Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885), activist for Native American rights and author of Southern California’s most enduring historical romance novel Ramona, was born and reared in Amherst , Massachusetts , a schoolmate and friend of the woman who would become Amherst’s most celebrated resident, poet Emily Dickinson. (Born Helen Maria Fiske, Jackson would be twice married: first to U.S. Army Capt. Edward B. Hunt who died in a military accident, then to William S. Jackson, a wealthy banker and railroad executive.)
“As soon as I began, it seemed impossible to write fast enough…I wrote faster than I would write a letter…two thousand to three thousand words in a morning, and I cannot help it.”
– Helen Hunt Jackson describing her writing of “Ramona”
Jackson grew up in a literary environment, and was herself a noted poet and writer of children’s stories, novels, and essays (under the pseudonym H.H.H.), before turning her considerable intellect and energy to investigating and publicizing the mistreatment of Native Americans, especially the Mission Indians of Southern California.
Her interest in the subject began in Boston in 1879 at a lecture by Chief Standing Bear who described the forced removal of the Ponca Indians from their Nebraska reservation. Jackson was incensed by what she heard and began to circulate petitions, raised money, and wrote letters to the New York Times on the Poncas’ behalf. As one observer noted, she became a “holy terror.” (Friends and critics have variously described her as “passionate,” “volatile,” “defiant” and “uncompromising.” Historian Antoinette May said she “lived a life that few women of her day had the courage to live.”) Jackson also began work on a book condemning the government’s Indian policy and its record of broken treaties. When A Century of Dishonor was published in 1881, Jackson sent a copy to every member of Congress with the following admonition printed in red on the cover: “Look upon your hands: they are stained with the blood of your relations.” To her disappointment, the book had little impact.
In need of a rest, Jackson traveled to Southern California to study the area’s missions, a subject that had piqued her interest during an earlier visit. While in Los Angeles , she met Don Antonio Coronel, former mayor of Los Angeles (1853-4), city councilman (1854-66) and State Treasurer (1866-70). Coronel was a well-known authority on early Californio life in Southern California , and also a former inspector of missions for the Mexican government. He described to Jackson the plight of Mission Indians after 1833, when secularization policies led to the sale of mission lands and the dispersal of their residents.
“Many of the original Mexican grants included clauses protecting the Indians on the lands they occupied,” writes Valerie Mathes, author of Helen Hunt Jackson : Official Agent to the California Mission Indians. “When Americans assumed control,” Mathes continues, “they ignored Indian claims to lands, which led to their mass dispossessions. In 1852, there were an estimated 15,000 Mission Indians in Southern California , but because of the adverse impact of dispossessions by Americans, they numbered less than 4,000 by the time of Helen’s visit.”
Don Coronel’s stories galvanized Jackson into action. Soon her efforts on behalf of dispossessed Indians in Southern California came to the attention of the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hiram Price, who recommended her appointment as an Interior Department agent. Her assignment was “to visit the Mission Indians in California , and ascertain the location and condition of various bands…and what, if any land, should be purchased for their use.”
With the assistance of Indian agent and entrepreneur Abbot Kinney, Jackson criss-crossed Southern California , documenting the appalling conditions they saw. At one point, she hired a law firm to protect the rights of a family of Saboba Indians facing dispossession of their land at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains . Her 56-page report, completed in 1883, called for a massive government relief effort, ranging from the purchase of new lands for reservations to the establishment of more Indian schools. A bill largely embodying Jackson’s recommendations passed the U.S. Senate but died in the House.
Undaunted by Congress’ rejection, Jackson decided to write a novel that would depict the Indian experience “in a way to move people’s hearts.” She was particularly drawn to the fate of her Indian friends in the Temecula area of Riverside County . The inspiration for her book, Jackson admitted, was Uncle Tom’s Cabin written years earlier by her friend, Harriet Beecher Stowe. “If I can do one hundredth part for the Indian that Mrs. Stowe did for the Negro, I will be thankful,” she told a friend. The result was Ramona, which Jackson began writing in a New York City hotel room in December 1883. Originally titled, “In The Name of the Law,” the book was completed in slightly over three months and published in November 1884. “Every incident in Ramona…is true,” Jackson said later. “A Cahuilla Indian was shot two years ago exactly as Alessandro is “and his wife’s name was Ramona and I never knew this last fact until Ramona was half written!” Later, a local writer, George Wharton James, would lecture and write books linking Ramona to an actual murder. He even recorded the murderer’s voice on an early Edison cylinder phonograph!
Encouraged by the book’s popularity, Jackson planned to write a children’s story on the Indian issue, but died of cancer on August 12, 1885, less than a year after Ramona was published. Her last letter was written to President Grover Cleveland, urging him to read her early work, “A Century of Dishonor.” Jackson told a friend: “My Century of Dishonor and Ramona are the only things I have done of which I am glad…They will live, and…bear fruit.”
Ramona has indeed borne fruit over the years, but in ways unimagined by the author. Writing in “Los Angeles: A to Z,” Leonard and Dale Pitt note: “Although Jackson’s novel, about a part-Indian orphan raised in Spanish society and her Indian husband, achieved almost instant success, it failed to arouse public concern for the treatment of local Native Americans. Instead, readers accepted the sentimentalized Spanish aristocracy that was portrayed, and the Ramona myth was born. Jackson died a year after her novel was published, never knowing the impact her book made on the Southern California heritage. The novel Ramona has inspired films [the first directed by D.W. Griffith], songs [the 1920s hit "Ramona"], and a long-running pageant in Hemet , California . And the name Ramona can be seen on street signs and commercial establishments throughout Southern California .”
(The Ramona Pageant, a staged adaptation of Jackson’s novel, opened in 1923 and is held annually over three consecutive weekends in April and May in the Ramona Bowl, a natural amphitheater in the foothills above Hemet in Riverside County, California. The pageant features a 400-member cast, made up largely of area residents, and is described as the largest and longest-running outdoor play in the nation. For information, call 909-658-3111.)
Helen Hunt Jackson : Official Agent to the California Mission Indians by Valerie Sherer Mathes appears in Women in the Life of Southern California, (1996), an anthology compiled from Southern California Quarterly, a publication of the Historical Society of Southern California edited by Doyce B. Nunis, Jr. The story of Helen Hunt Jackson and Ramona is also told in a half-hour video, “Ramona: A Story of Protest and Passion,” produced by Wilkman Productions, Inc. in association with KCET-TV. It is available by special order from the Historical Society of Southern California.
— contributed by Albert Greenstein, 1999