Jackson, Helen Hunt (1830–1885)

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Jackson, Helen Hunt (1830–1885)

Prolific American poet, novelist, and activist who documented the conditions of Native Americans in A Century of Dishonor (1881), a scathing critique of government policy that went largely ignored, then recast the same material into the novel Ramona, which became the most popular romance of the late 19th century. Name variations: Helen Fiske Jackson; Helen Fiske Hunt; (pseudonyms) H.H., Marah, Rip Van Winkle, Saxe Holm, and No-Name. Born Helen Maria Fiske on October 15, 1830 (her obituary in the New York Tribune cites October 18, 1831), in Amherst, Massachusetts; died on August 12, 1885, in San Francisco, California; daughter of Nathan Welby Fiske (a professor) and Deborah Waterman (Vinal) Fiske; attended private schools, including the Ipswich Female Seminary and the Springler Institute in New York City; married Lieutenant Edward Bissell Hunt, on October 28, 1852 (died 1863); married William Sharpless Jackson, on October 22, 1875; children: Murray (1853–1854); Warren Horsford (nicknamed Rennie, 1856–1865).

After marriage to Hunt, moved to Washington (1852); death of infant son Murray (1854); death of husband in explosion (October 1863); death of son Rennie (April 1865); after move to Newport, began writing poems that were published in the New York Evening Post, the Nation, Atlantic, and elsewhere (1870–79); married Jackson and moved West (1875); on visit back East, attended lecture about the fate of the Ponca Indian tribe that became the turning point for her Indian crusade (1879).

Selected publications:

Versus (1870, 1873, 1879); Bits of Travel (1872); Mercy Philbrick's Choice (1876); Hetty's Strange Story (1877); Nelly's Silver Mine (1878); A Century of Dishonor (1882); Ramona (1884).

In the autumn of 1879, Helen Hunt Jackson was well known in America as a writer of children's books and poetry, as well as articles that had appeared in virtually every popular magazine, but she was not known as a person easily drawn to causes. She was then in the fourth year of her second marriage, living in Colorado Springs, but a homesickness for her native New England led her to make a prolonged trip back East, with plans to be there until December for the celebration of the 70th birthday of her longtime friend, essayist and novelist Oliver Wendell Holmes. That November, she was in Boston, where she attended a lecture organized by Thomas Henry Tibbles, an editor at the Omaha Herald, the purpose of which was to describe the plight of the Ponca Indian tribe of Nebraska. The evening featured the Ponca Indian chief Standing Bear, dressed in traditional garb, and a moving oration delivered by Susette La Flesche Tibbles, a striking young woman, more than six feet tall, billed that night as "Bright Eyes." Standing before her audience, the articulate and statuesque Native American recounted the story of broken treaties and the horrors of the Poncas' forcible removal to Indian Territory in Oklahoma by the U.S. Army in 1878.

The billing of "Bright Eyes" lent a quality of simplicity to the speaker who was in fact anything but simple. Susette LaFlesche had been educated at the mission school on her Nebraska reservation until 1869, then at the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in New Jersey, where she proved to be an excellent writer. Her works were published in a New York newspaper before her graduation in 1875. It was not the first time Jackson had been drawn to a woman of forceful personality, and in this case she was swept up by the speaker's tragic tale. She and LaFlesche became friends, and Jackson soon turned her extraordinary energies to the cause of exposing U.S. government abuses of Indian tribes and treaties, in the hope of bringing about reform.

Helen Maria Fiske was born on October 15, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, the second of four children of Nathan Welby Fiske and Deborah Vinal Fiske ; only Helen and her younger sister Ann would survive infancy. Deborah Fiske had talent as a writer for children and "showed a power of expression and a purity of form mingled with genuine humor" in publications that included Letters from a Cat. Helen's father was the son of Massachusetts farmers and had planned for a career in the Congregational ministry, before turning to the teaching of moral philosophy, Latin, and Greek at Amherst College. The Fiskes remained staunch Calvinists, providing their children with a strictly moral and structured household, which young Helen tested at every opportunity.

