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Island of the Blue Dolphins (Part I: Historical Background)

Posted: December 10, 2018

By: Nada A., High School Blogger

Island of the Blue Dolphins is a story about an islander named Karana and is one of my favorite books. Vibrant and realistic, it begins as a mystery and transforms into a spirited tale about resourcefulness and tradition. It is sure to have a lasting impact on readers.

Author Scott O’Dell enjoyed the outdoors as a youngster, using his enthusiasm for nature to write based on emotion.

According to, “Odell Scott (Scott O’Dell) grew up in a California that was still wild and natural. No freeways, no asphalt, no hundred-story buildings. People got around by walking, taking a trolley or train, or riding horseback. His family lived in a house on stilts that was so much a part of the landscape that the waves at high tide splashed against its supports. He loved the outdoors and decided to become a writer after he learned that he was related to the classic British historical novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott.”

In a New York Times interview, O’Dell mentions that he was at a low point during his writing career when a group of hunters moved into his town and began to kill all the wildlife. An angry O’Dell researched San Nicolas Island’s history to write a book to express his emotions and opinions on the hunter abuse. Scott O’Dell said that in the story he tried to weave together the themes of “reverence to all life and the Christian ideal of forgiveness.”

The Island of the Blue Dolphins was initially settled by Indians back in 2000 B.C. However, white men did not discover the land until 1602. The island, officially known as San Nicolas, is just off the coast of California. Spanish explorers were just beginning to discover the New World. One Mexican explorer, Sebastian Vizcaino, was on a mission to find a port where galleons, (which, according to Merriam Webster, is “a heavy square-rigged sailing ship of the 15th to early 18th centuries used for war or commerce, especially by the Spanish”) from the Philippines could provide shelter and protection. He sailed north of the Californian coast and found an island, which he named La Isla de San Nicolas to honor merchants, sailors, and travelers, as well as to honor the Nicoleño people residing there.

Soon, California transformed into a predominantly Mexican-controlled territory both culturally and politically. Focused on the large state, San Nicolas’ people remained isolated, aside from the occasional visits from hunters.

Part of the eight Channel Islands, San Nicolas is located about 75 miles southwest of Los Angeles. According to the National Park Service, historians believe that it was settled about six centuries ago, but recent carbon-14 tests prove otherwise. Indians lived on the island long before the Christian era. Today, San Nicolas serves as a base for the United States Navy.

O’Dell says, “The girl whose story I have attempted to re-create actually lived alone upon this island from 1835 to 1853 and is known to history as The Lost Woman of San Nicolas. The facts about her are few.”

She originally resided on the island with her brother, who was killed by a pack of wolves. The Lost Woman of San Nicolas was found eighteen years later by Captain Nidever. Father Gonzalez, a priest at the Santa Barbara Roman Catholic Mission, obtained information about her experience on the island. However, the girl was unable to understand much of his language, and vice versa. The other Indians of Ghalas-at have not been found, but the girl, renamed Juana Maria at her baptism in Santa Barbara, was buried on a hill near the Santa Barbara Mission.

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