Helen Jackson was born Helen Maria Fiske in Amherst, Massachusetts, the daughter of Nathan Welby Fiske and Deborah Waterman Vinal Fisk. Helen’s father was a minister, author, and professor of Latin, Greek, and philosophy at Amherst College. She had two brothers, both of whom died soon after birth, and a sister Anne. They were raised as Unitarian. Anne became the wife of E. C. Banfield, a federal government official who served as Solicitor of the United States Treasury. The girls lost their mother in 1844, when Helen was fifteen. Three years later their father died. He had provided financially for Helen’s education and arranged for an uncle to care for her. Fiske attended Ipswich Female Seminary and the Abbott Institute, a boarding school in New York City run by Reverend J.S.C. Abbott. She was a classmate of Emily Dickinson, also from Amherst; Emily became a renowned poet. The two corresponded for the rest of their lives, but few of their letters have survived.
In 1852 at age 22, Fiske married U.S. Army Captain Edward Bissell Hunt. They had two sons, one of whom, Murray Hunt, died as an infant in 1854 of a brain disease. In 1863, her husband died in a military accident. Her second son Rennie Hunt died of diphtheria in 1865. Hunt traveled widely. In the winter of 1873–1874 she was in Colorado Springs, Colorado at the resort of Seven Falls, seeking rest in hopes of a cure for tuberculosis, which was often fatal before the invention of antibiotics. (See Tuberculosis treatment in Colorado Springs). While in Colorado Springs, Hunt met William Sharpless Jackson, a wealthy banker and railroad executive. They married in 1875 and she took the name Jackson, under which she was best known for her later writings. Helen Jackson began writing after the deaths of her family members. She published her early work anonymously, usually under the name “H.H.” Ralph Waldo Emerson admired her poetry and used several of her poems in his public readings. He included five of them in his Parnassus: An Anthology of Poetry (1880). Over the next two years, she published three novels in the anonymous No Name Series, including Mercy Philbrick’s Choice and Hetty’s Strange History. She also encouraged a contribution from Emily Dickinson to A Masque of Poets as part of the same series.
In 1879 Jackson’s interests turned to Native Americans after hearing a lecture in Boston by Chief Standing Bear, of the Ponca Tribe. Standing Bear described the forcible removal of the Ponca from their Nebraska reservation and transfer to the Quapaw Reservation in Indian Territory (Oklahoma), where they suffered from disease, harsh climate, and poor supplies. Upset about the mistreatment of Native Americans by government agents, Jackson became an activist on their behalf. She started investigating and publicizing government misconduct, circulating petitions, raising money, and writing letters to the New York Times on behalf of the Ponca. A fiery and prolific writer, Jackson engaged in heated exchanges with federal officials over the injustices committed against the Ponca and other American Indian tribes. Among her special targets was U.S. Secretary of Interior Carl Schurz, whom she once called “the most adroit liar I ever knew.” She exposed the government’s violation of treaties with American Indian tribes. She documented the corruption of US Indian agents, military officers, and settlers who encroached on and stole reserved Indian lands. Helen Jackson won the support of several newspaper editors who published her reports. Among her correspondents were editor William Hayes Ward of the New York Independent, Richard Watson Gilder of the Century Magazine, and publisher Whitelaw Reid of the New York Daily Tribune.
Helen Jackson went to southern California for respite. Having been interested in the area’s missions and the Mission Indians on an earlier visit, she began an in-depth study. While in Los Angeles, she met Don Antonio Coronel, former mayor of the city and a well-known authority on early Californio life in the area. He had served as inspector of missions for the Mexican government. Coronel told her about the plight of the Mission Indians after 1833. They were buffeted by the secularization policies of the Mexican government, as well as later U.S. policies, both of which led to their removal from mission lands. Under its original land grants, the Mexican government provided for resident Indians to continue to occupy such lands. After taking control of the territory in 1848, the U.S. generally disregarded such Mission Indian occupancy claims. In 1852, an estimated 15,000 Mission Indians lived in Southern California. By the time of Jackson’s visit, they numbered fewer than 4,000.
Coronel’s account inspired Jackson to action. The U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Hiram Price, recommended her appointment as an Interior Department agent. Jackson’s assignment was to visit the Mission Indians, ascertain the location and condition of various bands, and determine what lands, if any, should be purchased for their use. With the help of the US Indian agent Abbot Kinney, Jackson traveled throughout Southern California and documented conditions. At one point, she hired a law firm to protect the rights of a family of Saboba Indians facing dispossession from their land at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains. In 1883, Jackson completed her 56-page report. It recommended extensive government relief for the Mission Indians, including the purchase of new lands for reservations and the establishment of more Indian schools. A bill embodying her recommendations passed the U.S. Senate but died in the House of Representatives.
Although Helen Jackson started an outline in California, she began writing the novel in December 1883 in her New York hotel room, and completed it in about three months. Originally titled In The Name of the Law, it was published as Ramona (1884), the name of the main character. It featured Ramona, an orphan girl who was half Indian and half Scots, raised in Spanish Californio society, her Indian husband Alessandro, and their struggles for land of their own. The characters were based on people known by Jackson and incidents which she had encountered. The book achieved rapid success among a broad swath of the public. Its romantic story contributed to the growth of tourism to Southern California, as people wanted to see places described in the novel. After she married William Sharpless Jackson in Colorado Springs in 1875, she took his name and is known in her writing by Helen Hunt Jackson. One of her most popular poems is Cheyenne Mountain, about the mountain in Colorado Springs. Helen Jackson died of stomach cancer in 1885 in San Francisco, California. Her husband arranged for her burial on a one-acre plot near Seven Falls at Inspiration Point overlooking Colorado Springs, Colorado. Her remains were later moved to Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs. At the time of her death, her estate was valued at $12,642.
- October, 15, 1830
- Amherst, Massachusetts
- August, 12, 1885
- San Francisco, California
Cause of Death
- stomach cancer
- Evergreen Cemetery
- Colorado Springs, Colorado