The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1998, Volume 44, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Reviews

Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy.

By Valerie Sheres Mathes. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. Photographs, illustrations, maps, bibliography, notes. xvii + 235 pages. $27.95 cloth.

Reviewed by Joanne Donahoe, Graduate Student, Department of History, San Diego State University.

Much of the historiography on Indian reform in the United States centers on governmental policy, eastern missionary reform groups, and the men and women that led them. In Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy, Valerie Sheres Mathes focuses on Jackson, a controversial yet effective activist for Indian rights during the late 1880’s. Mathes argues that Jackson was unique not only in her persistent and ardent pursuit of American Indian rights, especially the Mission Indians of Southern California, but also in the influence her work had on other American reform groups. Her work, along with her books A Century of Dishonor and Ramona, and countless letters and field reports on the condition of the Mission Indians served as a “catalyst for other reformers” to demand protection of Mission Indian land rights”(p. 159). It is this legacy and Jackson’s impact on American Indian and missionary groups that occupy the crux of this book and offer its most substantive contributions to American Indian reform and western history.

Mathes begins by offering a broad background on early Indian reform movements, the involvement of various Christian organizations, and Jackson’s early endeavors on behalf of American Indian groups. Mathes then gives a focused assessment of Jackson’s efforts with the Mission Indians. The last six years of Jackson’s life were dedicated to exposing the public and government officials to their plight. By using a variety of archival sources, among them letters, poems, literature, government reports and documents, Mathes reveals the intricacies of governmental policy and the adept manner in which Jackson dealt with them. Her frustration with inept government officials and inconsistent Indian policy was often vehement and loud. While critics disliked her outspoken manner and abrasive tactics, her letters reveal a passionate commitment and an intimate knowledge of the Indians of Southern California. She stood apart from other advocates by personally visiting Indian villages, meeting the occupants, and learning their specific needs and frustrations.

Jackson’s impact on San Diego area Indians does not go unmentioned. Upon her appointment in 1883 as special agent to the Mission Indians, Jackson spent much of her time in the southern part of the state defending Indian land claims and a variety of grievances with white settlers and government officials. When she heard that a Cahuilla Indian named Juan Diego was murdered for mistakenly stealing a horse, Jackson met with the San Diego district attorney inquiring about a new trial. He informed her that the case would never be reopened, because a jury would “never convict a white man for murdering an Indian” (p. 59). The apathy of area officials infuriated Jackson, resulting in several scathing newspaper articles and undoubtedly fueling her future interest in the area. Most notably, she used the circumstances surrounding Juan Diego’s death as inspiration for her character Alessandro in Ramona.

Of particular importance is the distinction Mathes makes between Jackson and other women reformers of the late nineteenth-century. Christian missionary groups and organizations like the Women’s National Indian Association underscored the need to “civilize” the Indian population, particularly emphasizing “Americaness” and “gendered” divisions of labor and behavior. Jackson did not stress Indian acculturation or education. Rather, she focused on changing white perception of the Indians’ plight in general. She worked tirelessly to secure Indian land rights and legal protection, and wrote countless editorials and letters in an attempt to change public attitudes.

The second half of the book traces the efforts of a variety of reform groups that built on Jackson’s work. Through her letters, reports, the Jackson/Kinney report, and numerous pleas to friends and officials, Jackson opened the eyes of many to the hardship and injustice faced by the Mission Indians. A variety of organizations picked up where Jackson left off, the most notable accomplishment being the passage of the 1891 Act for the Relief of the Mission Indians in the State of California. Reformers attributed many of the provisions of the bill to Jackson’s own recommendations and observances, with some calling it “the bill of Mrs. Jackson, with some modifications.” It eventually resulted in the allotment of over thirteen permanent Mission Indian reservations, with one named Ramona in honor of Jackson’s book.

Mathes deftly fleshes out the complexities of late nineteenth-century American Indian policy and her assessment of Jackson’s work and character are both illuminating and long overdue. Mathes reveals much about Jackson’s reform work and influence, but there is little on what motivated her drive and passion. Mathes’ intent is to document Jackson’s impact and her role as an important nineteenth-century author and reformer, but these efforts are hard to appreciate without more personal background information. A more nuanced analysis of Jackson’s early years, particularly those that informed her passion for advocacy and writing, would only benefit what is already a well-documented and highly useful addition to American Indian reform history.