Dr. Sara Schwebel, Professor of English, University of South Carolina and editor of Island of the Blue Dolphins: The Complete Reader’s Edition (University of California Press, 2016). Dr. Schwebel discusses Karana jumping overboard as the ship is leaving the island.
When Karana realized that the ship carrying her people away from the Island of the Blue Dolphins would not turn back to collect six-year-old Ramo, she “flung” herself “into the sea.” It is a dramatic moment! Where did this idea of Karana swimming back to shore come from?
Scott O’Dell conducted extensive research on the Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island when he was writing his novel. He learned about a supposed jump overboard during this research. In fact, the story of the jump overboard appeared in what historians believe is the very first written account of the California Indian who remained behind on San Nicolas Island when the rest of her people were removed to the California mainland, in 1835. An 1847 article that was first printed in a Boston newspaper includes the following description:
The order had been given to shove from the shore; the oars had dipped in the wave; the boat was rising on the foaming surf, then breaking on the beach with awful roar, when, with the impulse of the moment as it were, this young and blooming bride of the red man, the imprint of whose footstep had been the last left on the sands of her island home, waved an adieu to her chosen mate, plunged into the abyss, “strove through the surge,” and, in another moment, stood alone on the shores of her native land.
In this passage from a January 7 article in the Boston Atlas, we can see some details that make their way into O’Dell’s depiction of Karana. The Lone Woman is “young” and she “plunged into the abyss”—that is, she jumped into a deep, angry ocean that was like a bottomless pit. The journalist describes the Lone Woman’s jump as taking place during a storm that prevented the boat from turning back. The surf is “foaming” and the ocean’s waves are “breaking on the beach with [an] awful roar.”
After it was published, the Boston Atlas newspaper article was reprinted in a number of other newspapers as far away as New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and even Hawaii! More importantly, once this 1847 account of the Lone Woman appeared in print, the detail of her jumping into the sea and swimming back to shore was repeated in many other accounts of the Lone Woman’s life.
Scott O’Dell probably didn’t read the Boston Atlas story but instead read other accounts, published as late as the 1950s, that took their information from the Boston Atlas and its reprintings. (If you read Scott O’Dell’s author’s note in Island of the Blue Dolphins, you’ll see that he says that the details of the jump overboard come from the “reports of Captain Hubbard.” This is probably incorrect as no such records of Captain Hubbard have been found by researchers.)
Did the real Lone Woman jump or dive into the sea? We can’t know for sure, but it seems unlikely. Other accounts state that she never got on board the ship in the first place. Why, then, did the jump overboard become central to so many stories about the Lone Woman, including Island of the Blue Dolphins? It makes a good story! And during the 1800s (nineteenth century), newspaper writers were not expected to limit themselves to facts. Like novelists (or fiction writers) in the past and today, they were encouraged to write what people would be excited to read.