- 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...