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  • A Children's Book, Nineteenth-Century News, and Multimedia Approaches to American Studies

In Scott O'Dell's Newbery-winning novel Island of the Blue Dolphins (1960), a twelve-year-old protagonist, Karana, flourishes on her natal island when left alone for eighteen years. This memorable children's character did not emerge from O'Dell's imagination unbidden: she is a fictionalization of the historical figure now known as the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island (whose birth name is lost to history). Anthropologists have called her people the Nicoleños, after the Spanish name for their homeland—the most remote of the California Channel Islands. Between 1835 and 1853, one Nicoleña spent eighteen years in relative isolation. Unlike O'Dell's Karana, however, she was an adult, likely between the ages of thirty and fifty, and her experience was anything but an adventure story. The historical Lone Woman's exceptional solitude stemmed from nonexceptional circumstances: the disruption of ecosystems and community because of European trade, resource extraction, and multinational policies of Indian removal and coerced labor.

The two digital projects discussed below publish, on a multimedia platform, the most recent interdisciplinary research on the Lone Woman, the model for O'Dell's Karana and a historical figure who has captivated the American imagination for more than 150 years. The Channel Islands National Park website provides a chapter-by-chapter guide to Island of the Blue Dolphins that links characters, plot, setting, flora, and fauna to their historical counterparts, helping visitors to sort fact from fiction. The Lone Woman and Last Indians Digital Archive traces more than a century of narratives written about the Lone Woman, analyzing how the fiction—mythic elements entangled in the story—is as important as the facts. Together, the websites encourage visitors to think historically and historiographically about a place (the Channel Islands); a person (a nineteenth-century California Indian); and a tradition of American storytelling. They aim to transform the way a widely taught children's book figures in US classrooms, recognizing that literature shapes students' under-standing [End Page 715] of nation as much as, or more than, school textbooks.1 An American studies practice of digital humanities can tap beloved children's books to help develop more complex understandings of the United States as an empire and settler colonial society, as well as a land in which vibrant Native communities persist, despite centuries of oppression and dispossession.

The Lone Woman (ca. 1800–1853) lived through a period of great change. While her ancestors had inhabited San Nicolas for at least eight thousand years, interacting with various California peoples, the community's fate altered as European empires—Spanish, Russian, and American—came into contact with the island and its resources.2 Initial Spanish missionization in California focused on coastal peoples and did not include the Channel Islands, meaning that San Nicolas was mapped and named but otherwise spared; by the early nineteenth century, however, island peoples who had come into contact with trade ships (and diseases) began arriving on the mainland.3 For the Nicoleños, removal was solidified by an 1814 tragedy in which the state-sponsored Russian American Company brought conscripted Alaska Native hunters to the island, leading to a violent confrontation.4 By 1835, when a Mexican schooner arrived to transport the Nicoleños to San Pedro, there were probably fewer than twenty remaining (the Lone Woman and her son, who was likely in middle childhood and later perished, stayed behind, for unknown reasons).5 For the next eighteen years, the Lone Woman hid from visiting hunters and sailors; only in 1853 did she make herself visible, joining a multiethnic hunting party that brought her to Santa Barbara. Once there, she stayed with the American captain, George Nidever, but died seven weeks later.

The three dates in the Lone Woman's story—the 1814 massacre, the 1835 collective removal, and the 1853 departure—correspond to three different political structures in California, a point the Channel Islands National Park website makes clear. In 1814 Southern California was firmly in the hands of the Spanish, whose missions and presidios stretched from San Diego in the south to San Francisco in the north, while Russia held Spanish advancement in check from its fort in present-day Sonoma County. By 1835, however, Mexico had won its independence from Spain. Foreign trade restrictions were lifted and the mission system gradually secularized, a process that yielded lucrative land grants, including on the Channel Islands. When the Lone Woman's people arrived on the mainland in 1835, effectively depopulating San Nicolas, they joined other Native peoples as servants and laborers.6 By the time the Lone Woman arrived eighteen years later, however, Mexico had ceded California and the Russian American Company had abandoned Fort Ross. In American [End Page 716] California, the Lone Woman was less valuable as a servant than as a curiosity. Nidever reputedly turned down multiple offers to exhibit her for profit.7