In spite of—or perhaps because of—the stern and pious atmosphere, Jackson demonstrated a "will of iron." She was vivacious, impetuous, and, as her mother noted in a journal, hard to handle: "Helen is so wild—jumping rope, dressing up in odd things, and jumping out behind doors." At age eight, she ran away with a playmate to a nearby town, where they interrupted a funeral in session by jumping on the bier. Hauled home by a search party, Helen announced, "Oh, Mother, I've had a perfectly lovely time." Confined in the attic with a large Bible after the escapade, Jackson chose a whipping rather than repent. But her unruly temperament was accompanied by a gift for vivid recall and creative storytelling, and her writing began as a record of her childhood journeys and escapades, kept in completest detail.

When Helen was 13, family tragedy began to set her adrift. In 1844, her mother died of tuberculosis; three years later, her father succumbed to the same disease. Jackson went to Falmouth, on Cape Cod, to live with her Aunt Hooker, while Ann lived in Boston with their Aunt Vinal. The sisters' finances were taken over by their grandfather, David Vinal, and they became his beneficiaries. A brandy drinker with a love for money and an acumen for business, he encouraged Helen in her flamboyant behavior while promoting her self-esteem, laying the groundwork for her adventurous spirit and good business sense as an adult. These influences were further buoyed during Jackson's attendance at the Ipswich Female Seminary in Massachusetts and the Springler Institute in New York City.

Emily Dickinson, on the death of Helen Hunt Jackson">

Dear friend, can you walk, were the last words that I wrote her. Dear friend, I can fly—her immortal reply.

Emily Dickinson, on the death of Helen Hunt Jackson

Jackson grew up in an era that heralded the "cult of domesticity," according to historian Barbara Welter , in which a woman's sphere was within the home. The four qualities that a "true" or "good" woman embodied were purity, piety, submissiveness, and domesticity. But the Springler Institute, run by the brothers John and Gorham Abbott, important pioneers in the improvement of women's education, was operated in contradiction to the cult of domesticity's ideals. In an era when the ideal physical attributes for women were paleness and anemia, this progressive school housed a large playground for girls and provided equipment for athletics; the students were self-governed and no punishments were meted out. On the whole, however, the educational opportunities for girls that began to expand in the 1830s (primarily for upper- and middle-class women) were not aimed at extending women's sphere, but at making them better mothers. As an adult, Jackson's life demonstrated some of this dichotomy, in that her writings tout the ideals of domesticity, especially the nurturing of children, and yet she made telling choices of travel and friendship with women over the love of home and husband.

By age 20, it was not unusual for Jackson to find herself the most sought-after and attendedto woman at any function. Blonde, graceful, vivacious, she was not actually beautiful but had perfect taste in dress, and her green eyes, her most arresting feature, were described as "beaming and candid." One gentleman thought them "more alive than those of any one else I ever knew." Flirting demurely and laughing without inhibition, she made conquests wherever she went. It was at a ball given by the governor of New York that she met and charmed his brother, Lieutenant Edward Bissell Hunt, and they married in Boston on October 28, 1852.

Edward Hunt was an army engineer, a career that did not permit the couple a permanent home. Helen called their uprooted and helterskelter existence together "scatterdom." They also frequently held opposing views, though Jackson could be persuaded to change her mind. She was a staunch supporter, for instance, of the views of abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe , author of Uncle Tom's Cabin, in opposition to Lieutenant Hunt; but around the time of the birth of their first child, when Helen "had her own slave girl for five dollars a month," she found herself more pragmatic about the institution of slavery. Some friends found this willingness to vacillate in her opinions a frustrating aspect of Jackson in later life.

