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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Slavery and Freedom Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885)

[5244] Anonymous, Ramona (n.d.), courtesy of the San Diego Historical Society.

A committed activist for Native American rights, Helen Hunt Jackson provides an important context for understanding Indian slavery and exploitation in the California region. Born Helen Maria Fiske to strict, Calvinist parents and orphaned in her teens, Jackson was raised and educated in female boarding schools in Massachusetts and New York. In 1852 she married Edward Bissell Hunt of the politically and socially prominent Hunt family of New York. Edward was a career officer in the U.S. engineer corps, so the couple moved around a great deal as a result of his army postings. In 1854, the Hunts’ first child died at the age of eleven months from a brain tumor. In 1863, after serving in the Civil War, Edward was killed while experimenting with a submarine explosive device. Two years later, the Hunts’ only surviving child died of diphtheria. Devastated by these family tragedies, Jackson moved in 1866 to Newport, Rhode Island, to rest and recuperate. There she cultivated a literary circle of friends and found encouragement to produce her own creative work. Her first poems, about motherhood and the loss of her son, were favorably received and found a large audience. For Jackson, writing soon became both a passion and a profitable way to make a living. She was extremely prolific, producing hundreds of poems, essays, stories, book reviews, articles, and travel sketches for the leading periodicals of the day.

In 1873, poor health and respiratory problems prompted Jackson to move to Colorado Springs, where she believed the mountain air would cure her. She soon met and married William Sharpless Jackson, a Pennsylvania Quaker who had made his fortune as a banker in Colorado. Although her new husband was wealthy, Jackson continued to earn an independent living, publishing stories and travel sketches about life in the West.

In 1879, while she was visiting Boston, the course of her life and writing was forever changed when she attended a lecture given by Standing Bear, chief of the Ponca tribe, that detailed the abuses that his tribe had suffered at the hands of the U.S. government. Jackson was deeply moved by the Poncas’ plight, declaring “I cannot think of anything else from morning to night.” Although she had never identified herself with any of the prominent reform movements of the nineteenth century (such as abolitionism or women’s suffrage), Jackson became committed to generating public support for Native American rights, devoting the remainder of her life to a crusade for justice for the Indians. In order to lend greater authority to her cause, she did exhaustive research in the Astor Library in New York, where she investigated documents related to United States Indian policy starting from the Revolutionary period. She gathered her findings together into a book, A Century of Dishonor (1881), narrating the history of cultural insensitivity, dishonest land dealings, and devastating violence that the American government had perpetrated upon various Indian tribes. Her work attracted the attention of President Chester Arthur, who appointed her a commissioner of Indian affairs among the Mission Indians of California.

Despite these successes, Jackson was frustrated by the slow pace of reform and the sense that her activism was having little effect on government policy. In 1884, she adopted a new strategy to promote Indian reform, deciding to write a novel that would engage the sympathies of white Americans. The result, Ramona, is a sentimental novel about a virtuous half-Indian, half-white woman and her Indian husband, harassed and downtrodden by racial bigotry and unjust Indian policies. Ramona was an immediate bestseller; the novel has gone through over three hundred printings since its initial publication and has been the subject of many plays, films, and pageants. It is Jackson’s most popular work, and the piece for which she is best remembered. She died of cancer one year after the publication of Ramona.

Teaching Tips

  • Jackson consciously modeled Ramona after Uncle Tom’s Cabin; she hoped to “do one-hundredth part for the Indian as Mrs. Stowe did for the Negro” and later referred to herself as an “Indian Harriet Beecher Stowe.” Ask students to think about the relationship between the two novels and the similarities of their goals for social reform. Ask them to consider why Jackson would have chosen Stowe as a model when her crusade for Indian rights seemed to be stalling. You might also ask students to research what social reforms were enacted around the time of Ramona’s publication. Ask them to consider why Ramona was not as effective a piece of social propaganda as Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
  • Ramona depicts Spanish rule in California in romantic and nostalgic terms; it is mainly the encroaching white Americans who are characterized as greedy and cruel (perhaps to arouse the consciences of Jackson’s white American readers). Ask students to think about Lorenzo Asisara’s narrative of Indian life in the Spanish missions as they read Ramona. Ask them why Jackson would have ignored evidence that the Spanish system was often as unjust and exploitative as American policies were.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How does Ramona challenge stereotypes nineteenth-century Americans held about Native Americans? About Spanish settlers in California? How does the novel play into common stereotypes?
  2. Context: Ramona is portrayed as the product of two cultures: European and Native American. How does she compare with the figure of the “tragic mulatta” (see the “Beyond the Pale” extended context later in this unit)? How does the resolution of Ramona’s fate at the end of the novel undercut the message of Indian equality and the call for reform?
  3. Exploration: Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Helen Hunt Jackson claimed that her social reform novel was the result of something akin to divine inspiration; she insisted, “I did not write Ramona. It was written through me.” What is at stake in this kind of denial of authorship? Why might it have served Stowe’s and Jackson’s purposes? How might their status as women writers and social activists have informed their claims to divine inspiration?

Selected Archive Items

[5237] Anonymous, Helen Hunt Jackson, Young Girl (1845),
courtesy of Colorado College, Tutt Library Special Collections.
Born in 1830 to strict, Calvinist parents, Helen Hunt Jackson was orphaned in her teens and educated in female boarding schools in Massachusetts and New York. Jackson is most famous for her work on behalf of Native Americans, including her books A Century of Dishonor and Ramona.

[5238] Anonymous, Helen Hunt Jackson (c. 1875),
courtesy of Colorado College, Tutt Library Special Collections.
At the time of this portrait, Helen Hunt was a vocal advocate for Native American rights. In 1882 she was appointed as a special commissioner for Indian affairs, the first woman to hold such a position.

[5240] Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona manuscript page (c. 1883),
courtesy of Colorado College, Tutt Library Special Collections.
Helen Hunt Jackson hoped that Ramona would call attention to the mistreatment of California’s Indians in the same way that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had highlighted the plight of slaves.

[5244] Anonymous, Ramona (n.d.),
courtesy of the San Diego Historical Society.
Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona explored prejudice, interracial marriage, and the injustices done to California Indians.

[7866-not found] Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona: A Story (1884),
courtesy of the Reed College Library.
Ramona is a sentimental novel about a virtuous half-Indian, half-white woman and her Indian husband, who are downtrodden by racism and unjust Indian policies. An immediate bestseller, Ramona has gone through over three hundred printings since its initial publication and has inspired many plays, films, and pageants.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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