Primary Source: Chapter 29

Excerpt from Carl Dittman, “Narrative of a Seafaring Life on the Coast of California,” 1878, University of California, Bancroft Library, Berkeley. Manuscript C-D67.

Nidever however was not very sanguine about finding her as he had come to the conclusion that the dogs had eaten her and was very doubtful if even her bones could be found. He decided however to make a thorough examination of the upper end of the Island especially the high ridge which lay between the low sandy floor and the head of the Island. Accordingly after breakfast the next day, we took all of our men excepting the cook and proceeded to the low sandy flat aforementioned. Here I took them, 3 indians and an Irishman, and stretched them in a line across the end of the flat, we passed across to the other side leaving Nidever to follow along near the shore to the head of the Island over the same course he and I had taken the evening before. We reached the other side of the Island without finding a trace of the woman. I sent the men back with instructions to search thoroughly along both borders of the flat and especially to visit the bushes where we had found the basket on our previous visit to the Island. I did not return with them but I went up that side of the Island until I struck the footprints I had discovered the day before.

I followed the tracks up over the bank and from the print where they could no longer be seen continued to ascend the ridge. About half way up I found a small piece of drift wood which I concluded she must have dropped on her way from the beach with firewood. From where I found the piece of drift wood I could see three huts further up the ridge and having gone up to them I found them constructed of whales’ ribs and covered with brush although they were open all around and the high grass growing within them showed that they could not have been occupied for some time. From this point I could look over the whole length and breadth of the ridge and sand flat beyond where I could plainly see our men moving around.

I began to look about me and finally discovered at a distance on the N.E. side of the ridge and about halfway to its top, a small black object that from where I stood looked like a crow seated on a bush. I thought I saw it move, and so went towards it. I soon discovered that it was the Indian woman. She was seated within an inclosure similar to those already described so that until quite near her I could only see her head and shoulders. I approached her cautiously and was enabled to get within a few yards of her unobserved as she had her face turned from the direction in which I had come. While I was still some distance away two dogs, probably the same we had seen the day before began to growl whereupon she gave a yell and they went away; but she did not turn around. From this point I could plainly see our men searching about on the sandy flat, and I signaled to them by placing my hat on the ramrod of my gun and raising and lowering it until I succeeded in attracting their attention, when I made signs for them to come. The old woman saw them also, as every few minutes she would look toward the flat, shading her eyes from the sun with her hand and talking rapidly to herself. While the men were coming towards me I had an opportunity of observing the old woman and her surroundings. She was seated cross legged on the ground and was engaged in separating the blubber from a piece of seal skin which was lying across one knee and held by one hand. In the other hand she grasped a rude knife, a piece of iron hoop thrust into a rough piece of wood for a handle and held so that the back of the hand was turned down, scraping and cutting from, instead of towards her. Just outside the inclosure there was a high pile of ashes and bones showing that she had lived in this place some time. Baskets of grass and vessels of the same material made in the shape of a flagon and lined with asphaltum, used to hold water, were scattered about. On a sinew rope stretched between two poles several feet above the ground were hanging pieces of seal blubber, while near her was the head of a seal from which the brains, already putrid were running. Her covering consisted of a single garment of the shag’s [cormorant] skin, the feathers out and pointing downward, in shape resembling a loose gown. It was sleeveless, low in the neck and was girded at the waist with sinew rope. When she stood up, as I afterwards observed, it extended nearly to her ankles. She had no covering on her head; her hair which was thickly matted and bleached and a reddish brown, hung down to her shoulders.