The Channel Islands National Park website highlights the way empire and international trade affected the land, waters, and people of San Nicolas Island. A "People and Cultures" section outlines the many individuals and groups—Russian, Kodiak Alutiiq, Aleut, Spanish, Mexican, Chumash, Gabrielino, Yaqui, Hawaiian, and European American—who interacted with the Nicoleños in the early nineteenth century. Digitized primary sources recording these interactions are available (and forthcoming) on the site, as are short essays written by a range of disciplinary scholars (archaeologists, botanists, biologists, geologists, linguists, historians). Finally, a "Teacher Resource" section provides elementary, middle, and high school lesson plans that link Island of the Blue Dolphins to the economic and political forces that affect its characters. Russians and their conscripted Aleut hunters are labeled as enemies in O'Dell's Cold War novel, but all other ethnic and political entities go unnamed. The curriculum, by contrast, situates O'Dell's characters within both a Pacific World of exchange and an American project of westward expansion.

While the Channel Islands National Park subject site contextualizes the life of the Nicoleña, I designed The Lone Woman and Last Indians Digital Archive to historicize the story told about the Lone Woman. This history begins in the American era, with the first published account of the Lone Woman's isolation appearing in the Boston Atlas in 1847, about a year before miners struck gold at Sutter's Mill. A Document Introduction for the news story ("A Female Crusoe") outlines its significance: not only is it the first of hundreds of such periodical accounts published across the United States and world, it also establishes patterns. The tale is linked to Robinson Crusoe, the Lone Woman's people are Noble Savages, and the Nicoleña is an Indian queen. After the Lone Woman's death, another trope emerges: she is "the last of her race."

Data visualizations and interactive maps track the circulation of tropes in the Lone Woman story across centuries and continents. An additional feature, interpretative mode, enables users to view precisely how tropes work in each of the archive's 480 documents. The interpretative mode feature allows users to select from a checklist any of fourteen tropes (defined in an accompanying essay) encoded in the archive's document transcriptions according to the Textual Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines. Passages interpreted as containing the selected tropes appear in the transcription, framed in a corresponding color. This feature is didactic, aiding users in seeing tropes—and latent historical arguments—in the archive's documents. For example, in the 1847 Boston Atlas [End Page 717] article, the Lone Woman appears as an Indian queen when she is described as the "monarch of all she surveys." Much like cartouches adorning New World maps, she is closely associated with flora, fauna, and land. As an embodiment of San Nicolas Island, she stands ready to be "discovered" and conquered.

TEI encoding facilitates keyword searching, mapping, and historical annotations as well. More than one thousand descriptions of people, places, ships, and organizations clarify textual references and correct errors of reporting; they also intervene, when possible, in nineteenth- and twentieth-century storytelling by reinserting indigenous perspectives in the form of place-names, cultural affiliations, and identities that were omitted or obscured by the author. Identifying information about those Nicoleño women and children known to have been removed from San Nicolas Island in 1835, for example, is inserted into transcriptions via TEI encoding.

Until recently, and despite widespread knowledge of the Boston Atlas article, the Lone Woman's story was perceived as a California tale.8 But it turns out that the Lone Woman's story exemplifies nineteenth-century news distribution, presenting a case study of a human interest story that went viral.9 The archive's categorization of articles into thirty-eight searchable document groups—visible, for example, via the "Circulation of the Lone Woman's Story" interactive map—permits users to see how reprinting and textual borrowings operated. It becomes clear that the Lone Woman's story, already circulating on the US coasts, penetrated the Midwest in time with the stringing of telegraph wires.

The Lone Woman's life is inherently interesting—survival stories fascinate—but the persistence of the tale across centuries and into our own day, in the form of Island of the Blue Dolphins, suggests that more is at work. In one of the most influential accounts of the Lone Woman, first published in Scribner's in 1880, the Nicoleña's death is described in detail. She "drooped under civilization; she missed the out-door life of her island camp. After a few weeks she became too weak to walk. … She fell from her chair one morning, and remained insensible for hours. Seeing the approach of death, Mrs. Nidiver [sic] sent for a priest."10 The Lone Woman's death becomes a symbol for Indian Vanishing. The story upholds a settler colonial logic whereby George Nidever, otter hunter from Tennessee, "rescues" a California Indian (who dies) and then becomes a pioneer who is "native" to California. Today, the island on which the Lone Woman's people thrived for millennia is a US naval base.

The Lone Woman and Last Indians Digital Archive harnesses the capabilities of programming to analyze textual details at greater scale and distance. But the larger power of digital presentation might be to bring the humanities to [End Page 718] the public, furthering civic education. As the sixth longitudinally best-selling children's book in the United States and a classroom staple, Island of the Blue Dolphins, when paired with Native-authored texts, presents a near-perfect subject for a project seeking to interrupt ideas about Indian Vanishing and introduce topics that are underrepresented in curricula, including Native cultural and linguistic persistence, settler colonialism, and the Pacific World.11

Sara L. Schwebel

Sara L. Schwebel is professor of English and women's and gender studies at the University of South Carolina. She is the author of Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms (Vanderbilt University Press, 2011), and editor of Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader's Edition (University of California Press, 2016) and The Lone Woman and Last Indians Digital Archive (


The many people whose vision, research, programming, and financial support have made these projects possible are too numerous to name, but I thank here the partners without whom this project would not exist. At the Channel Islands National Park: Yvonne Menard, Susan Morris, and Carol Peterson; at the University of South Carolina: Duncan Buell, and undergraduate and graduate students Sydney Cowart, Paige Kuester, Tyler Encke, Rachel Manuszak, and Tyler Muehl. This essay benefited from the careful reading of Erin Royston Battat and Catherine Keyser.

1. Sara L. Schwebel, Child-Sized History: Fictions of the Past in U.S. Classrooms (Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 2011).

2. Troy Davis, Jon Erlandson, Gerrit Fenenga, and Keith Hamm, "Chipped Stone Crescents and the Antiquity of Maritime Settlement on San Nicolas Island, Alta California," California Archaeology 2.2 (2010): 185–202.

3. Susan L. Morris, John R. Johnson, Steven J. Schwartz, René L. Vellanoweth, Glenn J. Farris, and Sara L. Schwebel, "The Nicoleños in Los Angeles: Documenting the Fate of the Lone Woman's Community," Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 36.1 (2016): 91–118.

4. Susan L. Morris, Glenn J. Farris, Steven J. Schwartz, Irina Vladi L. Wender, and Boris Dralyuk, "Murder, Massacre, and Mayhem on the California Coast, 1814–1815: Newly Translated Russian American Company Documents Reveal Company Concern over Violent Clashes," Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 34.1 (2014): 81–100.

5. Steven J. Schwartz, "Seven Short Weeks: The Lone Woman's Time in Santa Barbara" (paper presented at the Ninth California Island Symposium, Ventura, California, October 2016). Schwartz's presentation drew on the Chumash notes of John P. Harrington, held by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian.

6. Morris et al., "Nicoleños in Los Angeles."

7. George Nidever, "The Life and Adventures of a Pioneer of California since 1834," 1878, Bancroft Library, Manuscript C-D133, Lone Woman and Last Indians Digital Archive, University of South Carolina,

8. Robert F. Heizer and Albert B. Elsasser, "Original Accounts of the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island," in Reports of the University of California Archaeological Survey, no. 55 (Berkeley: University of California, 1961).

9. I borrow this term from the Viral Texts Project (, and I thank Ryan Cordell and David A. Smith for invaluable conversation about the Lone Woman story.

10. Emma Hardacre, "Eighteen Years Alone: A Tale of the Pacific," Scribner's Monthly 20 (1880): 657–64.

11. Sara L. Schwebel, ed., Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader's Edition (Oakland: University of California Press, 2016), 3, 47–55.

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