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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

7. Slavery and

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Lorenzo
- Lydia Maria
- William & Ellen Craft
- Frederick
- Briton Hammon
- Helen Hunt
- Harriet Jacobs
- Abraham Lincoln
- Sorrow Songs
- Harriet Beecher
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•  Activities

Authors: Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885)

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

Helen Hunt Jackson Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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