Helen Maria Fiske (1830–1885), who would become known later in life as Helen Hunt Jackson, was born October 15, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, the daughter of Nathan Welby Fiske, a professor of languages at Amherst College. She was described as "a child of dangerous versatility and vivacity" (Mathes, 1990, 21). Variously portrayed as brilliant and something of a pest, the young Helen Fiske learned to read and write earlier than most children, drawing from collegiate surroundings, becoming a young woman "with candid beaming eyes, in which kindness contented with penetration," a "soul of fire," with the ability to "strongly love, to frankly hate" (Mathes, 1990, 22).
As a girl, Helen became close friends with the poet Emily Dickinson. Fiske, Dickinson, and Emily Fowler (who was briefly well known as an author in her later life) came to be known as the Amherst girls, a group of talented women born to Amherst faculty members. In her own time, Helen was a better-known poet than Dickinson, who spent much of her own life in obscurity.
At the age of eleven, Helen Fiske was sent to the first of several boarding schools where she spent her teenage years. By age nineteen, she had been orphaned; both of her parents died of tuberculosis. Early in her life, Helen determined to support herself as an independent woman, not an easy role in a society in which women were defined as men's property. She decided to make her living as a writer.
First known as a romantic poet, she later expanded her scope to include travel articles, short stories, novels, and books for children. Before becoming famous for her Indian reform work late in her life, she had been "an Army wife, mother, and woman of society . . . a literary person, a poet and essayist, writer of travel sketches and short stories" (Banning, 1973, xix). She was, according to her biographer Evelyn I. Banning, a woman of contradictions. While some of her writings laughed at fashion, she dressed elegantly, often beyond the station of the junior Army officer, Edward B. Hunt, whom she married at the age of twenty-two. Before the treatment of the Ponca Indians tripped her sense of indignity, Helen Hunt Jackson had been a nearly apolitical person, having taken no published position on women's suffrage or slavery, even as she "burst the bounds . . . [of] the separate sphere assigned to women during the Victorian era" (Mathes, 1990, ix).
Within the fifteen years after she married Edward Hunt, Helen gave birth to two sons and lost both of them, one at the age of one year, the other at age nine. Her husband also died, leaving her nearly alone in the world. She assuaged her loneliness by writing poetry, becoming one of the best regarded poets of nineteenth-century America. Ralph Waldo Emerson often carried her poetry in his pocket to show to friends (Banning, 1973, xx). In 1875 she married William S. Jackson of Colorado Springs, whose name she carried when her Indian reform work became well-known. At the age of forty-nine, she took up the cause of "the Indian" with a fervor that consumed her attention and energies for the last few remaining years of her short life.
Jackson's attention was turned toward the condition of Native Americans during October of 1879, shortly after Judge Elmer Dundy had ruled in Standing Bear v. Crook. In Boston, Jackson heard a speech describing the travail of Standing Bear and his band of Poncas who, forced off their land in northern Nebraska, had escaped reservation life in Indian Territory. They had trekked 500 miles northward during the worst of a midcontinental winter to take shelter with the U'mahas (Omahas) near the city of Omaha where, in 1879, