The Search for the Lost Indian Cave of San Nicolas Island

If you’re familiar at all with the story,
you’ve probably heard that the lone woman was found in a brush covered hut
on San Nicolas island. And this is often misconstrued to be a house where she
lived for 18 years. And if you read the accounts carefully, you’ll see that Nidever and Ditman both equate this hut to ones they had seen elsewhere on the
island and the other ones they very clearly define as not you know houses
but as windbreaks. You do not have solid walls, they don’t
have a solid roof, some don’t have a roof at all. So it’s not really a house but it
is a windbreak which is very convenient since she was on the top of a sand dune
at the west end of the San Nicolas island, about the windiest place you’re
going to find. Having a windbreak is very I’m whatsoever but it’s not really a
good place to be living especially when it’s winter and is rainy and miserable
and cold. If there was a cave on the island you’d much rather be in a cave
than be in a brush covered hut on the west end with San Nicolas island and in
fact the accounts very clearly early on say that she actually had lived in a
cave nearby where she had been found. It didn’t take long before people were
going out to the island and seeing this cave. So the information was was readily
available. People had gone out to find it had found it.
Perhaps it removed some artifacts from it. We don’t get a good indication from
any of these accounts as to where this cave was but there’s clearly a cave out
there. And perhaps or even two caves. One of which, the lower right one I believe,
mentions that one of the caves have some artwork in it.
Which we will talk about in a moment. And we also have some artifacts as I
said that were possibly, we’re not sure these but these look like they
might have been recovered from a cave. Just because the the condition their
wooden artifacts and the condition is so good it’s kind of hard to imagine that
they were in an open-air site but we don’t really know but these were
collected about that time period so the time period be about right if they were
actually from a cave and the preservation is extraordinary on these
wooden items which would be consistent with it being found in the cave but
anyway there’s this talk about this cave on the island and
Lorenzo Yates even conveniently gives us a photograph of the cave. Right? Wrong. If
you look at it and if you’re familiar with San Nicolas island you’ll realize
very quickly that the geology is completely wrong for San Nicolas island.
okay the article that this photo comes out of
talks about a number of the islands. So I’m pretty sure when they put the
title on the photo they just got the wrong island identified but I’ve been
assured and I’ve checked this with geologists even say no that doesn’t
definitely does not look like it could be on San Nicolas island at all. So it was nice try but didn’t quite work out. we do have one cave however that’s
that’s fairly well known and it does have artwork pictographs and petroglyphs.
It is known as a Cave of the Whales. People often ask me well maybe she was
living in the Cave of the Whales. Well if you look at where the cave of the whales
is located you’re not going to want to live there. The entrance is down at this
level, here. It’s a very wet, very cold place to be. You would not want to live
there. There’s no really floor to it. All these are slippery rocks because
they’re covered with algae and seaweed gets washed in there all the time. And in
animals go in there all the time. It’s not a place where you’d want to be
living to go on occasion, sure; but to live there; no, not really.
So that leaves us with the problem. The problem being there is no such
cave on San Nicolas island. The island has been covered by archaeologists
repeatedly. A number of well-known
archaeologists even have surveyed the island this is Bruce Brian’s worked from
1926 but Malcolm Rogers was out in 1930.
Arthur Woodward in 1939. Fillore or 1945. Clémence in 1953. Fred Ryman 1984. Pat
Martin 2002. They’ve all surveyed the island and no one has found any such
cave. So that leaves us with a little bit of a problem of there’s a cave but there
isn’t a cave. So I’ve been you know very interested in this question obviously
there was a cave. Everybody seems to have agreed and people got out and saw it so
it’s got to be out there somewhere but where the only clue we have from the
accounts is that it’s near where she was found. Of course, what does near mean?
In feet or yards or miles. That’s you know we don’t know, we have no real clue. But looking at the historical record of
the island we start to get some clues that key us in on where this cave
actually is. And this is a Coast Survey map of Santa Nicolas Island from 1879. This is really interesting the coast survey came out at that time they had a
program the mapping the coastline up and down to facilitate trade and navigation
and whatnot and since San Nicolas Island was a government-owned island they
paid a little more attention so there is a there is a onshore version of the map
and there’s an offshore version of the map and they both have slightly
different details when it comes to the shoreline. Now this is the
offshore version of the map and as you can see there is a spot there marked as
cave which though that sounds great but if you look at the symbology there these
are the survey stations this is where they would set up their equipment and
they would shoot from one point to the next point and measure the distance from
one point the next point to be able to draw the map of the island but the cool
thing is when they named these sites and they’re all named there’s thousands of
them and down the coast the name means
something. For example, on San Nicolas on we have other points that
were named shack because there was a Shack nearby. Or fence because there was
an old sheep fence nearby. So the fact that it’s named cave is indicative of
there’s something in the vicinity that might warn such a name. Now unfortunately,
this is near the cave of the whales. So was the cave the cave of the whales?
Don’t know. So it took quite a while for us to finally track down the on island
portion in large enough size that we could actually look at it. And on this
one we see the cave survey station but we also see a little place named there
marked as Indian cave. Now this is very intriguing and this Indian cave is not
