Juana Maria, better known to history as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island (her Native American name is unknown), was a Native Californian woman who was the last surviving member of her tribe, the Nicoleño.
The Channel Islands have long been inhabited by humans, with Native American colonization occurring 10,000 years ago or earlier. At the time of European contact, two distinct ethnic groups occupied the archipelago: the Chumash lived on the Northern Channel Islands and the Tongva on the Southern Islands (Juana Maria's tribe, the Nicoleño, were believed to be closely related to the Tongva).
She endured 18 years living alone on a tiny, isolated island 60 miles off the California coast. In 1835, the last remaining Nicoleño people were removed from San Nicolas Island for debated reasons, but possibly related to the mission activities prevalent in California’s early history. When the ship departed, it unintentionally left the woman behind.
She remained there alone, uncontacted and isolated until 1853, when George Nidiver came to the island and located her. He returned with her to Santa Barbara.
Juana was the last surviving member of her tribe, and the last surviving speaker of her language. She spoke no known language, though she would often sing in her native language, the words of which, no one else could speak or comprehend.
Juana Maria was reportedly fascinated and ecstatic upon arrival, marveling at the sight of horses, along with European clothing and food. She was allowed to stay with Nidever, who described her as a woman of "medium height, but rather thick. She was probably about 50 years old, but she was still strong and active. Her face was pleasing as she was continually smiling. Her teeth were entire but worn to the gums."
Juana Maria apparently enjoyed visits by curious Santa Barbara residents, singing and dancing for her audiences. One of the songs Juana Maria sang is popularly called the "Toki Toki" song. Knowledge of this song came from a Ventureño man named Malquiares, an otter hunter who had joined Nidever's expedition to the island and who had heard Juana Maria sing it.
Juana Maria died of dysentery 7 short weeks after coming to the mainland. Her illness was most likely brought on by the drastic change in her diet. Her age was estimated to be in the 50s.
Before she died, Father Sanchez baptized and christened her with the Spanish name Juana Maria. She was buried in an unmarked grave on the Nidever family plot at the Santa Barbara Mission cemetery.
Juana Maria's water basket, clothing and various artifacts, including bone needles which had been brought back from the island, were part of the collections of the California Academy of Sciences, but were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. Her cormorant feather dress was apparently sent to the Vatican, but it appears to have been lost.