The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1978, Volume 24, Number 4
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor

By Evelyn I. Banning
Doctoral graduate of Harvard University and biographer of Helen Hunt Jackson

DESPITE considerable differences of opinion concerning the date of Helen Hunt Jackson’s first arrival in San Diego, evidence now seems clear that she arrived from Santa Barbara on March 4, 1882 on the side-wheeler Orizaba.1 According to the San Diego Union, she had been expected three days earlier on the steamship Ancon, but owing to rough weather the Ancon had failed to stop at Santa Barbara on its way south from San Francisco.

Helen Hunt Jackson in an undated photograph taken in Boston, Massachusetts.Helen had anticipated going West in the spring of 1881 with her husband, William Sharpless Jackson. She had accepted an offer from Harper’s Monthly to write a series of California sketches. Will had promised to join her at Trinidad, Colorado, on either April 7 or 8. In a letter of March 3, 1881 from New York City to Charles Dudley Warner of Hartford, Connecticut, she had said that she was going to Southern California in two weeks for a two-months’ trip and that Mr. Jackson was going to “treat himself to the West.”2 As a result she had packed her things and moved from the Brevoort House to the Berkeley Hotel on Fifth Avenue and Ninth Street.

Prior to this time, Helen had been hard at work on behalf of the Ponca Indians of Nebraska. After many hours of study at the Astor Library in New York City she had completed A Century of Dishonor, an exhaustive study of the treatment by whites of not only the Poncas but also of six other tribes of American Indians.3 Harper Brothers published the book that same year (1881) and then offered her the assignment for articles about Southern California.

In preparation for this writing, she had visited Boston and secured from the Reverend Edward Everett Hale a letter of introduction to the Reverend David Cronyn of San Diego,4 also a Unitarian minister: “This introduces you to my dear friends, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson. You know her long since as H.H.” The note was dated March 28, 1881.

The Reverend’s daughter, Ruth Cronyn (Cairns), in later reporting Helen’s visits to her father in the Los Angeles Times, mistakenly used the date on the note to mark the writer’s arrival in Southern California.5 She was a little girl at the time of Helen’s visit and apparently failed to remember the correct year. The newspaper article stated “I hardly remember her at that time.”

It is equally certain that Margaret V. Allen in Ramona’s Homeland made the same mistake.6 Allen placed Helen at Mrs. Whipple’s San Diego boardinghouse in the fall of 1881 when she was not actually a guest there until the spring of 1883. Helen first took rooms at the Horton House upon her arrival in San Diego from Santa Barbara in March, 1882.

Her husband, William Sharpless Jackson later  joined his wife that year for a trip to Northern California. In planning this trip West, Helen should have perhaps realized how busy her husband really was. Banker and railroad businessman, Will was often on call to go to places in Colorado or New Mexico. It is probable that when he had promised to go West with his wife he wasn’t aware of the demands that the trip would make on him. Some evidence indicates that he may have expected to go to El Paso on business connected with the laying of the Mexican Central Railroad. Whatever the situation, Helen had no advance inkling of the possibility of his not going West until the morning of April 2, 1881. That was the very day she was to take the train out of New York City.

At 10:00 a.m. a telegram arrived from Will to the effect that he could not go with her. Four days later his letter came explaining that banking business needed his attention and that he had to be in Leadville, Colorado in a few days. He suggested that someone else go with her, but no one Helen asked was free to use the extra pass. She wrote to Warner saying she was “too mad to unpack and too restless to work-generally demoralized.”7

Her rooms at the Berkeley Hotel, she told Warner, looked like a waiting room of the railroad depot. On the sideboard was the lunch basket all packed. She signed the letter “Helen Jackson-if that’s my name, I’m not sure.”

To Henry W. Alden, editor of Harper’s Monthly, she explained the change of plans and asked for an extension, but the appointment went instead to William H. Bishop. Later she told Richard Watson Gilder that she had hoped to visit the Poncas on the Omaha reservation in Nebraska en route. This would no longer be possible however and she headed for home, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, the first week of June, 1881.

Ever since Helen’s trip to San Francisco and Yosemite with her New Haven friend Sarah Woolsey, during the spring of 1872, she had thought seriously of returning to California to make a study of the old missions.8 But she gave no indication of her recent disappointment; instead she joined Will during the summer and fall of 1881 on trips to New Mexico and Colorado and took several by herself. All the while she wrote articles for eastern magazines and newspapers.

