“Ramona” was a runaway best seller with an unhappy author

Time Before Now, August, 1885  Grover Cleveland, a distant relative of Gen. Moses Cleveland, the Ohio city’s namesake, was President.  Defeated by Benjamin Harrison four years later, he won back the White House in 1893, the only U.S. president to serve two non-consecutive terms.  Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” a sequel to “Tam Sawyer” had crossed the pond from England but critics were offended by the book’s “course language.”   And the 150-foot Statue of Liberty,(right) a gift from the people of France, had also just arrived in New York aboard the French Frigate, “Isère.”  Some assembly required.  

August 12, 1885

On this day, Helen Hunt Jackson, often called the Harriet Beecher Stowe of Native American causes, died at the age of 55.  It was barely a year after publishing one of the most popular novels of the 19th century.

Jackson’s wildly successful book, “Ramona,” estimated to have been reprinted a remarkable 300 times, was a fictionalized account of the plight of America’s indigenous people.  Her interest was fueled  after hearing a lecture by Chief Standing Bear (right) in 1879.  The Ponca leader had just won a landmark case before the Supreme Court, United States ex. rel. Standing Bear v. Crook, which for the first time granted habeas corpus to Native Americans and designated them as “people.” 

Jackson was deeply affected by Standing Bear’s struggle to return to his ancestral land in Nebraska to bury his son.  The deaths of her own two sons and the loss of her husband during the Civil War became a catalyst for her writing career. 

Tragedy had been a constant companion through much of her early life.  Born Helen Fiske in 1830, she was orphaned at a young age.  Her mother died when she was just 12 and her father three years later.  Placed in the care of an scholarly uncle, she attended the Female Seminary and Abbott Institute in New York City, where she was a classmate of poet Emily Dickinson, (right) who would become her lifelong friend and mentor.

In 1852, she married Captain Edward Bissell Hunt (right) but misfortune seemed to stalk the couple.  Their first son, Murray, died in infancy and the captain was killed in a marine accident in 1863.   Her second son, Warren, died of diphtheria two years later at just nine. 

After the loss of her entire family for a second time, the young widow found solace writing poetry, a connection shared with Emily Dickinson, already an established poet.  Her first successful poem, “Coronation,” published by the Atlantic in 1869, launched a promising literary career. 

Diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1873, while recovering at a Colorado Springs resort Jackson met her second husband, William Sharpless Jackson.(Right)  A banker, railroad executive and member of one of the city’s most progressive families, he was a founding trustee of Colorado College. 

Jackson’s first effort to document indigenous struggles in her 1881 book, “A Century of Dishonor” was largely overlooked.  She discovered quickly, however, that novels had much greater appeal with readers.  

The plot for the 1883 “Ramona,” set shortly after the Mexican-American War, detailed the trials of a young orphaned Scottish and Native American girl who faces discrimination.  During a trip to California, she had met Don Antonio Coronel, (left) the fourth mayor of Los Angeles.  Born in Mexico City in the waning years of colonial New Spain, Coronel was familiar with the mission period of the state. 

More than 600,000 copies of “Ramona” were sold, but Jackson was reportedly disappointed with its reception by critics.  They, like the reading public, were more captivated by the romance between the lovely Ramona and Allesandro, the son of an aristocratic family.  “Not one word for the Indians,” she lamented.  “I put my heart and soul in the book for them. It is a dead failure.”

Unfortunately Jackson didn’t live to witness the book’s enduring popularity.  She died of cancer at age 54 soon after it was published.  The novel was first made into a movie in 1910 starring “America’s Sweetheart,” Mary Pickford and filmed in living color in 1936 staring Loretta Young.   It was later adapted for the stage and finally for television.

Mary Pickford in the 1910 film and Loretta Young in 1936

Standing Bear and 170 of his followers, however, were reinstated on their ancestral land along Nebraska’s Niobrara River following his lecture tour.   In addition to Jackson, he’d won the support of  literary superstar, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, well-known abolitionist, Wendell Phillips, and the first Native American author, Suzette “Bright Eyes” LaFlesche. (Right)  Suzette and her brother, Francis, the Smithsonian Institution’s s first ethnologist, had taken turns serving as Standing Bear’s translator.  

The Ponca chief died in 1908 at the age of 79 on his farm overlooking the place of his birth. The Standing Bear Memorial Bridge completed in 1998 stands some three miles downstream.  The 3,000 foot span connects South Dakota and Nebraska across the Missouri River .

Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum, 215 S. Tejon Street, in Colorado Springs, Colorado,  includes a reconstructed portion of Helen Hunt Jackson’shome with the original furnishings a number of her personal effects.  The former El Paso County Courthouse has been home to the museum since 1979 .  The building, on the National Register of Historic Places houses more than 60,000 items including fine art, artifacts and archives of the entire Pikes Peak Region.  In addition, the adjacent Alamo Square Park features history themed sculptures and gardens.

The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 to 5, closed major holidays, and admission is free.  For more information go to cspm.org,      e-mail cosmuseum@springsgov.com, call  (719) 385-5990 or write CSPM, 215 S. Tejon St, Colorado Springs, CO 80903.

© Text Only – 2020 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.