A Navy archaeologist and his crew are digging out a cave on San Nicolas Island that seems likely to have sheltered the woman made famous by the 1960 award-winning book.
By Steve Chawkins
For more than 20 years, Navy archaeologist Steve Schwartz searched for that cave. It was believed to be home to the island's most famous inhabitant, a Native American woman who survived on the island for 18 years, abandoned and alone, and became the inspiration for "Island of the Blue Dolphins," one of the 20th century's most popular novels for young readers.
The problem for Schwartz was that San Nicolas, a wind-raked, 22-square-mile chunk of sandstone and scrub, has few caves, all of them dank, wet hollows where the tides surge in and nobody could live for long.
Year after year, he scoured the beaches and cliffs, drilled exploratory holes, checked the old map, pored over contemporary accounts and conferred with other experts, all in vain. If he could find the cave, he could find artifacts—clues that would flesh out the real-life story that inspired Scott O'Dell to pen the 1960 novel that won the Newbery Medal and became required reading in many California schools. More than 6.5 million copies are in print and teachers frequently assign it between the fourth and seventh grades.
If he found the cave, he might solve mysteries about the "Lone Woman of San Nicolas" and her Nicoleño tribe, which was left devastated by a massacre in 1814 by sea otter hunters from Alaska.
With the help of recently unearthed notes written in a fine script by a 19th century government surveyor, Schwartz now believes he's found it.
"We're 90% sure this is the Lone Woman's cave," Schwartz told several hundred fellow researchers last week at the California Islands Symposium in Ventura. Further excavation is necessary, he said, adding that a crew of students has painstakingly removed about 40,000 buckets, or a million pounds, of sand from a cavern at least 75 feet long and 10 feet high.
By Cheri Carlson
The last of the native Nicoleño living on the remote island, the Lone Woman was left there when the others were taken to the mainland in 1835. She survived alone for 18 years—a story made famous in the children's book "Island of the Blue Dolphins," which is taught in elementary schools throughout the country.
Researchers believe she lived in a cave during much of the time. But covered up by decades of erosion, its location became a mystery—one of many explored Thursday at the California Islands symposium in Ventura.
Schwartz, who is with Naval Air Systems Command, searched through old survey maps, uncovered clues and hiked again and again to a spot on the island that looked just right for a cave. But each time he dug into the sandstone, he came up empty.
"I'd get really depressed. I'd go back, think about it, and go, 'No. I got to try again. I got to try again.' This was dozens of times," Schwartz said Thursday during a break at the three-day symposium held by the National Park Service and other agencies and groups.
Two years ago, he got his breakthrough. A professor from Northern California contacted him and had field notes for those 1800-era maps. In them, he found a description of the Lone Woman's cave, right where he thought it had been.
A team of volunteers, backbreaking work and 40,000 buckets of sand later, Schwartz found his cave. The huge space stretches 75 feet back from the entrance and appears to go even farther, he said.