Monday, October 8, 2018


By Caroline Clemmons 

A novelist and a poet, Helen Jackson's remarkable "A Century of Dishonor" stirred public outrage over the U.S. government's mistreatment of Native Americans. Her book centered on seven tribes, among them: Cheyennes, Nez Perce, Sioux, Cherokees and detailed four massacres in particular. At her own expense, she sent a copy of the book to every member of Congress. She was born in Massachusetts in 1830 and became a lifelong friend of poet Emily Dickinson.

Helen Hunt Jackson

She was born Helen Maria Fiske in Amherst, Massachusetts on October 18, 1830.  She had two brothers, both of whom died shortly after birth, and a sister named Anne. Her father was a minister, author, and professor of Latin, Greek, and philosophy at Amherst College.  Her mother died in 1844, and her father died three years later, leaving her in the care of an aunt.

She had a good education, having attended Ipswich Female Seminary and the Abbott Institute, a boarding school in New York City. She was a classmate of the poet Emily Dickinson, also from Amherst. The two carried on a correspondence for all of their lives, but few of their letters have survived.

In 1852, Helen Fiske married United States Army Captain Edward Bissell Hunt, who died in a military accident in 1863. Her son Murray Hunt died in 1854 of a brain disease and her other son, Rennie Hunt, died of diphtheria in 1865.  Helen began traveling and writing after these deaths.
In the winter of 1873-1874 she was in Colorado Springs, Colorado in search of a cure for tuberculosis. There she met William Sharpless Jackson, a wealthy banker and railroad executive. They married in 1875, together just ten years before she died of cancer in 1885.

Scholars know her as Helen Hunt Jackson, but she never used that name herself—she only used one married name at a time: Helen Hunt or Helen Jackson.

Standing Bear, Ponca Chief

In 1879, her interests turned to the plight of the Native Americans after attending a lecture in Boston by Ponca Chief Standing Bear, who described the forcible removal of the Ponca Indians from their Nebraska reservation. Jackson was angered by what she heard regarding the unfair treatment at the hands of government agents and became an activist. She started investigating and publicizing the wrongdoing, circulating petitions, raising money, and writing letters to The New York Times on behalf of the Poncas.

She also started writing a book condemning the Indian policy of the government and the history of broken treaties.  Her book, "A Century of Dishonor", called for drastic changes to be made; it was published in 1881.  Jackson then sent a copy to every member of Congress with an admonishment printed in red on the cover, "Look upon your hands: they are stained with the blood of your relations." But, to her disappointment, the book had little impact.

She then went to southern California to take a much needed rest. She had become interested in the area's missions and the Mission Indians on an earlier visit, and now she began an in-depth study. While in Los Angeles, California, she met Don Antonio Coronel, a former mayor and city councilman who had also served as State Treasurer. He was a well-known authority on early life in the area and was also a former inspector of missions for the Mexican government. Don Antonio described to Jackson the plight of the 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 land grants had clauses protecting the Indians on the lands they occupied. But when Americans assumed control of the southwest after the Mexican-American War, they ignored Indian claims to these lands, which led to mass dispossessions. In 1852, there were an estimated fifteen thousand Mission Indians in Southern California. But, because of the adverse impact of dispossessions by Americans, by the time of Jackson's visit they numbered less than four thousand.

The stories told by Don Antonio spurred Jackson into action. Her efforts soon came to the attention of the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hiram Price, who recommended she be appointed an Interior Department agent. Jackson's assignment was to visit the Mission Indians and ascertain the location and condition of various bands, and determine what lands, if any, should be purchased for their use. With the help of Indian agent Abbot Kinney, Jackson criss-crossed Southern California and documented the appalling conditions she saw. At one point, she hired a law firm to protect the rights of a family of Soboba Indians facing dispossession of their land at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains.

During this time, Jackson read an account in a Los Angeles newspaper about a Cahuilla Indian who had been shot and killed. His wife, it turned out, was named Ramona.

In 1883, she completed her fifty-six page report, which called for a massive government relief efforts, and while a bill embodying her recommendations passed the U.S. Senate, it died in the House of Representatives.

Not discouraged, Jackson decided to write a novel that would depict the Indian experience "in a way to move people's hearts." An inspiration for the undertaking, 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 most famous of the
many novels by
Ms Jackson

Jackson was particularly drawn to the fate of her Indian friends in the Temecula area of Riverside County, California and used the story of what happened to them in her novel which was begun in December 1883, with an original title of In "The Name of the Law".  The manuscript was completed in slightly over three months and it became her classic novel, "Ramona", about a part-Indian orphan raised in Spanish California society and her Indian husband, Alessandro.  Published in November 1884, it achieved almost instant success.

Jackson then intended to write a children's story on the Indian issue but her health was deteriorating rapidly and she died of cancer in San Francisco, California in August 1885.

Her last letter was written to President Grover Cleveland, urging him to read her early work "A Century of Dishonor". Speaking to a friend, Jackson said, "My Century of Dishonor" and "Ramona" are the only things I have done of which I am glad. They will live and bear fruit."

Each year, the city of Hemet stages "The Ramona Pageant", an outdoor play based on Jackson's novel "Ramona".

Monument and plaque in memory
of Helen Hunt Jackson

At her request, Jackson was buried October 31, 1885, at Inspiration Point in scenic South Cheyenne Canyon, southwest of Colorado Springs. Because the scores of people flocking to her gravesite were threatening the natural beauty of the canyon, her remains were moved to the family plot at Evergreen Cemetery, Colorado Springs, on November 7, 1891. The land is now part of Seven Falls, a privately owned recreation area that charges an entrance fee. The plaque on the large mound of rocks that was her original burial site reads:

Oh, write of me, not "Died in bitter pains,"
But "Emigrated to another star!"
~Helen Hunt Jackson


Caroline Clemmons writes western historical romances. Her latest is BLESSING, the story of a young woman who wants to help save the closest town and aid the women who live there. Thad King is in search of killers and has tracked stolen horses to Blessing's ranch. This is second in the multi-author series The Widows of Wildcat Gulch. 

Buy link at Amazon is 


  1. You have done honor to Helen Hunt Jackson with this beautiful piece. She was a true champion for Native American rights. Doris McGraw has portrayed her on the stage for many years tho' I haven't been able to see her.Thank you, Caroline

  2. What a fascinating woman!So many people have tried so hard. The plight still continues.

  3. Very interesting post. Glad to know about this amazing lady. And how wonderful for both of them that she was lifelong friends with Emily Dickinson.

  4. I've performed as and written about this amazing woman for over fifteen years. She never fails to inspire and I visit her last resting place frequently. Thanks for keeping her alive. Doris


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West!