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Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885)
by Janice Albert

High school students selling Ramona water, Hemet, CA

Described as "the first novel about southern California," Ramona by Helen Hunt Jackson was written to call attention to the plight of the Mission Indians at the hands of the United States government. Instead of sparking indignation, the novel inspired a myth that has indelibly marked the California landscape.

Jackson, born 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, came to California following the publication of her work A Century of Dishonor, an exposé of the plight of America's indigenous people. When her nonfiction document failed to ignite the conscience of Congress, she decided to write a work of fiction that she hoped would have the moral force of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Arriving in 1881, she carried a commission by Century magazine to write a series of five sketches of California life. Lawrence Clark Powell, in his California Classics, tells us that "she journeyed to all of the Missions from San Diego to Sonoma, and she also researched in the Santa Barbara Mission archives and in the historical collection of H. H. Bancroft long before it was sold to the University of California." Additionally, she visited ranches, including Rancho Camulos in Ventura County and Rancho Guajome, near Oceanside in northwestern San Diego County.

Her second visit to California came in 1883 when she was appointed Commissioner of Indian Affairs by President Chester A. Arthur. In this capacity, she was to report formally on the condition of California's Mission Indians. She traveled with fellow commissioner Abbot Kinney, whose knowledge of Spanish helped them to get by two-horse, double-seated carriage to Indian reservations in the Riverside and San Diego back country. Michael Dorris, in his Introduction to the 1988 edition of Ramona (Signet Classics) reports "she always wore a hat composed of the entire head of a large gray owl. This bird, which symbolized death to a number of tribes she visited, intimidated many of those with whom she wished to converse until they became used to her presence."

All of the traveling, note-taking, and conversation became the background of the novel she was to complete after taking a suite for that purpose at the Berkeley Hotel in New York City. Ramona was published in 1884; the author died in San Francisco ten months later. By that time, the novel had already sold over 15,000 copies. More than one hundred years after publication, it is still in print, having been reissued more than 300 times. (Yes, it's listed with It has inspired an opera and three motion pictures, as well as a Ramona pageant begun in 1923 in the town of Hemet.

ow, the California Historical Society has published a "Ramona" issue (Fall 1998) calling attention to forces behind the development of the Ramona myth as well as current controversies and their financial implications. It is interesting to note the process by which a novel intended to shame the leaders of a great democracy became a source of myth making and material for California boosterism.

Ramona is the story of an orphan, the child of a white father and an Indian mother, who is raised by a foster mother, Señora Gonzago Moreno, but kept ignorant of the fact of her parentage. She falls in love with an Indian, a sheepherder, named Alessandro. Señora Moreno, who hates Indians, tries to keep the two apart, but they elope and are married by Father Gaspara on San Diego. Ramona must go to live with Alessandro's people.

At this point Jackson begins her revelation of the condition of Indian life in California. A child is born to the couple but dies of medical negligence. Land is needed by Yankee farmers who force the tribe to move again. He husband is murdered before her very eyes, but Ramona must go into hiding with the knowledge that the courts will not take the word of an Indian woman against a white. According to Kevin Starr in his book Inventing the Dream, "Attempting a parable, Helen Hunt Jackson offered a symbolic anatomy of the Southern California experience as she encountered it in the early 1880s. Every character and detail of Ramona is based on fact, or composites of facts" (60).

But Californians fell in love with the book's romantic vision of a Spanish past. This development is attributed in part to photography by archivist Errol Wayne Stevens, (California History, Fall 1998.) Jackson's novel vividly described a set of locations which readers quickly confused with reality, in much the same way as Garrison Keillor's readers go looking for Lake Woebegone and Arthur Conan Doyle's fans look up Sherlock Holmes's address in London. "Photographers eagerly recorded images of any person, object, or location that could have had a conceivable connection to the story." This led to a postcard industry running into the hundreds of thousands. Cards of buildings identified as "Ramona's Marriage Place" and "Ramona's Home" were purchased and mailed by tourists, land developers, medical and health clinics, chambers of commerce, business people, railroads, hotels, and host of other interested parties. (Some of these are reproduced in the Fall issue of California History.) At the present time, two California sites recognized in the National Register of Historic Places are related to Ramona. In one case, the application for NHL status of a San Diego site was entitled "Casa Estudillo/Ramona's Marriage Place," although this claim could not possibly be documented.

A second reason for the popularity of Ramona is identified by Stevens as an unfortunate connection with racist attitudes. Ramona was made to be only part Indian, physically beautiful, with a complexion that was olive without being swarthy. She has her mother's hair, "heavy and black" but her father's eyes, "steel-blue. "Alessandro, her husband, is also light skinned, reads, and plays the violin. Stevens quotes from writers of the time who strenuously objected to the thought that the charming and graceful Ramona could be derived from a race described as "squat," with "straight, coarse black hair, thick lips and high cheek bones," as well as being "dull, heavy and unimpressionable," and "lazy, cruel, cowardly, and covetous."

In a more charitable mood, Frederick Turner in his book Spirit of Place: the Making of an American Literary Landscape (1989), points out that, before Thoreau, "Americans believed they lived in an ahistorical landscape, one without spirit and without life except that with which they would presently endow it…." Turner phrases the "great historic and indeed existential problem American writers faced until about the time of the Civil War: how to learn to trust yourself enough to take inspiration from the place you were rather than looking elsewhere, or backward in time, for models, guides, landscape orientations. More: how to see in the unfeatured and often dreary circumstances and details of your place of living the requisite materials for literature." While Ralph Waldo Emerson called for an indigenous literature in the 1830s and Walt Whitman in the 1870, Helen Hunt Jackson was among those who brought this dream into being. Along with Thoreau, Twain and Cather, she looked at a landscape that had been faulted for being "all sunshine" and wrote a story which ignited people's imaginations, becoming a bright thread in the carpet of California literature.


Visitors to the Ramona Pageant drawn to the state historical marker


sheet music

Sheetmusic display at the Ramona Pageant Museum

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