the location of cave of the whales so this tells us oh there may be there is a
second cave and perhaps this is the cave that they’re talking about very very
cool. However it’s not that simple.
It’dve been real nice to just walk with a map out and go up here it is but if you
notice on the map they showed a couple of little coves there and that the cave
is at the head of one of those coves well and in reality there are all kinds
of little coves in this area so then you’re faced with the problem of which
one did they decide to draw which one didn’t they draw it’s too small you
can’t really try to scale it out so that’s not going to work too well.
So we went out and over the years and this started about 20 years ago. We went
out to all these little cove areas and there’s one that always looked the most
likely because one, the geology which you can’t really see on the sides it is very
substantial it looked good; and of course it’s got this little overhang right here
which leads one to think there there it is right there.
Unfortunately, if you look at that little overhang it doesn’t go anywhere. That
didn’t help us any at all I’m afraid. So periodically over the years I would go
out and look at the area, maybe dig little auger holes on these five
different spots where it might have been a cave and we never pulled up anything
that would indicate there’s any habitation here. With a cave
typically you would have habitation in the cave but you’d also have evidence of
habitation outside the cave. So we didn’t have to be right on it but if we’re in
the vicinity we figure we ought to be able to find some evidence of a cave
being there even with a real small little auger hole. It wouldn’t take a
whole lot but we’d go out and find nothing and I ponder it and go back out
again a little bit later and find nothing. And we try the other three and
find nothing and this kind of went on year after year after year. Just couldn’t
find anything but knew it had to be out there somewhere. Well this all changed
about two years ago I was just contacted totally out of the blue by Scott Byram
who’s a researcher at UC Berkeley. And Scott tells me that well see you know
they’ve got the field notes that go along with those surveys. And he is
asking me there’s another site down here and in the field notes it’s a real nice
description, a drawing of a big shell mound. And he wanted to know if I had any
information on that particular site. Was there a current site number for it? What
it looked like today? So I sent him back that information. At the end I said oh
and by the way does it happen to be anything that notes about a cave? He
writes back and goes well yeah there is I was going to bring that up later. So we got to talking back and forth
and Scott was kind enough to provide me a copy of the pertinent pages from the
field notes. As you can see in the field notes, this is identified as
the lone woman’s cave very clearly. So at least we can say now these guys weren’t
there when the lone woman was found but certainly they’ve been told we know on
some of their earlier trips out to the islands they actually had George
Nidever as the captain on the boat so they probably had access to some of the
information that was going around at the time and it was fairly at least seems
reasonably common knowledge that this was her cave all right. And here
everything is talking about they’re talking about their survey station and
things from the survey station. So it gives us a distance from the survey
station to the cave of about a hundred yards and then on the next page it’s a
nice detailed map which gives us compass bearings. So we’ve got a compass bearing
and we’ve got a distance and we’ve got the cave survey station. Which, you know,
is not a physical thing there anymore but we can pretty well
approximate where it falls because we can triangulate it with the other
survey stations. And some of those are somewhat still known or
visible. They’re all within line of sight. So you can kind of figure out
about where it is and from that with a compass bearing and a distance you can
figure out about where the cave actually was at the time. And it pointed back to
that same spot with the overhang. Okay, so we go back out to the same spot
with the overhangs. This is it. so we start digging holes. What do we find?
nothing. and I remember Rene and his students
were there and I can remember at one point Rene and I going off to the side
by ourselves and we pulled out the map and going “is this the right place? you
sure it’s right?.” And We’re both going “yeah, yeah; it’s got to be the right place.”
“It’s got to be the right place; it just, it must be deeper, it just got
to be. It’s got to be here.” And so as we finally dug down deep enough we finally
get down past that ledge to where it starts to open up into a cave. This is
much deeper than we had ever expected. That we would, we would go the surface
that we started with this, is that little opening. So that’s the surface we started
at, so you got to go down a good metre in half or so before you can get to this.
And let’s see if I can go back a little bit, and one of the other issues is this
is all actually sandstone. And the cave filled with sand and it all looks the
same. You’re looking at you cannot distinguish
the difference in it. It isn’t until, I believe I asked one of the students well
what’s the what’s against that back wall now and he stuck his trowel in. Oh it’s soft
now. and it had been hard hard hard hard and
all of a sudden it’s soft, so that told us that oh my god we’ve we’ve come down on
something there’s something here there is in fact a cave here or at least an
opening to something here mmm. And just for scale,
Kevin’s about what six five at least. He’s a big guy. So you can see
this is where the overhang starts and that’s six six down to where he’s
standing. And this is where we first found something that really, really
started to clinch things for us. This is where we found this bottle. And this
is a very cool bottle because you know they’re very distinctive and they’re
made during a very discreet time period. This contained what’s often called
pepper sauce which at the time it was kind of the salsa ketchup at the time.
And if you’re on these ships most of the food you’re getting is very, very bland.
And salted meat it’s really terrible stuff. So they would have this stuff on
ships to spice up the food so it had some flavor. And their used commonly and
