Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885)
Proudly claimed by the West, Helen Maria Fiske was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. “Brilliant, impetuous and thoroughly individual,” Jackson led an active social and academic life. From childhood a friend of poet Emily Dickinson, Jackson decided to write after the deaths of her first husband, Edward Hunt, and her sons, Murry and Rennie.
Author of children’s stories, travel sketches, and poems, Jackson wrote thirty books and hundreds of articles for the New York Independent, Atlantic Monthly, and Scribners. Had she not used pen names, fashionable in her day, she would have been more well known. But even so, Ralph Waldo Emerson found her fit to be called America’s “greatest woman poet.”
Advocate for Indian Rights
In 1879, Jackson heard Ponca Chief Standing Bear plead for help for his people. During midwinter, the government had relocated the Ponca from their homes in the Dakota gold fields to Nebraska. Emotionally moved by their hardships, Jackson circulated petitions, raised money, and aroused public opinion.
A Century of Dishonor(1881): Following careful research, Jackson published Century of Dishonor in 1881, which documented the nation’s poor treatment of Indians. Undeniably political, the book’s introduction, written as capably as a legal brief, sketches mistreatment from the American Revolution through her own time. Her study shocked the public, but officials largely ignored her.
Ramona(1884): Appointed by President Chester A. Arthur as the first female Special Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Jackson visited California’s Mission Indians. She completed 56-page report with recommendations for immediate, improved treatment. While completing her study, Jackson decided to attack “the people’s conscience directly.” Writing quickly, she completed the popular story of Ramona. Since 1884, publishers have reprinted Ramona more than 300 times; directors have filmed the story for large and small screens; and, since 1923, Hemet, California, holds an annual Ramona festival.
Helen Hunt Jackson’s Legacy
Because of Helen Hunt Jackson and others, the nation passed the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, the country’s first comprehensive reform legislation for the treatment of Native Americans. Today, Helen Hunt Jackson’s work and philosophy remain significant.
By easy slope to west as if it had
No thought, when first its soaring was begun
Except to look devoutly to the sun.
It rises, and has risen, until glad
With light as with a garment it is clad.
Each dawn before the tardy plains have won
For us, the light doth cling reluctant sad
To leave its brow. Beloved mount, I
Thy worshipper, as thou the sun¹s, each morn
My dawn, before the dawn, receive from thee;
And think, as thy rose-tinting peak I see,
That thou wert great when Homer was not born,
And ere thou change, all human songs shall die!
- Helen Hunt Jackson
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