“I am going to write an Indian novel,
the scene laid in So. California….”
“If I could write a story that would do for the Indian a thousandth part what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful the rest of my life,”1 wrote Helen Hunt Jackson to Thomas Bailey Aldrich, editor of the Atlantic Monthly. She had been displeased with the reception of A Century of Dishonor,2 her expose on the government’s mistreatment of the Indians, based extensively on official documents. Perhaps this approach was a bit dry, maybe a novel would prove to be more successful.
Helen Hunt Jackson
A novel, however, required a different kind of research. Fortunately, in the fall of 1881, she was assigned by Richard Watson Gilder to write several articles for Century Magazine. Arriving in Los Angeles on December 20, 1881, she began a tour of Southern California, visiting San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Santa Barbara, and numerous small Southern California Mission Indian villages. She described the Indians as “peaceable farmers…driven off their lands like foxes & wolves—driven out of good adobe houses & the white men settling down calm & comfortable in the houses!”3
Jackson informed Interior Secretary Henry Teller that she hoped something could be done for their protection; she added: “If only there were something I could do too, to help, it would give me a greater happiness than I can express.”4 Her offer was accepted by both Secretary Henry Teller and Commissioner of Indian Affairs Hiram Price. She was appointed as a Special Agent to report on the condition of the Mission Indians, locate government land suitable for reservations, and write a formal report. She returned to California in the spring and summer of 1883 to carry out her new assignment; along the way she gained more valuable background material.
The letter below was an effort to gain specific information for her novel, Ramona, which like A Century of Dishonor, is still in print.
To Ephraim W. Morse5
Nov. 3. 1883
Dear Mr. Morse,
I am going to ask some help from you. — I want an accurate account of two things that have happened in San Diego County — lst the ejection of the Temecula Indians from their homes in Temecula.6 2d the taking of a lot of sheep from some of the Pala or San Luis Rey Indians by Maj. Coutts.7 — I think the legal records of both cases are in San Diego and if I am not mistaken Sheriff Hunsacker was engaged in both matters.8 I recollect some talk with him about them but not definitely. —
I do not want these incidents to use, with real names, or in any way to make unpleasant feeling: but I want them carefully written out in detail. — I am going to write an Indian novel, the scene laid in So. California. I would rather you did not speak of this, as I shall keep it a secret, until the book is done, from all except my more intimate literary friends. I hope that I can write a story which will do something to influence public sentiment on the Indian question: more perhaps than my “Century of Dishonor.” At any rate I am going to try: and the Temecula ejection will be a most valuable piece of material: the main facts I have, as you have seen in my article on the Mission Indians:9 — but what I want in addition, is the legal narrative — who did it — what preliminary steps — what time of year-they were driven out — any & all details will help.—of the Coutt’s sheep case I know little — only enough to know that it would be a strong incident in my story. —
Any other facts or incidents which you can write out for me, I would be very glad of — and I need not say, warmly grateful to you for the time and trouble it will cost. If I did not know that you genuinely sympathize with the Indians, I should not venture to make such a request.
With regards to Mrs. Morse — and Mrs. Whipple 10 —
Yours always cordially—
P.S. Of course you have observed that Agent Lawson11 has been removed. I think he was a bad man: and I hope the new Agent will be a better one.12 I have reviewed several copies of the San Luis Rey Star, containing slurring and contemptuous references to me, in connection with this charge.13 It is plain that the Indians have some bitter enemies in San Luis Rey.— ALS (Document Files, Research Archives, San Diego Historical Society, San Diego, California).
1. Helen Hunt Jackson to Thomas Bailey Aldrich, 4 May 1883, Thomas Bailey Aldrich Papers, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
2. Published in 1881, the most current reprint was in 1995 by the University of Oklahoma Press.
3. Jackson to Charles Dudley Warner, 31 October 1882, Charles Dudley Warner Collection, Watkinson Library, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.
4. Jackson to Henry Teller, 11 June 1882, Letter Received #11429-—1882, Special Case 31, Office of Indian Affairs, Record Group 75, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
5. Morse (1823-1906) was a prosperous San Diego merchant as well as prominent civic leader. He was secretary of the Board of Trade, county treasurer, city trustee, and a leading organizer of the Bank of San Diego, and the San Diego and Gila Railroad.
6. Claims to the Temecula Valley had been based on a protective clause in an old Mexican land grant. However, a successful suit brought before a San Francisco district court in 1873 by a group of local settlers resulted in the Indian’s ejectment from their village. Some moved three miles away to Pachanga Canyon.
7. Cave Johnson Couts (1821-74) served in the Mexican War before moving to San Diego in 1848 to survey and map the area. In 1853 he was appointed an Indian sub-agent for San Diego County, and the following year moved to Rancho Guajome. He had a history of mistreating Indians; in 1855 he was rumored to have caused the death of two Indians. See Richard L. Carrico, “San Diego Indians and the Federal Government: Years of Neglect, 1850-1865,” Journal of San Diego History 26 (Summer 1980): 172-177.
8. Nicholas Hunsacker (1825-1913) settled in Contra Costa County in the late 1840s and served two terms as sheriff. In 1869 he moved to San Diego, establishing a freight line between Southern California and Arizona. From 1874 until 1876 he was sheriff of San Diego Country and served the court order which removed the Temecula Indians. In 1882 he moved to Arizona and engaged in the cattle business.
9. H. H. Jackson, “The Present Condition of the Mission Indians in Southern California,” Century Magazine (August 1883): 511-529.
1O. Mrs. D. J. Whipple ran the boarding house in San Diego where Jackson stayed.
11. Samuel S. Lawson was appointed Mission agent on July 1, 1878.
12. Lawson’s replacement, John Guthrie McCallum (1826-1897) took office on October 1, 1883. McCallum had arrived in northern California in 1854, was co-proprietor and editor of the Georgetown Weekly News, and a state senator in 1856. He later became a prominent founder of Palm Springs.
Valerie Sherer Mathes has been teaching western history, history of the American Indian, and United States history at City College of San Francisco since 1967. She has written numerous scholarly articles on Jackson and other Indian related topics, including Helen Hunt Jackson and her Indian Reform Legacy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990) and the foreword to A Century of Dishonor, published in 1995 by the University of Oklahoma Press.