all around the West at that time in mining camps and all over the place but
it’s got a fairly you know tight timeframe as to when it’s being occupied.
And if you notice the dates, it kind of overlaps pretty nicely with the time
the lone woman was on the island which again was 1835 to 1853. So you got nice
overlap there. This really got us excited. Thinking “oh my god, this is it.” And so we
had kind of expected that that bottle is probably down at the bottom of the cave
and didn’t have far to go. So we’d say well we’re going to have to kind of open
up and get it get an access ramp to get down because we’re getting down pretty
deep into the ground and we need to be safe and have easy access to come in. So
we start going in and really start working and one of the first things we
discover in the cave is this inscription. all right and this is interpreted on the
bottom. It’s got a very specific date of 1911, okay, which is very interesting.
Unfortunately, by this time there’s lots of people going out to the island so
it’s not like a real easy to identify but there’s certainly possibility we can
identify the individual from the date and the initials. We haven’t been able to
do that so far but there is just right near the mouth of the cave there is
evidence that there’s some kind of a little impromptu fishing camp there.
Which could easily have been occupied at this time. So that was very, very good. And
the other thing that really kind of started to pique our interest was; if
you know the story a little bit, in some of the accounts the lone woman in her
cave was supposed to have kept track of events by marking them on the walls. So
this is telling us, well if she marked things on the wall they might very well
still be intact even if the cave has completely been filled in. It might still
be there if they were engraved in so that would that’s a very good the
preservation is looking really good at this point in time.
So we dig a little further and deeper into the cave. And we find another
inscription on the exact same day. So we know there are two individuals there in
September 11th 1911. Which tells us a couple of things. And this is in, it’s
quite a bit deeper down. So it’s telling us one, that the the preservation
in the cave is pretty good because we’re still not seeing anything resembling
occupation at this level. We’re just seeing a sand we haven’t gotten anywhere
we’re well below the depth where the bottle was found the bottle was just
kind of there and there’s like nothing below to other than sand so we were kind
of quite surprised at the fact that the bottle wasn’t sitting down at the bottom.
So it kind of got got added in a little bit later somehow. It was there
but it got moved around a little bit later and ended up there where it was.
But this is telling us that the preservation is, is really good. And we’ve
got some interesting things we can look at. I try to track down who these people
actually are that would be kind of a fun thing to do and so we continue to dig
deeper down and further back and as you can see Rene is still standing on sand.
There’s no evidence of occupation. There’s really nothing there.
We start to pursue that second inscription. It is right up here. So you can
see now we’re well below that, at this point. We’re down Oh probably about five
meters from where we started I would guess at this point. And as you can see
this inscription is pretty much if we’re anywhere to stand up he could just maybe
just barely make that. So maybe that’s telling us that the cave was already
partially filled in by 1911 which would be very very good right it would be if
it was already capped off by then it means that what’s underneath is still
going to be intact so that was very very promising information to get so we
continue to dig back even further and further into the cave and we get to a
point now so far the cave is completely filled in with sediment but we get back
to a point where it actually opens up into a cavity.
What happens is that the roof of the cave has a low spot but behind the low
spot the sediment that’s coming in from outside doesn’t get to so behind that
low spot now there there’s an actual cavity and we’re able to look up over
that cavity and all we can see is dark it’s not you know another couple of feet
is not a couple of couple more meters it’s going way way back and we get one
each little laser measuring things and it’s like oh boy that’s four or five
more meters oh no this thing is getting really big way bigger than we ever
imagined we could have out there. Just to give you a little idea on how
big this cave is when it is an actual cave because it’s dark in the back the
sunlight doesn’t penetrate back that far but there are I’m counting at least six
if not seven people in that photo I can’t quite tell if there’s a person
over here but there’s one two three four five six people in there and you can see
we’re not crowded in there it’s really quite a large large cave and it’s not
fully opened up yet I mean there’s still more sediment filling in this cave that
we’re still trying to remove and one of the things we have done is we’ve left
this pillar of sediment in the back as you can see these are all very very fine
little layers of sediment that have come in okay and so this will allow us to a
later time to dissect that and understand the history of the filling of
the cave to understand the environmental history of the island and in looking at
these we can tell that a lot of the sediment blew in from the mouth of the
cave but there’s also sediment that washed in from back inside the cave is
waterborne sediments and wind-borne sediments in there interweaving
within themselves and there does appear to perhaps be some spots up in the roof
back here where water might have penetrated at one time or another but
it’s very very good to see all this is all completely intact no one has been
here no one’s dug in here no one’s messed around with it at all for all
these years but it’s also a little disconcerting that in 150 years this
much sediment has built up this is a lot of sediment to build up in a very short
period of time it’s good for the preservation but it’s disconcerting to
think that you there could it could be other stuff out there that’s buried that
deeply that we’re never going to never find unless we find a clue like this
they’ll lead us to them. At this point there is still another cavity in the
