Born this day in 1830: Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–1885), poet, travel writer, novelist, and defender of Native American rights.
Helen Hunt Jackson was born Helen Fiske in Amherst, Massachusetts. She received a good education, and after the deaths of her husband, Captain Edward Hunt, and her two sons, she earned her living writing. Dismissive of limelight (or following the conventions of the day), she published most of her works—book reviews, travel writing, and poetry—anonymously or under a pseudonym. She had been friend to Emily Dickinson since childhood, so her name was not unknown in literary circles. Ralph Waldo Emerson regarded her as one of the greatest poets of the day.
In 1879 her new husband, William Jackson, brought her to hear a talk given by Standing Bear of the Ponca people. Helen Hunt Jackson was so moved by Standing Bear’s description of his people’s treatment by the United States government that she became that thing she deplored: a woman with a cause. She undertook a study of U.S.–Native American, or Indian, relations and wrote an indictment of U.S. Indian policy titled A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes (1881). Jackson sent a copy to each member of Congress.
The following year Jackson was appointed as a special commissioner to investigate the treatment of the California Mission Indians. The report she co-authored in 1883 offered yet another exposé on the poor conditions of Native American peoples resulting from U.S. policy. Congress, however, remained reluctant to make any changes.
Trying a new tack, Jackson then set out to do for the Indians what Harriet Beecher Stowe did for the slaves. She used her knowledge of the California missions as a basis for her novel Ramona. Ramona did inspire Congress. The subsequent Dawes Act, meant to aid Native Americans, backfired and ended up further dispossessing Native American people’s of their land and further rending their social fabric.
Ramona has had a special impact on California, not so much by fostering Native American welfare, but by increasing tourism. People were more intrigued by the love story at the center of the novel and Jackson's depictions of early settler life than they were disturbed by the cruelty and injustices it portrayed. Ramona was very popular and has never been out of print. It has been the subject of several movies and plays, including an annual production held in Hemet, California.