Jackson, Helen Hunt

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Helen Hunt Jackson

Born October 14, 1830

Amherst, Massachusetts

Died August 12, 1885

San Francisco, California

Writer and activist for Native American rights

"Oh, write of me, not 'Died in bitter pains,' But 'Emigrated to another star!'"

M ost widely remembered as an activist for Native American rights, Helen Hunt Jackson also wrote poetry, essays, novels, and children's stories. She used her writing talent to publicize the mistreatment of Native Americans, particularly the Mission Indians of Southern California. This dedication to Indian reform earned her a place in American history.

A life of tragedy

Helen Hunt Jackson was born Helen Maria Fiske in Amherst, Massachusetts, on October 14, 1830. Her parents were Nathan Welby Fiske, a professor and minister, and Deborah Vinal, a writer. The Fiske household was religious and scholarly, and undoubtedly, Helen's later career was influenced by her parents' intellectual interests. One of four siblings, Helen's two brothers died in infancy, leaving only her sister, Anne. While still a young girl, Helen's mother died of tuberculosis, an infectious and fatal lung disease common in the nineteenth century. Her father's death followed three years later. Before his death, however, Nathan Fiske saw to it that Helen received a good education. At a time when most females were not given the opportunity for formal learning, Helen attended the highly regarded Ipswich Female Seminary and the Abbott Institute, a reputable boarding school. There she met Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), who would later become one of America's most distinguished poets. Their friendship lasted a lifetime.

At the age of twenty-one, Helen married Edward Hunt, a graduate of West Point Academy. Their eleven years together were marked by great tragedy, beginning with the death of their infant son Murray in 1854, who died of a brain disease. Then in 1863, while experimenting with a submarine of his own inventing, Edward Hunt was accidentally killed. Two years later, Helen buried her second and only remaining son, nine-year-old Rennie, who had contracted diphtheria, an infectious bacterial disease that produces a poison and results in high fever, weakness, and ultimately, suffocation. (The development of a preventive vaccine in 1923 reduced the death rate to 10 percent.) By this time, the American Civil War (1861–65) had just ended, and Helen was alone, too grief-stricken to celebrate. In 1866, she decided to leave behind her military life of mobility and settled down in Newport, Rhode Island, where she and her husband had once been stationed. Here, she began to write.

At first, Helen devoted her literary efforts to children's stories, essays, poems, and travel sketches. As was customary during this time, she wrote under pseudonyms, or false names: most often H. H., but sometimes with the name Saxe Holm. Women writers of that time typically created pseudonyms so that readers would not know their gender, a custom that illustrated society's general view of women as second-class citizens. At first, Helen's writing was typical of the emotional content that was most popular among female readers. She wrote about all things domestic—family life, marriage, keeping a home. Her published pieces brought her great success, and her work appeared in such prominent publications as Nation, Atlantic, and New York Independent.

A reformer is born

During this time, Helen got back in touch with her childhood friend, Emily Dickinson. Because of the uprooted life she had led while married to a military man, Helen's correspondence with Dickinson had become infrequent. The two women writers supported one another in their literary endeavors, and never again would they lose touch. Helen repeatedly pleaded with her old friend to share her poetry with her "day and generation."

Helen was not a woman of robust health. After dealing with the stress and grief of the deaths of her husband and children, she took her doctor's advice and moved west, hoping to take advantage of the health-restoring powers of the Rocky Mountains. Always curious, she chose the new town of Colorado Springs as her new home, and she moved there in 1893. Two years later, she married William Sharpless Jackson, a banker and railroad executive. Marrying a prominent citizen allowed Helen to focus on her writing without the added worry of wondering where she would get the money to pay bills.

Though she loved the West and eagerly called it home, Jackson often traveled to the East. In 1879, while visiting Boston, Massachusetts, she attended a lecture about the plight of the Ponca and Omaha Indians. This lecture opened her eyes to the injustice suffered by the tribes at the hands of the U.S. government, and she left that reception a transformed woman.

Westward Movement pushes out Native Americans

In the mid-1800s, many European immigrants were attracted to the United States by the promise of free land and the opportunity for prosperity. The reality was a far cry from the dream, however. When they reached the shores of New York, they found instead a hard life in overcrowded conditions. Unable to make a living, let alone prosper, or get ahead, many of the immigrants listened to the advertisements announcing the "promised land" of the West. Wide open prairies, free land, limitless opportunity—this and more was promised to those courageous enough to make the trek west. Thousands of men, women, and children heeded the call. Thus began what is known as the Westward Movement.

These hopefuls met in St. Louis, Missouri, to form wagon trains, or large groups of covered wagons. They took with them only what could fit in the wagons. In many cases, families were forced to leave behind precious heirlooms, furniture, and other valuables. They faced many obstacles on their trip: harsh weather, sickness and disease, broken wagon wheels, attacks from hostile Native Americans, no facilities for women giving birth. Many, many immigrants died on this coast-to-coast journey west, but those who did survive needed somewhere to live once they reached their destination. The "free land" they were promised was not actually free; it was the home of thousands of Native Americans.

Federal government mistreats Native Americans

The immigrants and Native Americans were unable to live together peacefully. The differences in their cultures and beliefs proved to be too great to overcome, and the U.S. government was more concerned with settling the immigrants than with guaranteeing the rights of the Native Americans. White miners devastated the land, robbing the Native Americans of their food sources. As a result, they were forced to raid local towns for food just so they and their tribes could survive. In return, miners hunted Native Americans and abused them. The U.S. government passed the Indenture Act in 1855, which legally allowed white people to enslave the Native Americans and sell them at auctions. White trappers also caused many hardships for the Native Americans, as they destroyed the furbearing animal population, a natural resource that kept the Native Americans fed and clothed throughout the seasons. The Native Americans were left little choice but to raid settler towns to get the items necessary to survive.

The U.S. government quickly realized they had a major crisis on their hands, and their response was to rid the land of Native Americans rather than to work out a peaceful resolution. The government's goal was to relocate the Native Americans to lands that were not overcrowded by immigrants.

One tribe in particular, the Ponca, was treated especially badly. When a representative from the government informed the Ponca that they would need to relocate from their home in Nebraska to Oklahoma, they refused. In 1878, the Ponca sent ten chiefs, under the leadership of Chief Luther Standing Bear (c. 1868–c. 1939), by train to Oklahoma. They wanted to investigate the area to determine if they could happily live there. But the chiefs were not used to the climate and weather in that region, and they became ill. As a result, they refused to give in to the government's order; they would not allow their people to move to Oklahoma only to die. As punishment, the government abandoned the chiefs, and they were forced to journey the 500 miles home on foot. They had no money, no food, and just one blanket for each person. The trip took two months, and when they got home, U.S. troops were waiting for them. The Ponca were forced into a line and made to walk to Oklahoma under the supervision of U.S. soldiers. While they made their journey, some of the soldiers stayed behind to steal what they could of the Native Americans' tools and household goods. Many of the Ponca died during the trip; the elderly, the children, and the sick were hit the hardest. The tribe had no immunity to the diseases that were being introduced to them by both their new surroundings and the American soldiers, and 158 of the 730 Ponca had died by the end of 1878.

Native American rights become a public issue

Chief Standing Bear was at the reception attended by Jackson in 1879. His plea for help struck a chord with Jackson, and she made it her mission to assist the Native Americans in their fight for justice. The result of her dedication was a book published in 1881, A Century of Dishonor. The book exposed the government's mistreatment and abuse of Native Americans. It publicized for the first time the countless broken treaties and corrupt behavior by federal representatives as well as politicians themselves. At her own expense, she sent a copy of her book to every member of Congress. Inside the cover, she handprinted this statement: "Look upon your hands: They are stained with the blood of your relations."