The marriage was fraught with personal tragedy. Helen's first son Murray, born in Washington, D.C., on September 30, 1853, died in August of the following year, of a brain tumor. Jackson, who blamed herself, fell gravely ill, but her grief was eased with the birth of a second son, Warren Horsford, nicknamed Rennie, on December 11, 1856. Shortly after Rennie's birth, she met Sarah Chauncey Woolsey , who became her closest friend. Though summer was the only time her husband was at home, Jackson chose to spend the season doing volunteer work with Woolsey at the Knight Hospital; during the last five years of her marriage, she spent little time with Hunt. Biographer Ruth Odell suggests that Jackson and Woolsey had little in common, but that they shared "a view of romance … a sort of eager sparkle … although never permitted to show on the surface."

In September 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, Edward Hunt was experimenting with a "sea miner," which he had designed, when the device exploded; he was killed by its lethal fumes. Two years later, Jackson faced the most heartfelt tragedy of her life when her beloved son Rennie, only nine years old, died of malignant diphtheria. The mother and child had shared a deep bond, which included a belief in the supernatural. Before Rennie died, he exacted a promise from her that she would not take her own life, while he promised in turn to communicate with her after death. By this time Jackson was living among friends in Newport, Rhode Island, but in her intense grief, coupled with her desire to communicate with Rennie, she became so isolated that friends worried about her sanity. She tried to take comfort in her sister's children and begged her sister and her brother-in-law to let her adopt their little girl. Jackson wrote "pathetic and tender little notes" to the child which foreshadowed the writings for children she would later produce.

At the same time, she had also begun to write professionally. In October 1865, her first paid work appeared in the New York Evening Post. She preferred the Atlantic Monthly, but using the business sense inherited from her grandfather, she sold to the highest bidder. According to one biographer, "if selling were an honorable business for men, she didn't see why it wasn't for women and children." She also experimented with book translations and juvenile literature, writing for the Galaxy and the Riverside Magazine for Young People.

Helen Hunt Jackson had many connections to the literary world. For one thing, she had known Emily Dickinson since childhood, and they maintained a lifelong contact; she was also a close friend of Anne C.L. Botta , who hosted "the first important salon in the history of American letters"; Jackson was influenced by both Oliver Wendell Holmes and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, another popular essayist. Learning her craft around such literary figures, she found her writing projects well received back at Amherst, but her rise to fame was also partially engendered by the quantity of work she produced. The Civil War years (1861–65) spawned a barren period in American literature, and, in conservative Newport society, the key to literary credibility was quantity, not quality. Jackson became a prolific writer, churning out 371 articles for the New York Independent alone and writing poetry for the New York Evening Post and the Nation. Under Higginson's tutelage, her style began to please editors of popular magazines like the Atlantic.

In November 1868, Jackson traveled with Woolsey to Europe and recorded the journey in articles and letters to friends. Excerpts were published

as Bits of Travel (1872). Shunning personal celebrity, Jackson adopted various pseudonyms, such as "H.H," "Rip Van Winkle," and "Saxe Holm," or escaped into total anonymity with unsigned reviews and novels signed "No-Name." Though writing was one of the few ways acceptable for women to make money, the social climate toward women writers remained hostile, and she did not want to be identified "as one of the detestable ink-stained women"; Charles Dickens derisively called them "Scribbling Women."

During the European trip, Jackson may also have shrunk from the public eye and rebelled against prescribed cultural dictates. In Rome, she rejected the accepted custom of neighborly visiting, leaving Woolsey to uphold their social obligations while she smuggled herself into off-limit places like the Quirinal Palace, where she sat in the pope's chair when nobody was looking and put "her heretic feet" on his footstool. At the Etruscan Museum, she persuaded her reluctant guide to allow her to light a 3,000-year-old candle, displaying traces of her childhood antics.

Back in the U.S., Jackson's thoughts turned to a much-longed-for trip to California. The publications of her collections were sufficiently lucrative to make the trip possible. After the Independent offered to buy her account of the journey, and Woolsey agreed to accompany her, Jackson set off from New York by rail in the spring of 1872; the descriptions she gathered crossing the countryside would appear a decade later in Ramona. En route, the women toured Salt Lake City, where Jackson was repulsed by the "ugliness of the whole Mormon philosophy," particularly the practice of polygamy. In support of its abolition, she renounced her former stance against women's public speaking by openly promoting a woman's speaking tour. Jackson and Woolsey then toured Yosemite with and without guides, riding horseback over dizzying trails and fording swollen streams. She loved Native American place names rather than their Anglicized translations. It was here that her sensitivity began for the tribal people whose plight would become her life struggle.