back of the cave that we know of. So it goes back another few more meters at the
very least and this wall here is about I would say about 75 feet from the
entrance so it’s already a very substantial cave it’s going back even
further and it’s kind of narrowing down here but it kind of looks like it may
open up again a little bit beyond that so it may be a very very substantial
cave and one of the real interesting things that we think about is is the
bigger the cave is the more likely it was to have been occupied earlier – not
just during the lone woman’s time but everybody who came before her and so
we’re really excited that the possibility that this may have the whole
you know human history of the island in there. This is such a large substantial
cave that the first people out there probably would have found it and they
would have used it too I mean there’s no reason you wouldn’t want to use this
it’s a very incredibly good location. So this is about the best view I can get of
the current state of things and that’s just an estimate of 40,000 buckets we
haven’t counted them but this is all been back-breaking hand work shoveled a
bucket and a bucket line to get the stuff out of the way and I think someone
estimated 40,000 buckets is probably on the order of a million pounds of sand
have been moved out of that and that’s all by by hand, it’s all by student help.
We’ve had a really incredible crew we go out there for three or four days at a
time and it’s nothing but just moving buckets all day, every day. And
it’s been great the crew has been just just right in there and it you know we
can’t can’t keep them down they keep going and going and going so I’ve got to
really put out a big big thanks to all the crew of helped on this to date and
this the amount of work and the energy that they put into this is phenomenal I
think they understand the importance of this and so they’re more than willing to
chip in and do it but it is hard back-breaking work and we’ve had a few a
few few of us have gone down for the count because of it with the elbows and
knees and yeah this and that but it’s it’s important and exciting enough to
keep going for sure so thinking about what what can we
actually say about this at this point in time. I think we can say that the
the location is very consistent with the historical accounts okay this is this is
indeed near where she was found. This is within Oh less than two miles
from where she was found so I would consider that to be near and in the
general terms. You know people the time certainly believed this was her cave I
think that the notes and from the coast survey kind of confirmed that that they
knew it and you know this is stuff that they had been told and maybe even we’re
shown where this was so this is fairly common knowledge that this was her cave
at the time the cave is way bigger than we had ever expected this is way bigger
than any other cave San Nicholas being primarily sandstone caves don’t
generally last very long because the sandstone is not that substantial
doesn’t last that well and most of the caves we do have our active sea caves and
of course they one they’re not conducive for habitation and they erode
very rapidly and change very rapidly this is a sea cave but it’s old enough
that it’s been uplifted so it’s up up above the water level so it’s a good 15
or 20 feet above above the water level so it’s it’s good and dry all the time
and it just happens to have survived it is formed along a fault line in fact if
you go in the cave you can see the fault right in the ceiling you’re looking
right into the fault which is how it formed the typical sea cave formation
but it’s up high enough to that it’s a good solid cave for us for once the
integrity of everything we’ve seen so far is excellent the fact that it’s
totally filled in is such a good sign it’s unbelievable the fact that we
whoops you know what I’m I miss a slide I think I did miss a slide I did not I
had a slide on disappeared somewhere huh what I was going to show you is
that underneath the tarp here is the occupation layer we came down on to an
actual occupation layer which is dark grey black soil with shell bone and
stone embedded in it okay now there is some sheep bone mixed in with that so
even that’s a little bit later which is even better because what’s underneath it
is still intact and we haven’t you know excavated down into that at this point
in time but it is definitely there we need to get the whole the bulk of the
material out of the way but you know we don’t want to be carrying buckets and
buckets of the stuff over over that kind of deposit so we wanted to you know get
everything cleared out before we attempted to do anything with that but
that is you know something that we’re we’re considering doing. The other one which I
was supposed to have shown boy did I screw up on this one was that this is a
very very good location I had a shot from the cave looking the other way out
to the ocean you can see this is in a nice little Cove
there is intertidal habitat right smack dab in front there’s seagrass beds right
in front there are kelp beds right in front of that it’s a nice little
protected little cove and the thing we have found no matter how windy and
miserable it is if you drop down into the cave it’s nice and comfortable and
warm you don’t even need a fire it didn’t be nice and comfortable in there
it’s really great and even when it’s been raining it’s totally dry inside so
it is it is you know if you had your choices where you’re going to live on
the island there’s no no doubt about it and of
course I mean at this point I can say where I’m probably 90% sure that this is
the lone woman’s cave but we can’t say that absolutely yet we do need some
confirm it confirming data in the terms of actually getting samples from that
occupation layer and dating it and the dating would be well we do create a
carbon of course but also we be looking at a mix of Nicoleno and historic
artifacts there may be some Native Alaskan artifacts mixed in there because
that’s in that that same time period we’d expect to see those different types
of things happening at that particular time period and so but everything looks
very good I think we’ve got it but I can’t say 100% hopefully the next time
around I’ll be able to say a hundred percent but this is definitely looking
good and just the whole quest to find this was a was quite a journey in itself.
So thank you very much


