Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) 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), initiated great progress towards recompense for the mistreatment of the Native American peoples by the United States Government. Today, Jackson’s legacy shines through her literary and poetic works, and the contributions she made towards the welfare of the native peoples of the United States, both during and after her life.
Jackson was born as Helen Maria Fiske in October, 1830 to father Nathan Welby Fiske and mother Deborah Waterman Vinal Fiske, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She had three siblings, Humphrey Washborn Fiske, David Vinal Fiske and Anne Scholfield Fiske; however, her two brothers died in infancy, leaving Jackson to grow up with only her sister Anne. The Fiske parents were both academic Calvinists, Nathan, in particular, having a job as a professor of language and philosophy at Amherst College. As consequence of this, Jackson received comprehensive teachings in mathematics, philosophy, and the sciences despite a disruptive switch in boarding schools while she was young.
Jackson’s education started in Amherst Academy where she formed the start of what would later become a lifelong friendship and correspondence with a classmate also destined to become a great American writer, Emily Dickinson. However, around the age of eleven, Jackson transferred to Ipswich Female Seminary in Ipswich, Massachusetts. In 1844, Jackson’s mother passed away from tuberculosis. She lost her father three years later to the same disease. Due to this unfortunate turn of events, she 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 21, Jackson married US Army Captain (later Major) and mechanical engineer Edward Bissell Hunt, taking his name. Jackson enjoyed moving around with him in his frequent changes between stations on the northeastern coast. These initial tastes of travel lead her to the artists’ colony of Newport, Rhode Island, where she met many poets, novelists, essayists, and historians that would prove useful to her literary career throughout her life.
The couple conceived a son, Murray Hunt, not long after marriage, but he succumbed to a brain disease after less than a year of life, much to their dismay. They then had a second son, Warren "Rennie" Horsford Hunt, in 1855. Eight years later, Edward was killed in an accident involving a submarine of his own design. Tragedy would remain close to Jackson as only 2 years after her husband, she lost Rennie to diphtheria at her sister’s home in West Roxbury. The loss of her family overwhelmed Jackson with enormous amounts of grief.
Jackson had produced very little by way of literature up to this point, but wracked with sorrow over her losses, she discovered that writing was an incredibly therapeutic way to express her anguish, and begin to cope with it. And it proved to be more than just emotional support as her published poems began receiving immediate attention, and gaining financial traction. In 1886, she took up residence in Newport, R.I., and began growing her literary career. 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 the connecting strings of 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, Colorado around 1874 with the hope that the climate would cure her. During her time there, she was able to become fully and financially established as a writer, and, in 1875, remarry to a man named William Sharpless Jackson, a successful banker and railroad executive. She would remain tied to Colorado Springs for the rest of her life, but would never be a stranger to travel.
The Dishonorable Century
Helen Hunt Jackson made many trips back to the east coast to keep up with publishers and correspondents, as well as to the west, in 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. Up until this point, Jackson had shown no strong interest in activism, yet this single event changed the course of her literary work entirely and indefinitely. She developed a deep-seated and passionate concern for the struggles Native Americans faced under the rule of the United States Government, and would spend the rest of her life fighting on their behalf. She had found a purpose.
Jackson spent the next two years researching the United States’ history of interaction with the Native tribes of America, which came to a head in 1881 with the publishing of A Century of Dishonor, the first book issued under her full name. The book starts with seven chapters, each a historical summary of an individual tribe, emphasizing their mistreatment at the hands of the government. This section is followed by 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 disappointingly little immediate affect and generated much controversy, but it did stir enough of the population to pave 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 interests on an earlier visit. While in Los Angeles, she met with a man named Don Antonio Coronel, the former mayor and expert on early Californio life, or the culture created in California while the region was still under Mexican control. Cornell described the plight of the Mission Indians through both Mexican and U.S. control over the region, and their relocation from their lands to serve as workers in the local missions. Jackson published her investigations in Century Magazine and caught the eye of Hiram Price, the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs.
Price recommended Jackson’s appointment as an Interior Agent, which Jackson accepted. Her mission, under this title, was to investigate and report on the Mission Indians’ locations and conditions, and what lands, if an, should be purchased 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 lead to a bill to action 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 named Ramona; a story of a half Native American, half Scottish orphan girl, Ramona, raised in the Spanish Californio society of souther California. The story became an immediate financial success, received positively by a large fraction of the American population. However, it was enjoyed for the romantic and exotic setting it displayed, with very little thought given to the nature of the struggles the characters faced. Jackson, having missed her goal of raising recognition of the tribulations faced by Native Americans, considered the novel an abject failure.
Death and Legacy
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 the original grave still stands as a landmark to her legacy.
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, but she was still disappointed with the amount of immediate progress she was able to make. A Century of Dishonor was seen as an affront to American society by many; and Ramona, though much more popular, was seen as just a story, taken without weight. However, she recognized that her works would outlive her, and eventually do what they were put out 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, like 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