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Wild West Legendary Women

Helen Hunt Jackson


(October 18, 1830 - August 12, 1885)



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.

After her first husband's death (and that of her two young sons), Jackson moved to Colorado Springs where she married William Sharpless Jackson. It was on a visit to Boston that she learned of the unjust treatment of Indians during a lecture and spent countless years crusading for public awareness. She founded the Boston Indian Citizenship Association. Her crusade lasted until her death in 1885 when even from her deathbed she wrote President Grover Cleveland a letter urging the Indian cause.

Background:
She was born Helen Maria Fiske in Amherst, Massachusetts.  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.

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.

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".

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