The California Mission Trail is a beloved part of California’s history. As a native Californian that has recently returned to my home state, I have been visiting the 21 missions that comprise the Mission Trail.
The trail has its beginnings in 1769 thanks to Father Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan. On a recent trip to Santa Barbara, I visited Mission Santa Barbara, often called the “Queen of the Missions”, because of “its graceful beauty.”
The mission, while under Spanish rule, was named after the Spanish, Saint Barbara, since it was established on the feast day of this beloved saint. This was the tenth mission along the trail and is the first one to be built after the death of Fr. Junipero Serra. It stands on a hill overlooking the charming and historic old town of Santa Barbara and the Pacific Ocean beyond. It even has views of some of the Channel Islands on a clear day. The mission is a wonderful example of the early California Spanish architecture that has become ubiquitous to the state. Lovely arches, red tile roofs, and beautiful gardens, add to the impressive museum collection of artifacts and history.
The History of the Mission
An important part of the history of both the mission and city of Santa Barbara was the inclusion of local Indian tribes, the Chumash and Tongva. These, along with the subsequent Spanish, and later Mexican settlers, comprise the makeup of the unique culture and history of California.
Wandering through the church cemetery, I discovered a plaque commemorating Juana Maria. She was a woman who was abandoned on San Nicholas island for eighteen years and then brought to Santa Barbara in 1853 by Captain George Nidever. This woman was portrayed in the beloved historical fiction novel Island of the Blue Dolphins written in 1960 by Scott O’Dell. It was required reading when I attended elementary school in the 1970’s. I was inspired to re-read it after my visit to the mission cemetery.
Island of the Blue Dolphins was author Scott O’Dell’s first novel and it remains his most popular today. His books for young readers focus mainly on young women who find themselves struggling for survival and depending upon their determination and self-reliance. Island of the Blue Dolphins remains required reading in California elementary schools today.
The Channel Islands are a chain of eight islands, along the Santa Barbara Channel. Situated off the coast of Southern California, they provide the earliest evidence of human seafaring activity in the Americas, as well as the earliest paleontological proof of human habitation in North America.
Aleuts from the Alaskan region hunted in these islands and had many clashes with the native Chumash and Tongva tribes. These trade disputes resulted in many deaths. During the 19th century, the Chumash and Tongva tribes were removed from the islands and brought to the missions.
Today five of the islands comprise a national park established in 1980 and two are under the control of the U.S. Navy. The eighth island, Santa Catalina, with the established town of Avalon, is the only inhabited island in the group.
The Legend of Juana Maria
The legend of Juana Maria has several iterations, but basic facts about her story were recorded in 1853. A ship engaged in hunting (primarily otter and seals, along the California coastline and Channel Islands. anchored at San Nicholas Island to bring the few remaining Indians to the mainland.
When the sailors gathered the Indians on the beach, Juana Maria asked to return to the village for her child who had been left behind. She was granted permission and ran to fetch her child. While she was gone, the winds increased and the men sailed off without her rather than risk the safety of the schooner. Intending to return for her, the schooner continued onward towards San Pedro. But instead, it soon capsized and drifted out to sea. The men were saved and so the story of the lone woman left behind on the island began to spread. As the years passed, it was assumed, that she had likely perished.
Occasionally, fishermen hunting off the island would report seeing a figure moving about on the island’s cliffs. Even so, seventeen years passed before anything was done to confirm these sporadic reports. The island is roughly 75 miles from Santa Barbara, so its remote location likely made the situation easier to ignore. In 1852, Captain George Nidever and his men sailed to the island to hunt for seagull eggs and discovered a woman’s footprints on the island. They also found that some shelters on the island had been recently visited. Upon hearing of their discovery, Fr. Gonzalez Rubio of Mission Santa Barbara asked Captain Nidever to revisit the island and make a thorough search for the woman.
In the Spring of 1853, Nidever returned to the island to find the missing woman. Upon arriving, more footprints were discovered. The next day, Nidever observed a small, dark object moving in the distance. His men soon found Juana Maria. She was not frightened and spoke gibberish to herself. The mission Indians did not understand her language, but she communicated with motions and gestures to make herself understood.
She had set her camp in a place where she could view most of the island and be close to fresh springs and where seals could be hunted. She appeared to be in her fifties, strong, and fit. She came aboard the schooner willingly and seemed happy for the company and new food. The men hunted on the island for a month and she helped with food preparation and water gathering during that time.
Once the ship returned to Santa Barbara, Captain Nidever took Juana Maria to his home. The mission fathers came immediately to assist, and hoped the Indians from the missions north and south could understand her. Sadly, none of them understood her language. Efforts to find a tribe that spoke her language failed, and what happened to her remaining tribe remained a mystery.
Juana Maria did not let her inability to communicate break her spirit. It was reported that she often sang and danced for her hosts and loved interacting with children. Sadly, reports also suggested her child was killed by wild dogs on the island. Seven weeks from the day she arrived in Santa Barbara, Juana Maria became ill. A mission father, conditionally baptized her and she passed away from dysentery. Juana Maria was buried in the mission cemetery on October 19, 1853. A tall tree pictured above seems to reach with outstretched arms, welcoming visitors into the mission.
This news was widely reported in California, where her legend has continued to be an important part of Santa Barbara and the mission’s history. Pictured left is the doorway to the mission’s cemetery.
I loved reading The Island of the Blue Dolphins as a child, often thinking it would be fun to live on my own island, like Karana, the main character in O’Dell’s book. Now, older and wiser, I realize Juana Maria’s strength and determination. Her life was one of great difficulty. Juana Maria was left behind and separated from her people, and forced to struggle to survive for eighteen years after losing her child, I admire her inner strength and ingenuity, which certainly provided her with the tools she needed, and a great deal of patience and faith to carry on. It is a fitting tribute that she is interred at this beautiful mission. Her story may never be fully revealed, yet is at peace with her surroundings.
Photos and article by Denise Benson,