Helen Hunt Jackson was an odd choice to write one of the most popular romances of the period between the 1880s and 1920s. Prickly, pushy and driven, she turned to writing romantic fiction only in the hope that her work might do for the American Indians what Uncle Tom’s Cabin had done for the slaves.
Though her signature work, Ramona, was not as influential in improving the plight of Native Americans, it ran through countless printings, sold more than 600,000 copies and has been adapted for a variety of media, including four films.
Jackson came by her passions through her schooling. She was born in Amherst, Mass. in 1830 and schooled at the Ipswich Female Seminary, which trained girls to become teachers and missionaries.
In her early adulthood, Jackson lived a conventional life, married with two children. By age 35, however, both her children and her soldier husband had died. It was after this that she began writing. She originally dabbled in poetry and fiction, but in 1879 she began to focus on Native American issues.
She was inspired by a speech given in Boston by a chief of the Ponca tribe in which he recounted how his people were mistreated and cheated out of their lands by the government. The speech turned Jackson into a one-woman crusade.
She travelled west and uncovered broken treaties and stolen lands, exposing them in reports that were picked up by newspapers. She took her crusade to Washington and blistered anyone who contradicted her.
In 1881, she published a scathing account of official corruption, titled Century of Dishoner and sent copies to every member of Congress. She travelled to Southern California where, between them, the Mexican and U.S. governments were systematically stripping the Mission Indians of their lands, disregarding all claims of ownership.
A new commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hiram Price, commissioned Jackson to write a report on the situation and it landed in Washington with a resounding thud. It called for reparations, new land purchases for the dispossessed American Indians and investments in schools. The Senate acted on the report, the House of Representatives declined.
Frustrated by the dithering, Jackson decided to use fiction to drive her points home to a broader audience and Ramona was born. She concluded that it was not enough to marshal facts to bring about change, she must also rouse people’s emotions.
“If I could write a story that would do for the Indian one-hundredth part what Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the Negro, I would be thankful the rest of my life,” she wrote.
Ramona told the story of a girl, half-Indian and half-Scots, and her struggles to exist in California amid a culture of racism that denied her her true love because he was an Indian.
The tear-jerker drew instant commercial success, and many were so moved by the story that it created an uptick in tourism to Southern California.
Buoyed by the success, but battling stomach cancer, Jackson planned a second novel about the obstacles American Indian children faced. But cancer got to her before she could complete it.
She died hoping that her books, a Century of Dishonor and Ramona, would propel forward the movement to bring justice to the American Indians.