Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–85) was an accomplished poet, author, and activist in the nineteenth century. Many of Jackson’s written works, notably A Century of Dishonor (1881) and Ramona (1884), spurred progress toward recompense for the mistreatment of the Native American peoples by the US government. Today, Jackson’s legacy shines through her literary and poetic works, and the contributions she made toward the welfare of the native peoples of the United States.
Jackson was born in 1830 as Helen Maria Fiske in Amherst, Massachusetts, to father Nathan Welby Fiske and mother Deborah Waterman Vinal Fiske. She had three siblings: Humphrey Washborn Fiske, David Vinal Fiske, and Anne Scholfield Fiske. Her two brothers died in infancy, leaving Jackson to grow up with only her sister, Anne. The Fiske parents were both Calvinists. Nathan had a job as a professor of language and philosophy at Amherst College. Because of this, Jackson was taught mathematics, philosophy, and the sciences, despite a disruptive switch in boarding schools while she was young.
Jackson’s education started at Amherst Academy, where she started what became a lifelong friendship and correspondence with Emily Dickinson, a classmate also destined to become a great American writer. Around the age of eleven, Jackson transferred to Ipswich Female Seminary in Ipswich, Massachusetts. In 1844 Jackson’s mother died from tuberculosis. She lost her father three years later to the same disease. After the death of her parents, Jackson was taken in by an aunt and began attending the Abbott Boarding School in New York City.
Marriage and Tragedy
In 1852, at the age of twenty-one, Jackson married US army captain (later Major) and mechanical engineer Edward Bissell Hunt, taking his name. Jackson enjoyed moving around with him between stations on the northeastern coast. That first taste of travel led her to the artists’ colony of Newport, Rhode Island, where she met many poets, novelists, essayists, and historians who influenced her literary career.
The couple had a son, Murray Hunt, not long after marriage, but he succumbed to a brain disease after less than a year of life. They then had a second son, Warren “Rennie” Horsford Hunt, in 1855. Eight years later, her husband, Edward, was killed in an accident involving a submarine of his own design. Tragedy would follow Jackson, as just two years after losing her husband, she lost Rennie to diphtheria at her sister’s home in West Roxbury. The loss of her family overwhelmed Jackson, driving her to write.
Jackson had produced very little by way of literature up to this point. Wracked with sorrow over her losses, she discovered that writing was a therapeutic way to express her anguish and to cope with it. Writing proved to be more than just emotional support, as her published poems received immediate attention and started earning her money. In 1886 she took up residence in Newport, Rhode Island, and began growing her literary portfolio. She produced many poems and several novels during this time, but did so unnamed or under a variety of pseudonyms, hiding many of her works from history until she settled on the alias H.H.
In this period of her life, however, Helen Hunt Jackson battled with her own illness— either tuberculosis or diphtheria—and took up residence in Colorado Springs around 1874 with the hope that the climate would cure her. During her time there, she became fully established as a writer. In 1875 she married William Sharpless Jackson, a successful banker and railroad executive. She remained tied to Colorado Springs for the rest of her life, but never hesitated to travel.
The Dishonorable Century
Jackson made many trips back to the East Coast to keep up with publishers and correspondents. She also headed west, to California, to gather material for her writing. During her travels, she attended a reception for the Ponca Native American tribe in Boston in 1879. There, Chief Standing Bear described the government’s forced relocation of the Ponca from their reservation in Nebraska to the Quapaw Reservation in Oklahoma. To that point, Jackson had shown no strong interest in activism, yet this single event changed the course of her literary work entirely. She developed a deep-seated and passionate concern for the struggles Native Americans faced under the rule of the US government and would spend the rest of her life fighting on their behalf.
Jackson spent the next two years researching the United States’ history of interaction with the indigenous people of America. Her research came to a head in 1881, with the publication of A Century of Dishonor, the first book issued under her full name. The book features seven chapters, each a historical summary of an individual tribe, emphasizing its mistreatment at the hands of the government. She also includes a chapter describing four Native American massacres by white settlers, and concludes with a chapter outlining what needed to be done to begin making amends for the shameful behavior of America. She sent a copy of this book to each member of Congress with the Benjamin Franklin quote “Look upon your hands! they are stained with the blood of your relations!” printed in red letters on the covers. Jackson followed through by keeping correspondence with various press entities to ensure the matters stayed before the public eye. The book had little immediate effect, but did generate much controversy. It paved the way for the creation of the Indian Rights Association, among other activist groups.
Mission Indians and Ramona
During a trip to southern California sponsored by Century Magazine, Jackson began a comprehensive investigation into the local missions and Mission Indians that had piqued her interest on an earlier visit. While in Los Angeles, she met with a man named Don Antonio Coronel, the former mayor and expert on Californio, the culture created in California while the region was still under Mexican control. Coronel described the plight of the Mission Indians during both Mexican and US rule. Jackson published her investigations in Century Magazine and caught the attention of Hiram Price, the US commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Price recommended appointing Jackson as an interior agent, and Jackson accepted. Her mission was to investigate and report on the Mission Indians’ locations and conditions, and what lands, if any, should be bought for their use. In 1883 Jackson and Abbot Kinney, another Indian Agent, submitted their thirty-five page Report on the Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians of California, recommending extensive government relief efforts for the Mission Indians. This report led to a bill that passed in the Senate but died in the House of Representatives.
Still eager to help the native populations in California, Jackson tried a different approach. In a letter asking Don Antonio Coronel for help, Jackson wrote, “I am going to write a novel, in which will be set forth Indian experiences in a way to move people’s hearts.” Inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and backed by Coronel’s knowledge of California history and life, Jackson started her outline for this new book while still in California. She started writing it during a stay in New York in December 1883 and finished it three months later. This novel, published in 1884, was titled Ramona. It told the story of a half–Native American, half-Scottish orphan girl raised in the Spanish Californio society. The story became an immediate financial success and was received positively by much of the public. However, most readers enjoyed Ramona for the romantic and exotic setting it displayed, with very little thought given to the struggles the characters faced. Having missed her goal of raising awareness of the plight of Native Americans, Jackson considered the novel an abject failure.
On August 12, 1885, in San Francisco, California, Helen Hunt Jackson succumbed to stomach cancer. Her husband had her body moved back to Colorado Springs for burial at Inspiration Point, overlooking the city. Her remains were later exhumed and moved to Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs, but her original grave still stands.
Jackson’s passion for helping the Native peoples of this country was obvious in everything she did in the last five years of her life. Nevertheless, she was still disappointed. Many saw A Century of Dishonor as an affront to American society, and though Ramona was much more popular, most readers saw it as just a story, ignoring its portrait of injustice. Jackson, however, recognized that her works would outlive her, eventually accomplishing what she intended them to do. These, along with the Report on the Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians of California, and many more essays and poems, would be used by Native American activist groups, such as the Women’s International Indian Association and the Indian Rights Association, for decades to come. They would influence reform legislation, and they would continue to affect and teach the generations of today.
“Helen of Troy will die, but Helen of Colorado, never.”
—Emily Dickinson to William S. Jackson, 1885