Helen Maria Hunt Jackson was an American author best known for Ramona, a novel about the bad treatment of Indians (Native Americans) in the Temecula area of Southern California.
She was born October 18, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. She died August 12, 1885 from stomach cancer in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
You can download a free copy of Ramona (1884) from Project Gutenberg. You can also get some of her other works there: Bits about Home Matters (1873), Saxe Holm's Stories (1874), Mercy Philbrick's Choice (1876), Between Whiles (1888), A Calendar of Sonnets (1891), and Ryan Thomas (1892).
Helen Interest in the Indians
Helen's interest in Indian affairs began in 1879. She went to a lecture in Boston where she heard Ponca Chief Standing Bear tell about the forcible removal of the Ponca from the Nebraska reservation. She became upset at the U.S. Government's treatment of the Indians and became an Indian Rights activist. She started investigating and documenting government misconduct, circulating petitions, raising money, and writing letters to the New York Times on behalf of the Poncas.
Helen also started writing a book condemning the state and federal Indian policies and the long history of broken treaties. A Century of Dishonor was published in 1881. In it she called for major reforms to the government policies towards the Indians. After the book was published she 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." Unfortunately, no one in Congress cared.
Her health was failing so she went to Southern California for rest and recuperation. She became familiar with the Southern California missions and the Mission Indians through her friend Don Antonio Coronel, a former State Treasurer and former mayor of Los Angeles. He was a well-known authority the life of the Californios in the area. He told Helen about the sale of mission lands and removal of their resident Indians after 1833.
Many, if not most, of the original Mexican land grants in California had clauses (somewhat) protecting the Indians. When the Americans arrived after the Mexican-American War they ignored the Indians' rights and claims. In 1852 there were an estimated 15,000 Mission Indians in Southern California. By the time Helen arrived there were less than 4,000.
Antonio's tales got Helen upset and into action. The U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hiram Price, heard about Helen's activities and recommended that she be appointed to a post as an Department of Interior Indian Agent. Part of her job was to recommend lands that should be purchased and given to the Indians. Another Indian Agent, Abbot Kinney, traveled with Helen all around Southern California documenting the horrible living conditions of the Indians. At one point, she hired a law firm to protect the rights of a family of Soboba Indians facing removal from their land at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains.
Around the same time, Helen read a news story in a Los Angeles newspaper about a Cahuilla Indian who had been shot and killed. The Cahuilla man's wife was named Ramona.
In 1883, Helen completed her report, calling for a huge government relief effort which included purchasing new lands for reservations and building more Indian schools. Her recommendation became a bill that passed in the U.S. Senate in Washington, DC. However, the bill died in the House of Representatives.
After the failure in Congress, Helen began writing a novel about the Indians' lives "in a way to move people's hearts." Uncle Tom's Cabin, by her friend, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a big inspiration. "If I can do one-hundredth part for the Indian that Mrs. Stowe did for the Negro, I will be thankful," she said to a friend.
In December 1883, the story of her Cahuilla friends in the Temecula area (Riverside County, California) became the basis for her novel In The Name of the Law. She finished it in three months. The result was her story of an half-Indian orphan, Ramona, that grew up in Californio society and married an Indian, Alessandro. The book was renamed Ramona and published in November 1884 becoming a huge success.
Ramona did so well that she decided to write a children's book about the Mission Indians. Unfortunately, Helen died less than a year later from stomach cancer.
Helen's last letter was written to President Grover Cleveland, begging him to read her earlier book, A Century of Dishonor. Before she died, Helen said to 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."
Since 1923, The Ramona Pageant, an outdoor play based on Ramona, is put on at the Soboba Indian Reservation near Hemet, California.