In 1811 Captain Whittemore brought Kodiak Indians to San Nicolas Island, the outermost island of the Channel Islands, to hunt sea otter. When he returned to pick them up a year later, he found they had massacred the native men of the island. Karana was born about this time, perhaps the offspring of a native woman and Kodiak Indian.
In 1835, the schooner "Peor es Nada" (Nothing is Worse) went to San Nicolas to hunt sea otter and bring the natives to the missions on the mainland, for their safety. There are differing accounts of what happened next. Karana, who was probably 18 or 20, left to fetch her child. (It is unlikely that she jumped off the ship.) The ship could not wait for her as strong winds came up, and they had to sail. She was abandoned, with the intent of a later rescue. There actually were wild dogs on the island, perhaps left by the Aleuts. Her child died after her people left.
The ship had planned to return, but was called to immediate service when they landed. It sailed on to San Francisco, where it sank in the harbor. Seventy-five miles in treacherous seas to the outermost Channel Island must have been a formidable trip in the 1850s. After a while, people assumed Karana was dead, although stories about her continued to surface.
Seventeen years later, in 1852, Captain George Nidever landed on San Nicolas. He found footprints, a basket and some bone needles, but no Karana. She became an elusive mystery, and Father Rubio Gonzales offered $200 for her rescue.
George Nidever returned again in 1853. There are several good accounts of Karana's discovery and rescue. She was found at a site on the northwest side near the top of the ridge that forms the upper end of the island.
There were poles with seal blubber stuck on top to dry, and skins of the shag (cormorant), cut into squares, long sinew rope, and bone needles found near her. Several baskets, some not completed, made of grass common on the island were also nearby. She was described as medium height with a pleasant face, continually smiling. She wore her famous cormorant skirt.
She was friendly and offered the men some of her food. She came willingly with them aboard their ship, bringing a basket and some needles and her skirt. These artifacts were sent to a museum in San Francisco and destroyed in the earthquake of 1906. A photo of her basket is all that remains. Her skirt was supposedly sent to the Vatican, but they have no record of it.
When Karana was brought to the mission, she stayed with the Nidevers at their house. She was quite a sensation and people visited her, reporting she was always smiling, and friendly. She received many gifts which she gave to the Nidever children. She came down with dysentery, perhaps from her new diet, according to some reports. Mrs. Nidever tried serving her dried whale meat, closer to her usual diet, but she refused and laughed pointing to her teeth, which had been ground down from years of hard food. She died in 1853 only six or seven weeks after her "rescue". A priest from the mission baptized her conditionally on her deathbed and gave her the name Juana Maria. Scott O'Dell named her Karana, although her real name was never learned. She was buried at the Mission Santa Barbara, in an unmarked group grave used for Indians at the time. Her burial is recorded in the book of burials of Santa Barbara Mission by Father Gonzales Rubio, as entry # 1183. It reads:
"On October 19, 1853 I gave ecclesiastical burial in the cemetery to the remains of Juana Maria, the Indian woman brought from San Nicolas Island and, since there was no one who could understand her language, she was baptized conditionally by Fr. Sanchez."
No one could ever be located that understood her language, including the Chumash from the other Channel Islands. None of her fellow tribesmen surfaced before she died. The Nicolenos had been taken to Mission San Gabriel, and were called Gabrielinos, after the angel Gabriel. Juana Maria's exact heritage is unknown, and makes an interesting study in itself.
In 1928 the DAR placed a plaque in her honor in the courtyard at the Santa Barbara Mission. It is the last thing you see, as you leave the mission's cemetary.