  • sheracad

    I have sailed/explored Santa Cruz since the'70's.
    I'm 51 now, in Idaho, and need to spend some time on the islands….

    good video, thanks. my Idaho wife will not understand why I am heading to camp on St, Nicolas for a few days…

  • The Enchanted Bath

    Just re-read the Island of the Blue Dolphins book recently and stumbled onto the news that the lone/lost woman's cave may have been found. Very interesting. I've never been to the Channel Islands but I'd sure love to go someday.

  • keenan reese

    Was stationed there in the early 70s, loved it. Found many artifacts, fish hooks ect… made from abalone. Many caves on island, not surprised that they have found many things from the Island, which hadn't been discovered earlier. This is a mountain top with a spring at the very top, You'd think the people who lived there, would want to be close to the water source. Needless to say that my fellow shipmates and I have combed this Island and many more adventures for those who follow.

  • Rachael Myers

    This was posted four years ago, just wondering what the state of the site and the research is today (May 2017)?

  • Stewie 26

    Any updates?

  • marcedout

    white people are con artist, pyramid scheme

  • marcedout

    just be charming and white people will laugh

  • samaa tomla


  • Go Pro Rottweilers

    Maybe the cave has caved in with time and grass grew over it

  • Vennise Miller

    Why is she labeled as a wild woman. That's racist and degrading. It shows proof of opression and treating our people's like animal. Completely disconnected.

  • thinkin outloud

    She made a hut. The frame was made from the rib bones of whales. Then she covered them with shrubbery. It was documented from when the spaniards came and rescued her when she was in her 50's. She hadn't been exposed to people so her immune system wasn't strong. She died 7 months after being rescued.

  • Per Oskarsson

    After a lot of talk the conclution of this video: no finding were made what so ever in this cave. Crazy

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