Since her trip to Europe, Jackson had repeatedly suffered incapacitating attacks of sore throat, and in 1873 she became more seriously ill with what was diagnosed as diphtheria and dysentery. After convalescing for a while at the home of Emily Dickinson, Jackson's worsening condition led a homeopathic doctor in Amherst to prescribe treatment in the dry climate of the Rocky Mountains. Following his advice, she relocated, and it was at the Colorado Springs Hotel that she met William Sharpless Jackson. A Quaker banker six years her junior, he had made a fortune as promoter of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. On October 22, 1875, the two were married at the house of Helen's sister Ann, in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, then returned to their home in Colorado Springs, the finest house in town and the first that Jackson could truly call her own. The couple entertained frequently. William Jackson was a charming host and loved to have his house filled with friends. His wife found immense pleasure in her new life, but it did not diminish her love of travel.

The relief that the marriage gave Jackson from the need to earn money also released the creative powers that were to produce her best works. Based on childhood memories, she soon wrote the "No-Name" book, Mercy Philbrick's Choice, published in 1876, whose protagonist bore a strong resemblance to her longtime friend Emily Dickinson, with her "orchid-like face," morbid shyness, and sheaves of unpublished poems. Hetty's Strange History (1877) and Nelly's Silver Mine (1878) followed, but despite Jackson's productivity and success, she began to show signs of depression. Isolated from her East Coast friends, she longed for New England, and her zest for Colorado waned. In the late summer of 1879, Jackson left Colorado for Mt. Desert, Maine, planning to remain in the East until December. That November, she was in Boston when she heard the lecture that gave a new direction to her life.

It was then suggested to Jackson that she was the proper person to undertake what William Justin Horsha's Native American novel, Ploughed Under, failed to do. If she would take up the Indian cause, such a story would do for the Indians what Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel did for blacks. After a lifetime of indifference to reform, Jackson became fascinated with her new, all-engaging cause. As she wrote to a friend, she was now what she had always considered to be "the most odious thing in the world, 'a woman with a hobby.'"

For several months, Jackson diligently researched the files of Americana at the Astor Library in New York City. It was a sign of her national stature that she was admitted every morning before the library doors were officially open. In 1881, Jackson published A Century of Dishonor, a scathing and accusatory account of the government's treatment of American tribes that spared no one. Bound in blood red to give visual impact to her fury, copies of the document were sent at her expense to every important official concerned with Indian issues, including members of Congress. She also waged war against then secretary of the interior Carl Schurz, arousing national attention. The report produced no governmental action to right the wrongs Jackson cited, but in 1882 she received a commission from the Department of the Interior to travel to southern and coastal California and document the conditions of the remnant Indian tribes on the lands that had once belonged to the California missions.

Abbott Kinney was selected to assist Jackson as chaperon and interpreter, as well as to intimidate white squatters responsible for the dispossession and eviction of the mission Indians. They arrived in California in the winter of 1881–82 and made a five-week tour of Native American settlements in the three southernmost counties of the state, during which Jackson roused the enmity of many who crossed her path. While staying at Horton House in San Diego, she evoked criticism for interfering with the manager's rearing of his children and for demanding "one thing after another in the interest of her own comfort." Undoubtedly motivated by her experience with the hotel manager, she simultaneously churned out four essays on child training. She also fought bitterly with every government official who dared question her recommendations.

More important, while gathering the material for her report, Jackson became acquainted with places and characters that were to appear later in Ramona. From her San Diego hotel, she made drives to the villages and missions of Saboba, the Serrano tribe in the San Jacinto Valley, Temecula Valley, the Pauma, the Potraro, the Rincon, San Luis Rey, San Juan Capistrano, and San Antonio de Pala—all sites reproduced in the novel with great exactitude. Her excursions were detailed in articles released while she traveled, and in July 1883, her 56-page document produced for the government, Report on the Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians, was sent off to Washington.

