David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Helen Hunt Jackson. By Evelyn I. Banning. New York: The Vanguard Press, 1973. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Notes: 248 pages. No price listed.
Reviewed by Elizabeth C. MacPhail, Author of The Story of New San Diego, (1969) and articles in the Journal of San Diego History: “The Davis House” (Fall 1971); “Allen Hutchinson, British Sculptor” (Spring 1973), and “When the Red Lights Went Out in San Diego“ (Spring 1974).
This new biography of Helen Hunt Jackson should go a long way toward separating fact from fiction that has surrounded both the author and her famous novel, Ramona. Some San Diegans still have the mental picture of Mrs. Jackson sitting in a rocking chair at “Ramona’s Marriage Place” (false), writing Ramona from stories she had heard while visiting Southern California (true). But it is her earlier non-fiction book, Century of Dishonor, recently republished in paperback, that today’s students of the American Indian consider one of the best on the subject, although written nearly one hundred years ago.
Helen Maria Fiske was born in 1830 at Amherst, where her father was a professor of languages. In 1852 she married Lt. Edward B. Hunt and lived in Washington, D.C., then a city of “causes,” but she took no part in either the question of slavery or women’s rights. Hunt invented what he called a “sea miner,” a submergible vessel capable of firing a projectile—perhaps the first “submarine.” In 1863, while his invention was being tested at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, he was killed in an accident. The Hunts had two sons; one lived less than a year, and the second died soon after his father. Helen went into seclusion and mourning, and then finally began writing poetry to ease her sorrow. At that time women authors were not regarded with much esteem so she used her initials H.H. She wrote a series of successful short stories under the name. of Saxe Holm. Her authorship was known among the literary elite, however, and by 1868 she was recognized in a class with Harriet Beecher Stowe and Louisa May Alcott. Helen was not like some writers who would accept whatever pay was offered. She set her price and stuck to it. She said, “I never write for money. I write for love, then after it is written I print for money.”
In 1875 she married William S. Jackson of Colorado Springs, a successful banker and railroad man. The Jackson marriage was one in which each went his separate way. Jackson belittled Helen’s writing, and his business took him away from home much of the time. She, in turn spent much time in the East with her friends, who were among the literary greats of the 19th Century. In 1879 Helen learned of the plight of the Ponca Indians of Nebraska, who had been moved years before from their homeland. Recently some had returned to Omaha and were declared “free,” but they were free to starve because there was no way for them to make a living. Helen began to research the Poncas, and her research disclosed the poor treatment of Indians in other states. She wrote, “I believe the time is drawing near for a great change in our policy toward the Indians.” Scribner’s Magazine published her article, “Wards of the United States Government,” which stressed the broken treaties with the Indians. It created quite a stir and called for an explanation from the Secretary of the Interior. She then wrote the book A Century of Dishonor published in 1881. Its major thesis was that the United States had followed an outrageous Indian policy in defiance of all principles of justice. The book was criticized as being “unbelievable and hysterical.”
Helen agreed to go to California for Century Magazine and write about the missions. She arrived in Los Angeles in December 1881, staying at the Pico House. From there she visited the missions and some of the large ranchos in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties. The Camulos Rancho, an adobe near Ventura, especially impressed her, and she later used it as background for her novel Ramona.
On March 3, 1882, she arrived in San Diego on the Orizaba, and registered at the Horton House, and then contacted the persons to whom she had letters of introduction. They were Father Antonio Ubach, of the San Diego Parish, E. W. Morse, a leading business man, and Rev. David Cronyn, Pastor of the Unitarian Church. She and Mr. and Mrs. Morse (Mary Chase Walker, first school teacher at the Old School House in Old Town) became good friends. They showed her about the town and drove her out Point Loma, which Helen declared to be “the most beautiful in America.” With Father Ubach she visited the missions and mission Indians. The Old San Diego Mission was in ruins, but next to it Father Ubach had built a school for Indian children. Helen visited Rancho Santa Margarita y Las Flores, with its 9000 acres of fine stock, Rancho Guajome, Cave Couts’ twenty room hacienda, “the richest in Southern California,” and the valley of San Pasqual where there were beautiful wheat fields on grounds originally set aside for the Indians. She compared all this luxury and wealth with the destitution of the Indians. She went to Soboba, then a fertile village with a natural spring where 150 Indians were living. Miss Mary Sheriff, the school teacher, told Helen, “They are in danger of losing their land and I may lose my children.” Helen spent one night at Wolf Tavern in Temecula. The wife of the owner was named Ramona, a name Helen thought unusual and beautiful.
In 1882 Helen was appointed Special Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Southern California by President Chester A. Arthur, and was asked to make a report on the condition of the mission Indians. She returned to California in February 1883. One of the first things she was told when she arrived in San Diego was that the Indians at Soboba had been ordered off their land. She learned that when patents were issued by the United States government to the owners of the old Spanish and Mexican land grants, no provision was made for the Indians who might be occupying them. Consequently the owners were driving them off and the Indians were constantly being forced to move. Her work was not appreciated, local residents referring to her as the “junketing female commissioner.” In July she sent her report to the government, stressing the need for more schools, equipment and money for the aged and sick, but felt this was not enough. If she could write a novel, as Mrs. Stowe had done, perhaps more people would read it and in this way she could move the nation to right a wrong.
Ramona was written in New York and from there Mrs. Jackson wrote Morse and Ubach for further details about the ejection of the Indians at Temecula, and the taking of sheep from Indians at Pala and San Luis Rey. She began her story at sheepshearing time in Southern California, something she had witnessed. She asked Morse for details of the shooting of a Cahuilla Indian on the charge of horsestealing. The San Diego Union of April 1, 1883, had carried the story saying the Indian had taken Sam Temple’s horse, and when Temple caught up with him he refused to return it. The killing of a horse thief was justifiable homicide, and there was no sympathy for an Indian.
By March 1884 her story first appeared in serial form and was an instant successs. She was disturbed, however, because the success of the book seemed to be due to the love story of Ramona and Alessandro-not the plight of the Indians. There was speculation as to the true identities of the persons and places referred to in the book. She said, “I am not writing history.” Nevertheless, the story was based on facts she had learned in Southern California and some of the characters were drawn from persons she had met, particularly Father Ubach who became Father Gaspara in the novel. Over the years there were several who claimed to be the true Ramona. (Father Ubach always said that had he married such a couple it would not have been at “Ramona’s Marriage Place,” the Estudillo House today, but in the little chapel on Conde Street.)
Mrs. Jackson died of cancer in San Francisco where she had gone for medical treatment, on August 12, 1885. During the last months before her death, Ramona sold 15,000 copies. Fifty years after her death it had gone into forty-one printings, been made into three motion pictures, a stage play, and the pageant at Hemet, for years an annual event.
In San Diego for more than sixty years, “Ramona’s Marriage Place” in Old Town was a tourist attraction, bringing crowds of tourists to Old Town. It is this reviewer’s opinion that had it not been for this tourist attraction, it is possible that all of Old Town would have been bulldozed for factories and businesses. Today we no longer have a “Ramona’s Marriage Place.” It has been renamed the Estudillo House in order to portray the true history of Old Town.
In only four years before her death, Helen Hunt Jackson had aroused an interest in the plight of the Indian. The author of the biography says most succinctly: “The vision of Helen Hunt Jackson has enriched Americans. She well deserves a place in the annals of American literature of the 19th Century if for no other reason than for her dedication to the rights of the native American Indian.”