Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Ramona: A 19th Century Romance

by Lyn Horner

Helen Hunt, c. 1850-1860

Helen Hunt Jackson (October 15, 1830 – August 12, 1885), was an American writer who became an activist on behalf of Native Americans, calling for reform in U.S. Indian policies. Born Helen Maria Fiske in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was the daughter of a minister who also served as a professor of Latin, Greek, and philosophy at Amherst College. She had two brothers, both of whom died soon after birth, and one sister, Anne.

The girls’ mother died in 1844, when Helen was fifteen, and their father died three years later. Financially provided for, Helen attended Ipswich Female Seminary and the Abbott Institute, a boarding school in New York City. She was a classmate of Emily Dickinson and the two corresponded throughout their lives.

In 1852, Helen married U.S. Army Captain Edward Bissell Hunt. They had two sons, both of whom died as young children. In 1863, her husband also died in a military accident. After her tragic losses, Helen Hunt began writing. She published her early work anonymously, usually under the name "H.H." Ralph Waldo Emerson admired her poetry and used several of her poems in his public readings.

Hunt traveled extensively. While in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1873-74, she met William Sharpless Jackson, a wealthy banker and railroad executive. They married in 1875 and she was best known under the name Jackson in her later writings.

Ponca Chief Standing Bear; Public domain

In 1879, Jackson attended a lecture in Boston given by Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe. The chief described the forcible removal of the Ponca from Nebraska to a reservation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), and their terrible living conditions there. Disturbed by these revelations, Jackson began investigating and publicizing government misconduct in Indian affairs. She circulated petitions, raised money and wrote letters, carrying on heated exchanges with federal officials over the injustices committed against Native Americans.

Hunt exposed government treaty violations and documented the corruption of Indian agents, military officers, and settlers who encroached on and stole Indian lands. She won support from several newspaper editors who published her reports. One of her favorite targets was U.S. Secretary of Interior Carl Schurz, who she once called "the most adroit liar I ever knew.”

Carl Schurz,1870-1880; Public domain

In 1881, Helen Hunt Jackson published A Century of Dishonor, in which she condemned state and federal Indian policies. She recounted a shameful history of broken treaties and called for sweeping governmental reforms toward Native Americans. The author sent a copy to every member of Congress with a quote from Benjamin Franklin printed in red on the cover: "Look upon your hands: they are stained with the blood of your relations."

The New York Times later wrote that Hunt "soon made enemies at Washington by her often unmeasured attacks, and while on general lines she did some good, her case was weakened by her inability, in some cases, to substantiate the charges she had made; hence many who were at first sympathetic fell away."

Helen went to southern California to rest. Interested in the area's missions and Mission Indians, she began another investigation. In Los Angeles, she met Don Antonio Coronel, former mayor of the city and an authority on early Californio life. He had served as inspector of missions for the Mexican government. Coronel told her about the plight of the Mission Indians under Mexican rule and later the U.S., leading to their removal from mission lands. Under its original land grants, the Mexican government allowed resident Indians to occupy such lands. After taking control of the territory in 1848, the U.S. dismissed most Mission Indian occupancy claims. In 1852, an estimated 15,000 Mission Indians lived in Southern California. By the time of Jackson's visit, they numbered fewer than 4,000.

Jackson approached the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hiram Price, who recommended her appointment as an Interior Department agent. Her task was to visit the Mission Indians, ascertain their location and living conditions, and determine if lands should be purchased for their use. Jackson traveled throughout Southern California and documented her findings. She submitted her 56-page report in 1883. It recommended broad government relief for the Mission Indians, including the purchase of lands for reservations and the establishment of more Indian schools. A bill embodying her recommendations passed the U.S. Senate but died in the House of Representatives.

Jackson decided to write a novel to reach a wider audience. To Don Antonio Coronel, she wrote, “I am going to write a novel, in which will be set forth some Indian experiences in a way to move people's hearts. People will read a novel when they will not read serious books. She was inspired by her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). "If I could write a story that would do for the Indian one-hundredth part what Uncle Tom's Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful the rest of my life."

First Edition cover; Public domain

Jackson’s novel, Ramona, was published in 1884. The main character, Ramona, was an orphan girl, half Indian and half Scots, raised in Spanish California. The story relates her and her Indian husband Alessandro’s struggle for land of their own. The characters were based on people Jackson knew and the story on incidents she had encountered. A great success among a wide reading public, the book was popular for generations, with an estimated 300 reprints. Its romantic story brought many tourists to Southern California, wanting to see places described in the novel.

Encouraged by her book's popularity, Jackson planned to write a children's story about Indian issues, but did not live to complete it. Her last letter was written to President Grover Cleveland. In it she said:

Helen Hunt Jackson; before 1885

"From my death bed I send you message of heartfelt thanks for what you have already done for the Indians. I ask you to read my Century of Dishonor. I am dying happier for the belief I have that it is your hand that is destined to strike the first steady blow toward lifting this burden of infamy from our country and righting the wrongs of the Indian race."

Jackson died of stomach cancer in 1885 in San Francisco, California. Her husband arranged for her burial near Seven Falls at Inspiration Point overlooking Colorado Springs, Colorado. Her remains were later moved to Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs.

One year after Jackson's death the North American Review described Ramona as "unquestionably the best novel yet produced by an American woman" and named it, along with Uncle Tom's Cabin, as the two most ethical novels of the 19th century. The book has never been out of print and has been adapted for four films as well as stage and television productions. 


  1. Wow -- adapted for 4 films. How have I not heard of this book?!

    1. Yvonne, I have heard of Ramona before but did not know the story or the background of the story. Jackson was very passionate about her cause of helping the Native Americans.

      Thanks for popping in!

  2. Helen certainly had her share and more of losses. I admire her for picking up her life and carrying on. I am very happy that she finally had a husband who was with her to the end. Amazingly, this is the first time I have heard of her novel, RAMONA.
    I can see how her writing was like therapy for her.
    A lovely and interesting blog, Lyn. I wish you all the very best.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. Yes, Helen was a fighter. She overcame tragedy and gave her life purpose. I'm glad you enjoyed her story.

  3. Where have I been? Helen Hunt sounds familiar, but the last name with it, doesn't. And Ramona? I have not heard of that, either. It's sad how young everyone died during that decade. And I shudder at the thought of dying of stomach cancer. She was an outstanding woman, one of great intelligence who used it to helps others. I admire her. This post is excellent---very well done, and of great interests. Thanks.

  4. Amazing how much a woman could do, if she set her mind on the cause. And think how much time she spent traveling back and forth across the country. I just looked on Amazon and downloaded a free ebook of Ramona. Thanks for posting about Helen.


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