Then came an unexpected second offer. In September, 1881, Gilder offered her a commission for four articles on California missions for Century Magazine, the successor to the old Scribner’s, of which he was now the editor. She did not include Will in her planning, but accepted without hesitation. She returned to New York alone to do some initial research at the Astor Library before leaving for California.

It was December before she and Will met again-not in the East but in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The meeting was a short one, for two days later, while Will went south to El Paso on a railroad assignment, Helen took the train to Los Angeles. On December 20, 1881, she registered at the Pico House.9

This time, before leaving for the West, Helen had directed some of her energy toward acquiring additional letters of introduction to Roman Catholics.10 She secured one to the Right Reverend Francis Mora, Bishop of Monterey and Los Angeles, who in turn provided her with an introduction to Don Antonio Coronel and his wife Mariana. The Coronels became her close friends and assisted her in making out an itinerary.

Following the directions of the Coronels, Helen left Los Angeles for Santa Barbara in January, 1882, and after visiting Mission San Fernando and two ranches near Santa Barbara-the Camulos near Piru and the Cooper ranch-she spent a few days in Santa Barbara and then took the steamer Orizaba for San Diego.

The steamers that plied between San Francisco and San Diego carried passengers and freight, usually making a three-day trip. They landed at Horton’s Wharf at the foot of Fifth Street. The San Diego Union reported that in 1869 every steamer had an average of two hundred passengers for San Diego.11

In the 1880’s, San Diego was a thriving little town, a town that visionary and developer Alonzo E. Horton had dreamed into being. At the time of his arrival on the Orizaba from San Francisco in 1867, he found some three hundred and fifty persons living in the area now called Old Town at the foot of the Presidio. Horton said of Old Town, “Never in the world can you have a city here.” And true to his word he proposed a city to the south near the bay, purchasing 960 acres of what is today downtown San Diego, but titled then as Horton’s Addition.12 He sold off the property in lots 50 by 100 feet and by the summer of 1870 the city’s major newspaper, the San Diego Union, moved to Horton’s “New Town.” But the trump in Horton’s bid to make New Town the center of the city was the Horton House on D Street, between Third and Fourth Streets. The hotel was completed in 1870 at the cost of $150,000. Rates on the American plan were $1.50 to $2.50 a day.

When Helen arrived in March of 1882, she went directly by coach to the Horton House. It was considered the finest hotel in the region, with one hundred guest rooms, lavish furniture, two tin bath tubs, and hot and cold running water.

The Union for March 1, 1881, reported that Mrs. Jackson would write about the Old Missions of California and that she came to San Diego to describe and write the history of the oldest of all the missions in the state. Six days later, the San Luis Rey Star expressed the desire that she write about Mission San Luis Rey as well.13

For some reason, Helen did not get on well with W.E. Hadley, 14 the manager of the Horton House. She apparently objected to the discipline of the Hadley’s baby son Fred and complained about his crying, stating that it interfered with her literary work. There were complaints too that she called attention to herself by insisting on dressing for dinner and sometimes made demands that seemed unreasonable to other guests. Later though, she would be described as a handsome woman with a commanding air and self-poise that made her seem cold and reserved.15

A friend whom Helen met at the Horton House was Mrs. Mariette Gregory, a clairvoyant and seeress. With her she attended sessions of court when Indian offenders were tried. Mrs. Gregory was interested in the legal aspects of Indian rights and told Helen about various relationships of whites and Indians, one of which Helen would later use in her popular novel Ramona; that of white squatters taking Indian women by force.

In 1882, there were several Indian camps and rancherias with many Indians still living within San Diego city limits. Even after the establishment of Horton’s Addition, a number of Diegueño Indians were encamped in the hills near the town. As Helen traveled through the area, she could see wooden shacks and adobe huts.

In one of four Century articles, titled “The Present Condition of the Mission Indians of Southern California,” Helen wrote “On the outskirts of the town of San Diego, are to be seen, here and there, huddled groups of what, at a distance, might be taken for piles of refuse and brush, old blankets, old patches of sail-cloth, old calico, dead pine boughs, and sticks all heaped together in shapeless mounds . . . These are the homes of Indians . . . Most of these Indians are miserable, worthless beggars, drunkards, of course, and worse.”