The U.S. Department of the Interior hired Jackson and a translator to investigate the condition of the Native Americans then referred to as the Mission Indians—those living in the three southernmost counties of California. Jackson was then given the title and responsibility of special commissioner of Indian affairs in 1882. Sadly, her fifty-six-page report on the state of Native American affairs and her request for some sort of atonement, or payback for past wrongdoings, was completely ignored by the government.

Ramona becomes an instant bestseller

Jackson refused to be silent, despite the lack of response from her country's government officials. Because A Century of Dishonor did not bring about the reform she had hoped for, Jackson decided the best way to help the Native Americans in their fight for justice was to reach Americans through writing the public would consider "less serious." So she wrote Ramona, a novel depicting the Native American experience. She began writing in a New York City hotel room in December 1883, and the book was completed just three months later. As she explained to a friend, "As soon as I began, it seemed impossible to write fast enough."

Although the book was sold as a novel, Jackson claimed that every incident she wrote about was true. She admitted that Ramona was inspired by Uncle Tom's Cabin, a novel written by friend Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896). Uncle Tom's Cabin brought to the public's attention the plight of the African American slaves, and it remains today as an American classic. Said Jackson, "If I can do one hundredth part for the Indian that Mrs. Stowe did for the Negro, I will be thankful." Although satisfied with the sales of the book, Jackson was disheartened by the reviews. Positive though they were, they focused not on the politics of Native American affairs, but on the charm of the setting and the romance between a half-breed girl and a Native American forced from his tribal lands.

Death comes too soon

Jackson planned to write a children's story on the Native American issue, but she died in San Francisco of cancer on August 12, 1885, less than one year after the publication of Ramona. She died disappointed that her novel did not have the impact she was hoping for, which makes the enduring influence of Ramona something of a tragedy in that the author never lived to understand the impact her novel has had on California heritage. Ramona has inspired a number of films and a 1920s hit song of the same name. Throughout Southern California, the name Ramona can be found on street and commercial establishment signs. An annual pageant called The Ramona Pageant is held for three consecutive weekends spanning April and May in Riverside, California. The event includes a stage adaptation of the novel featuring a four-hundred-member cast. It is the largest and longest-running outdoor play in the nation.

—Rebecca Valentine

For More Information


Jackson, Helen Hunt. A Century of Dishonor. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1881. Multiple reprints.

Jackson, Helen Hunt. Ramona: A Story. Boston: Roberts Bros., 1884. Multiple reprints.

Mathes, Valerie Sherer. Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Mathes, Valerie Sherer, ed. The Indian Reform Letters of Helen Hunt Jackson, 1879–1885. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

May, Antoinette. Helen Hunt Jackson: A Lonely Voice of Conscience. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1987.

Phillips, Kate. Helen Hunt Jackson: A Literary Life. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

West, Marc I., ed. Bits of Colorado: Helen Hunt Jackson's Writings for Young Readers. Palmer Lake, CO: Filter Press, 2000.

Whitaker, Rosemary. Helen Hunt Jackson. Boise, ID: Boise State University, 1987.

Web Sites

Greenstein, Albert. "Helen Hunt Jackson." Southern California History.http://www.socalhistory.org/Biographies/hhjackson.htm (accessed on March 17, 2004).

"Helen Hunt Jackson." Colorado Women's Hall of Fame.http://www.cogreatwomen.org/jackson.htm (accessed on March 17, 2004).

"Helen Hunt Jackson Biography." Colorado College Tutt Library.http://www2.coloradocollege.edu/library/SpecialCollections/Manuscript/HHJbio.html (accessed on March 17, 2004).

"New Perspectives on the West." PBS.com.http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/ (accessed on March 17, 2004).

"The Ponca Indians." PageWise, Inc.http://www.wawa.essortment.com/poncaindians_ruci.htm (accessed on March 17, 2004).

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