The Wild West of Yester-Year

Author and Activist: Helen Hunt Jackson
By Rache Kovaciny


If you like to read books about the Old West, you may have heard of a book called Ramona by a woman named Helen Hunt Jackson. Written in 1884, it takes place after the Mexican-American War and aims to raise sympathy for the way the US Government treated the Native Americans during and after that conflict. I myself haven’t read the book yet, but I bought a copy recently, and the short biography of the author inside it inspired me to learn more about her. What I’ve learned is fascinating, so here I will share a brief sketch of this remarkable woman’s life.


Helen Hunt Jackson was born in Massachusetts in 1830, to an educated, respected family. Her parents died when she was a teenager, and Helen grew up in various boarding schools. She was childhood friends with the renowned poet Emily Dickinson. The two remained lifelong friends via letters. When Helen was 22, she married army engineer Captain Edward Hunt. They had two sons, both of whom died before reaching adulthood. Captain Hunt died following an accident, and Helen turned to writing poetry to express her sorrow over her losses. After Helen contracted tuberculosis, she moved west to find drier climates, a frequent treatment for the disease. In 1873 she settled in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where she met and married William Jackson, a wealthy railroad man.

Helen Hunt Jackson published her poetry and her first novels anonymously as was typical for female authors of that era. The public rarely took woman authors seriously, so they would conceal their identities to give others a chance to view their work on its own merits instead of dismissed as being written by a female. Although she kept herself busy with writing, in 1879, Helen found her true calling. That year, she heard a lecture by Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca Tribe from Oklahoma. His descriptions of the mistreatment of Native Americans by the US government so affected her, she spent the rest of her life as an activist for various native tribes.

In 1881, Jackson published A Century of Dishonor under her own name, a long history of the government’s habit of making treaties with native tribes and breaking them. It called for immediate reform, and she reportedly sent a copy to every member of Congress. While the book did not accomplish immediate changes, it resulted in creating the Indian Rights Association. But Jackson wasn’t satisfied with just writing a book to expose the mistreatment of humans by laws passed by the people sworn to serve everyone in the nation. She traveled to California to see for herself how the government dealt with the native tribes of the Southwest after the Spanish-American War. Her interest was so well-known and well-respected, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs appointed her to be an Interior Department Agent. In that capacity, she visited the native tribes to help determine how much land the government should allot them. Helen Hunt Jackson traveled all over southern California, documenting the conditions she found and preparing a massive report for her superiors concerning the so-called Mission Indians.

When her official work as an agent failed to increase sympathy and aid for the Native Americans she championed, Jackson decided fiction might work better. She wrote the romantic novel Ramona, a critical and commercial success. Critics have compared Ramona with Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe for the way it created sympathy for a downtrodden, ignored minority. Helen Hunt Jackson died of cancer in 1885. While she did not live to see the people she championed treated with the equality she demanded, she knew her writing and advocacy had gained them the attention and sympathy of the public. Thanks to Jackson and others like her raising awareness of these issues, legislation eventually passed to restore the rights and property of many Native Americans.