If the Indians were to be saved, she stated, “It must be done speedily if at all, for there is only a small remnant left to be saved. . . These are in their present homes only on the patience of the thief; and it may be that the patience do not last tomorrow.”16

At the home of Reverend Cronyn in San Diego, Helen received friends interested in the welfare of the Indians. But it was Ephraim Morse who helped her most in the search for material on local Indians. Close friends of Alonzo Horton, Morse and his wife, Mary Chase, had moved from Old Town to Horton’s Addition in 1869.

Morse had come to California from Massachusetts in search of gold, but becoming ill, he left the Feather River in Northern California for San Diego. In Old Town he became a partner with Thomas Whaley in a general merchandise store. A leading business man, he was prominent in San Diego civic affairs all his life.

With the Morses, Helen felt at ease. She occasionally took drives with them along the beach. It was on one of these outings that she first saw nearby Point Loma and its distant view of the coastline. Ever afterwards she would call the drive “the most beautiful in America.”

Although Morse was a steady companion, Father Anthony Ubach became Helen’s steady escort. During the months she spent at the Horton House she drove out often with Father Ubach, the priest in charge of the San Diego parish. Together they visited Mesa Grande, Pala, Temecula, Pechanga, San Jacinto and Saboba. It is not clear who drove for them, whether Ben Lyon, J.M. Lathrop or an unnamed Mexican. Commentators differ. Allen, in Ramona’s Homeland, says it was Ben Lyon.17

When Father Ubach first came to San Diego in October, 1866, he lived in Old Town in the then abandoned Casa de Estudillo. This well-loved priest occasionally made visits to Indian villages and there baptized the children born since his last visit and married the youths and maidens of the tribe. He saw that the Indians had sufficient food and medical care.

At the San Diego Mission Father Ubach had erected a small building for the training of the region’s Indian children. The “mother” mission was in ruins as was the Mission San Luis Rey. When St. Joseph’s Catholic Church was established in 1875 at Third and Beech Streets he moved to New Town. It was there that Helen first met him.

Out of the former San Luis Rey Mission grounds some large ranches had been organized under private ownership. With Father Ubach Helen traveled to these nearby ranches, including Rancho Guajome. Four miles east of San Luis Rey Mission, Rancho Guajome, with its elegant adobe hacienda, was one of the richest ranches in Southern California. Although some San Diegans18 still maintain that Helen wrote Ramona while staying at Guajome, by her own admission she states that she went to New York City for the writing, which she did at the Berkeley Hotel.19

From San Diego, Helen went to Los Angeles in April, 1882, and stayed at the Kimball Mansion boardinghouse on New High Street. Here she awaited the arrival of the artist Henry Sandham. Gilder insisted that her articles for Century be illustrated. The wait proved pleasant, for she had time to revisit the Coronels, renew her friendship with the Carrs of Pasadena and become better acquainted with a new companion and professed friend of the Indian, Abbot Kinney.

Within a few weeks Sandham arrived and Helen drove with him back to San Diego, revisiting the many places she had seen with Father Ubach. There Sandham made sketches of Indians, Indian huts, and the missions. On their return to Los Angeles a month later Helen persuaded Abbot Kinney to accompany them north to Monterey. They traveled via Santa Barbara into the valley of the San Antonio River and the mission there and to Mission San Juan Bautista. They reached Monterey’s Mission San Carlos in early May of 1882.

Quite unexpectedly on her return to San Francisco Helen found a telegram from Will, stating that he would meet her for a trip into Oregon. Connections were finally made. Though Will did not get as far south as Los Angeles, he did see some of Northern California with Helen. Both returned to Colorado Springs in June.

Throughout that summer, Helen made every effort to get a paid assignment with the Department of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. She wrote Henry M. Teller, Secretary to the Commissioner, many times and finally to the Commissioner himself, the Honorable Hiram Price. “There is a grave danger of continued Indian massacres,” she pleaded. “If the United States Government does not take steps to avert this danger . . . the chapter of the history of the Mission Indians will be the blackest one in the black record of our dealings with the Indian race.”20

With Father Anthony Ubach, Helen Hunt Jackson visited Mission San Luis Rey during the spring of 1882.On July 7, 1882, after much correspondence, Helen Hunt Jackson was appointed Special Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Southern California. Her assignment was to visit and report on the condition of the Mission Indians and to find out whether suitable lands could be made available for them. She accepted without delay, provided Abbot Kinney be assigned as her coagent and interpreter. This request was granted and on November 15, she departed. She would be away from Colorado and Will for more than six months. Kinney would join her by March, 1883, and Henry Sandham would arrive to travel with them and work on illustrations.