When the government still showed no sign of response, Jackson resurrected the idea of the novel. "It came in the middle of the night," she wrote. "The story came at white heat. I did not write Ramona; it was written through me. My life-blood went into it—all I had thought, felt and suffered for five years on the Indian question." For her protagonist, she chose a woman of Spanish and Native American ethnicity, but it is likely that the character was modeled after Susette LaFlesche, whose story had affected her so deeply.

Published in 1884, Ramona became the bestselling romance novel of the 19th century. The story lacked the scope and power of Stowe's Uncle

Tom's Cabin. The many intricate issues of conflict between Indians and whites were distorted by oversimplification, and the unlikely ending was anticlimactic, weakening its impact as protest fiction. But the story is important for its portrayal of old Spanish society in California on the brink of dissolution, and it successfully characterizes the victimization of the mission Indians by white squatters and officials. The book sold steadily through more than 300 printings, and to date there have been at least four movie versions made, three in the silent-film era. In Hemet, California, the romantic tragedy has been performed annually in an outdoor amphitheater since the 1920s.

Her own mission accomplished, Jackson returned to Colorado to redecorate her house. By now, she had become very heavy, and, after a fall down a flight of stairs resulted in a compound fracture of her hip, she never walked again. But she still wrote and continued to travel, stopping in Los Angeles and Long Beach. By the time she reached San Francisco, she was seriously ill with cancer but managed to write parting thoughts and wishes to her friends and to leave instructions that all her letters and manuscripts be burned. From her deathbed, she wrote to President Grover Cleveland, thanking him for what he had already done for the Indians and suggesting that he read A Century of Dishonor. Ten days after her husband arrived in San Francisco, Jackson died at age 54, a year after the publication of Ramona. That she always forgot herself and devoted her strength to the cause of others explains why her friend Emily Dickinson, upon learning of her death, could say, "Helen of Troy will die, but Helen of Colorado, never."

A great flood of tributes praised Jackson for her personal magnetism, love of nature, and zest for living. She was buried in a favorite spot, beneath a cairn on Cheyenne Mountain overlooking Colorado Springs, but in 1891 a spate of vandalism made it necessary to move her casket to Evergreen Cemetery, her final resting place. Although she did not live to see the mission Indians of southern California vindicated, her writings and activism were instrumental in leading to the work of the Women's National Indian Association, the Indian Rights Association, and the Lake Mohonk Conference.


Banning, Evelyn I. Helen Hunt Jackson. NY: Vanguard Press, 1973.

Jackson, Helen (H.H.). A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with some of the Indian Tribes. Minneapolis, MN: Ross & Haines (repr. in 1964).

——. Ramona. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1884.

Mathes, Valerie Sherer. Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy. Edited by William H. Goetzmann. 1st ed. American Studies Series, Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1990.

Odell, Ruth. Helen Hunt Jackson (H.H.). NY: D. Appleton-Century, 1939.

suggested reading:

Armitage, Susan, and Elizabeth Jameson, eds. The Women's West. OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Schlissel, Lillian, Vicki L. Ruiz, and Janice Monk, eds. Western Women: Their Land, Their Lives. NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

related media:

Ramona (silent film), starring Mary Pickford and Henry B. Walthall, produced by D.W. Griffith for Biograph, 1910.

Ramona (12-reel silent film), starring Adda Gleason and Monroe Salisbury, produced by William H. Clune, 1916.

Ramona (silent film), starring Dolores Del Rio and Roland Drew, United Artists, 1928.

Ramona (sound film), starring Loretta Young and Don Ameche, 20th Century-Fox, 1936.

A yearly stage production of Ramona is performed in Hemet, California.

Roberta A. Hobson , author of "In Search of Herself, Judith McDaniel," in Contemporary Lesbian Writers of the United States (Greenwood Press, 1993)

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Jackson, Helen Hunt (1830–1885)

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