Helen Hunt Jackson: Biography, Novels & Poems

Instructor: Matthew Hill
In this lesson, explore the life and literary works of Helen Hunt Jackson, an advocate on behalf of Native Americans in post-Civil War America. Her exposé, A Century of Dishonor, and her novel, Ramona, are her best known literary works.

Childhood and Education

It is ironic that someone who showed little inclination toward reform in college became a leading champion of Native American rights. Helen Hunt Jackson's legacy was built on her literary talents and her humanitarian interests.

Jackson was born on October 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was one of four children, though her two brothers died young. Her father, Nathan Fiske, was a professor of classical languages at Amherst. Both her mother and father died while she was a teenager, and she was raised by her aunt. Fortunately, her parents had provided the means for her to attend boarding schools in New York. She then attended college at Amherst, where she befriended Emily Dickinson, a famous poet and lifelong friend and correspondent of Jackson.

Helen Hunt Jackson
Helen Hunt Jackson

Marriage and Tragedy

In 1852, Jackson married Edward Bissell Hunt, who was an Army engineer. They had two sons, but both died while young. On top of this, her husband was killed in an accident in 1863, and she suddenly found herself without a family. Jackson took up writing at this stage, most likely as a way to express her grief.

Early Writings

Jackson began writing poems that were published in newspapers. In time, her writings were published as collected works, such as Verses (1870), Bits of Travel at Home (1878), and Easter Bells (1884). Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a noted poet of the era, provided her valuable advice on publishing and introduced her to other literary talents. Given the suspicion of female authors during this period of time, Jackson often wrote under the pseudonym 'H.H.' among others. Her claim to fame, though, rests on her literary work on Native Americans.

Helen Hunt Jackson
Helen Hunt Jackson

Moving Out West

In 1872, Jackson took a train from New York to San Francisco to gather material for a book and became mesmerized by the Western landscape. In ill health, she moved to Colorado Springs, where she remarried. Her husband, William Sharpless Jackson, was an executive for the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad and then became a prominent banker. Her time in the West proved important, as it put her closer to the Native Americans she would write about.

A Century of Dishonor

Jackson showed little interest in reform work until she attended a lecture of Ponca and Omaha Indians in Boston. Jackson was especially moved by the speech of the chief of the Ponca tribe, Chief Standing Bear. She then used her literary talents to champion their cause. The result, the 1881 A Century of Dishonor, not only chronicled the tragic relationship between the U.S. government and Native Americans, but was also written to affect government policy. In fact, Jackson sent a copy to each member of Congress. Her work was a sensation and brought the plight of Native Americans to the general public.

Ponca Chief Standing Bear
Ponca Chief Standing Bear

Department of the Interior

Many in the U.S. government were impressed with Jackson's compassion toward Native Americans. Hiram Price, who was Commissioner of Indian Affairs under President James Garfield, tasked Jackson with conducting a field study on the Mission Indian tribes in Southern California for the Department of the Interior. The result was a 56-page report for the government titled, Report on the Condition and Needs of the Mission Indians in 1883. Unlike her other writings, this was more educational in nature, but it was useful for government policy-making. Jackson was captivated by California culture, and based on her exposure to the surrounding tribal culture, she soon penned her best-known novel, titled Ramona.

Ramona and California

Ramona is the story of a mixed Indian-Scots girl raised on a Spanish mission. She falls in love with a Native American boy named Alessandro, and they had to elope because their marriage was looked down upon. In the first half of the novel, the two triumphed; in the second half, the two lost their land due to government seizure of Native American land.

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