Soon after her return to Los Angeles, she had a letter from Ephraim Morse. “I am glad,” he wrote, “you have not forgotten our Mission Indians. I am ashamed of my government when I think of the heartless cruelty with which their kindness to the whites has been treated …” Through him she learned of Mrs. Whipple’s boarding house at Tenth and G Streets, “a most excellent private boarding house [sic.], best in town and patronized by nice people.”21

Since Helen needed a guide familiar with the county surrounding San Diego she hired Newell Harris Mitchell, hotel proprietor and owner of a livery stable in Anaheim. He had had extensive sheep ranches in the area and knew the county quite well. On April 12, 1883, the party of four set out from Los Angeles in a two-horse, double-seated carriage for San Juan Capistrano. They journeyed south to San Diego, stopping at ranches along the way. They often slept in haystacks when the huts and shacks did not have room for overnight guests.

The San Diego Union of April 26, 1883 stated that “Mrs. H.H. Jackson and Mr. A. Kinney, recently appointed Special Commissioners to look after the interests of the Mission Indians, arrived in this city on Tuesday [April 24], having been in the county about a fortnight …”

Instead of the Horton House, Helen stayed at the Whipples’ boarding house. She took rooms on the second floor facing the bay. Margaret Allen stated that she “made a most delightful addition to the Family.”22 The family consisted of several railway officers, army officers and their families, professional men, and some eastern tourists and a few teachers.

A month from the day that Mitchell had picked up his party of three in Los Angeles he returned them there. Eight days later Helen took the evening train for Colorado Springs. Though she would return to California the following year, she would never be in San Diego again, “the only place in all California where there is real comfort and I like the San Diego climate best.”23

At home, she finished the report on Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians. But it drew so little attention that she began to think in terms of writing a novel. Perhaps a novel would do for the Indians what Uncle Tom’s Cabin had done for the “colored.” The idea for a story came to her late one October morning. Deciding that she would be unable to work on it at Colorado Springs, she left for the East and New York City to take rooms again at the Berkeley Hotel.

Helen wrote her first sentence on December 1, 1883 and finished the manuscript March 31, 1884.24 She would say later that she really did not write Ramona; it was written through her. Certainly all her energies went into the writing of the novel; all she had thought, felt and suffered for five years on the Indian question.

Ramona was an immediate success in serial form, but Helen was exhausted. Even so she refused to give in and not until May of 1884 did she see a doctor. She then ignored his advice: to stay in the East and to spend several months in bed. Instead she was back in Colorado Springs in June and went right to work redecorating the house with new curtains and furnishings. She worked like a Trojan and finally had a tiny lift put in to carry coal, water, and other heavy items to the second floor bedroom.

Helen planned to start a book on Indians for children by July, hoping that it would mean the few thousand children who read it might grow up to be just.25 But on June 28 she fell at home. Catching her heel, she tumbled down the whole length of a flight of stairs. “I could recall nothing,” she later wrote Kinney, “after the first tripping of my foot and a vain clutch at the balustrade. If we had a free rail as we ought I should not have fallen . . ,”26

By late September Helen’s leg failed to mend as completely as the doctor had expected. She began to worry about the winter months and the thought of being cooped-up in Colorado. She wrote at once to Mrs. Whipple to engage rooms in San Diego, but to her disappointment Mrs. Whipple had left “the best of towns” to open a boarding house in Los Angeles. Tourists from the East made it more profitable for her there, since the railroad into Los Angeles meant more financial gain for business of every kind.

Ephraim Morse recommended the new Villa Hotel that had recently opened in San Diego. The promise of a railroad into San Diego brought about a spurt in business in 1883 and W.W. Bowers purchased the block bounded by Third, Fourth, Fir and Grape and built a luxurious hotel on the site.27 It opened on February 24, 1884 and became the show place of the city. Eight blocks from the business center the Villa Hotel provided a carriage to town every thirty minutes.

