to a radar and missile tracking installation, but that's not why Schwartz has marooned himself here every week for the last 15 years. He's been trying to solve a mystery, to rescue from a century and a half of fable, a survivor who came to be known as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 17, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Island location -- An article in Tuesday's Outdoors section said that San Nicolas Island is exiled "well east from the northern and southern Channel Island groups." It is east of some of the northern islands, including Santa Rosa and San Miguel, but west of the southern islands, including Santa Barbara and Santa Catalina.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 22, 2004 Home Edition Outdoors Part F Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
Island location -- An article in last week's Outdoors section said that San Nicolas Island is exiled "well east from the northern and southern Channel Island groups." It is, indeed, east of some of the northern islands, including Santa Rosa and San Miguel, but west of the southern islands, including Santa Barbara and Santa Catalina.

Schwartz waves his arm to indicate the area where she was discovered in 1853: a scene of rolling dunes, blown down to the bedrock in places and upholstered in 2,000-year-old abalone shells.

The Lone Woman's ancestors left the shells here at what is now one of the richest archeological sites in the U.S. They are reminders of 8,000 years of indigenous settlement on Ghalas-at, as the inhabitants called their island. An arid plateau ringed by cliffs and thick tangles of kelp, the island was protected from invaders through the years by its lack of safe harbors.

Then, in the early 19th century, the world's lust for otter coats led Russian fur traders to drop off armed native Alaskan hunters. They were supposed to stay for a few weeks, but the outing turned into a year. The stir-crazed Alaskans are said to have gone on a rampage, wiping out most of the local men. By 1835 a population that once numbered 300 had shrunk to just seven.

Though the Nicolenos had been self-sufficient since Europeans were scratching on cave walls, the Santa Barbara Mission decided to sponsor a rescue operation -- or at least that's the conventional wisdom. Schwartz notes that the missions had a high fatality rate among their Indian workers, who had no immunity to European diseases. The padres may have wanted to replenish their labor force.

A schooner under the helm of Capt. Charles Hubbard sailed for the island, arriving off its rugged northern tip. The crew set out across the dunes, rounded up six of the natives and took them back to the ship. But, as the vessel bucked offshore in a swelling storm, one woman remained unaccounted for.

Some sources say the woman was "away in the mountains," while the most popular explanation would become the defining, mythic tale. In this version, the woman boards the ship but then, as it heads for open waters, realizes that her child has been left behind. Desperate, she plunges over the rail into roiling waves to save her daughter.

Schwartz has scoured the literature, artifacts and museums to separate the facts from embroidery. "The story of her jumping overboard does not show up until the 1880s," he says. "By then the Victorian era is well underway, and literature takes on a flowery, even romantic flavor."

The more likely scenario: With the storm threatening to slam the schooner onto the rocks and the Indians probably wracked by their abduction, the crew panicked and turned the rudder back toward the mainland without doing much of a head count. "The earliest firsthand accounts simply state that she was mistakenly left behind," says Schwartz.

Out of sight, not mind

Either way, people in the coastal settlements knew that a woman had been abandoned. Why were there no rescue attempts?

The usual alibi is that Hubbard had intended to go back but had orders to take a shipment of lumber to Monterey. Within a month, the schooner had foundered at the entrance to San Francisco Bay, and its crew ditched it. Most accounts blame a lack of available ships in the mid-1830s for the failure of anyone to step in and make the crossing.

Schwartz, who had assembled a stash of shipping data from a former job with the Army Corps of Engineers, didn't buy it. He investigated further with local marine historians.

"There were plenty of boats big enough to get out here," he says. "It didn't take a huge boat. It's just: Was there really reason enough to go back for one Indian?"

So she was left atop a vacant rock to scour the horizon for a human trace and begin a long confrontation with a social animal's deepest fears.

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