As soon as the men came near enough I made signs for them to spread out and approach her in a circle, lest she should attempt to escape. While they were still some distance away, but sufficiently near to prevent her escape, I stepped around in front of her, but instead of seeing her startled and alarmed, I was surprised to have her bow and smile, as though it was a delight to see me and my visit an everyday occurrence. She began a rapid talking and gesticulating, all of which was wholly unintelligible to me. As fast as the men approached her she also bowed, smiled and talked to them. They all sat down in a circle around her while I made signals to Nidever who was in sight to come to us. After some delay he came up and we sat down with the men. Taking some roots from two bags or sacks made of grass she placed them in the coals and as soon as they were roasted she passed them around making motions for us to eat. One of the roots was what is commonly called carcomite [blue dick] among the Californians; the other I do not know the name of. The Indians among our men tried to talk with the old woman but did not succeed in making themselves understood, neither could they comprehend her language. Nidever asked the Indians if they thought the old woman could be taken by force if necessary. They replied that there would be no difficulty. Hearing this I told Nidever I did not think that there would be any necessity of using force, and that if she could be made to understand what was wanted that she would willingly go with us. Patting her on the shoulder to attract her attention I went through the motions of packing her things in to the baskets, placing this on my back and walking off in the direction of the beach, and then said vamos the Spanish for let us go. The motions she no doubt understood, but the word vamos seemed to be more intelligible, as upon hearing it her face brightened up and she set to work with alacrity to get ready. She filled her baskets and in the larger one she placed the seal’s head after replacing the putrid brains and tearing from it bits of adhering flesh. This basket she raised to her back and secured with straps passing over her shoulders and under her arms. She took other articles in her hands and started off towards the beach with a load that seemed heavy enough for mule. Two of our Indians went ahead of her while Nidever and I brought up the rear to guard against any attempt escape, although no such precaution was necessary. Upon reaching the beach we stopped at a spring that forms a little pool of water under a sort of mound of rocks, and situated but a few yards from the beach. One of the peculiarities of this spring was its surface, which is at all times ruffled with a cool breeze which seems to be continually playing over the pool. I noticed it on this occasion and at several times afterwards. The water was invariably clear and cool. Its source I should judge must have been high up on the ridge. Around this spring were several poles erected and on these we hung the things we had brought from the old woman’s place, for each of us had our hands full, and made motions for the old woman to do the same. We hung the things up very carefully and the old woman followed our example, without, to all appearances, the least reluctance. In the cracks and fissures of the rocks that formed the mound we found thrust a number of bones which we afterwards came to the conclusion had been placed here by the old woman, to furnish her food in time of need. I afterwards noticed that she always saved the bones contained in her food; placing them in baskets, to be taken out at intervals and sucked until they were drained of every particle of meat. She also saved the scraps of food that were left and ate them when she felt hungry. She ate very little at a time, but took food several times during the day.

From this spring we proceeded along the beach or rather on top of the bank until we arrived at a path that lead down to another spring on the beach. The men who were still ahead continued along the bank but the old woman went down the path to the spring. We saw she intended to wash herself, and so withdrew and waited until she returned when we continued along the bank to the boat. We made motions for her to get into the boat, which she did without any hesitation, and crawled forward to the bow, and there knelt down, holding on to the sides with her hands. Arrived on board, she crept up to the galley or stove which was on deck, and made signs that it was warm there. We had dinner as soon
as we got on board and gave the old woman some of our food. She ate heartily and with an apparent relish and our food at this and in fact at all times seemed to agree with her. That afternoon I busied myself in making a petticoat or skirt for her, out of ticking, and this with a man’s shirt, a black necktie and an old cape or cloak that Nidever gave her completed the dress she afterwards wore while with us on the Island. The following day we went on shore and put up a tent or shelter near the beach at a point already selected. Nearby we made a species of hut for the old woman who seemed perfectly contented with us making no attempt to leave us, although the opportunity was not wanting. Here we remained about a month. The old woman remained in camp with the cook, one of the Mission Indians, the rest of us being away after otter the greater part of each day. The old woman’s chief occupation was working on her baskets of which she had several
not yet completed, wandering about on the Island, or bringing wood and water. She was always anxious to help when she saw an opportunity of making herself useful. She was always cheerful, and always talking and laughing. She took readily to our food and only on one occasion showed any disposition to return to her former food. I killed an otter from shore one morning, and after hauling it ashore and skinning it were about to throw the carcass in to the water, to prevent its becoming offensive near camp. It had been dragged down to the edge of the water and was about thrown in when the old woman came running down to where it lay, talking and gesticulating excitedly, caught the otter by the flipper and hauled it back to where it had been skinned. Then she made signs to us that that was an inexcusable waste of meat. To humor her we let it remain where she had dragged it until it began to smell so strong that it was found necessary to remove the carcass. This time she made no objections, but on the contrary made signs that we should take it away, at the same time, to show here disgust she held her nose and made us understand that that meat was bad, and then pointing to ours and smacking her lips that she liked that better. The otter was a female and was with young, which she would have given birth to in a few days. We took the young one and after skinning it carefully, stuffed the skin and gave it to the old woman. She at once hung it by a string to the roof of her hut, and lying on her back under it would amuse herself for hours at a time by swinging it backwards and forwards. About a month later having secured something over 80 otter skins, and the otter having scattered we started on our return. We had barely left the Island when a gale sprang up so violent that several times we thought we should have to return to the Island. Late in the afternoon however we arrived in safety under the lee of Santa Cruz island and the next morning early reached Santa Barbara. When the gale sprang up after leaving the Island the old woman made signs to us that she was going to stop the wind. Accordingly she got down on her knees and remained so for some time apparently engaged in prayer, and facing in the direction of the wind. This she repeated several time during the day until the storm abated late in the afternoon, when turning to us she made signs that her prayers had been answered. On approaching the beach at Santa Barbara she saw, evidently for the first time, an ox cart, and a man on horse back at first sight of them her delight was unbounded. She laughed and danced, and continued to point at them and talk about them as long as they were in sight.

Last updated: July 22, 2019