Helen however could not bring herself to take rooms in a hotel, preferring as always a boarding house. Later she would regret this decision, wondering if she might not have gained back her health in the climate of San Diego.

During this last stay in California, from November of 1884 to August of 1885, Helen also fought cancer courageously, both in Los Angeles and in San Francisco. Yet never once did her husband find time from his busy schedule to visit her until notified by her doctor that she had but a short time to live. She died quietly on August 12, 1885 with Will at her bedside.

Fourteen years after Helen’s death, Will finally visited Southern California, but alone.28 His second wife, Helen’s niece and namesake, Helen Banfield, did not accompany him. She had been ill and despondent since the death of her youngest child Margaret, barely nine months old. During December of the previous winter she decided to take a doctor’s suggestion and go back East for “a change of scene and environment.”29

The San Diego Union of Tuesday, May 23, 1899 stated that Will Jackson was a guest at the Hotel del Coronado but had departed for his home the first of the week. Whether or not he came on business is not stated. It is noted though that during his stay he quietly visited many of the scenes made famous in Ramona by his talented wife.



1. San Diego Union, March 7, 1882 (3 : 1)

2. Letter, Helen Hunt Jackson to Charles Dudley Warner, March 3, 1881, Watkinson Library, Hartford, Connecticut.

3. Helen Hunt Jackson, A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings With Some of the Indian Tribes (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1881).

4. Ruth Odell, Helen Hunt Jackson (H. H.) (New York: D. Appleton-Century, 1939), p. 172.

5. Los Angeles Times, Sunday Magazine, October 11, 1931.

6. Margaret V. Allen, Ramona’s Homeland (San Diego: n.p., 1931).

7. Letter, Helen Hunt Jackson to Charles Dudley Warner, April 13, 1881, Watkinson Library.

8. Susan Coolidge [Sarah Woolsey], “A Few Hints on the California Journey,” Scribner’s Monthly (May 1873).

9. Los Angeles Herald, December 21, 1881 and Los Angeles Express, January 2, 1881.

10. Letter, Helen Hunt Jackson to Mr. W. H. Ward, October 31, 1881, Henry E. Huntington Library, San Marino.

11. Elizabeth C. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego and Its Founder Alonzo E. Horton (San Diego: Privately Printed, 1969), pp. 27

12. Ibid.; pp. 7 & 8.

13. San Diego Union, March 7, 1882 (3:1)

14. Odell, Helen Hunt Jackson, p. 186.

15. Allen, Ramona’s Homeland.

16. Helen Hunt Jackson, Glimpses of Three Coasts (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1877), pp. 90, 91 & 102.

17. Odell, Helen Hunt Jackson, p. 245, n. 70.

18. San Diego Union, October 20, 1966 (6-1-2).

19. Letter, Helen Hunt Jackson to Mr. E. W. Morse, November 3, 1883, Morse Collection, San Diego History Center Library and Manuscript Collections.

20. Jackson, Glimpses, p. 102.

21. Letter, Mr. Morse to Helen Hunt Jackson, March 9, 1883, Morse Collection, San Diego History Center Library and Manuscript Collections.

22. Allen, Ramona’s Homeland.

23. Letter, Helen Hunt Jackson to Mrs. Whipple, October 12, 1884, San Diego Historical Society Library and Manuscript Collections.

24. Letter, Helen Hunt Jackson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, February 5, 1884 in Carlyle’s Laugh and Other Surprises (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1909), p. 363.

25. Letter, Helen Hunt Jackson to Charles Dudley Warner, October 2, 1884, Watkinson Library.

26. Letter, Helen Hunt Jackson to Abbot Kinney, July 16, 1884 in George Wharton James, Through Ramona’s Country (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1909), p. 338.

27. MacPhail, The Story of New San Diego, pp. 64, 65. See also Larry Booth, et al., Portrait of a Boom Town: San Diego in the 1880’s (San Francisco, The California Historical Society, Reprinted from the California Historical Quarterly, December 1971).

28. San Diego Union. May 23, 1899 (6 : 1).

29. Colorado Springs Weekly Gazette, October 25, 1899, pp. 3 & 6.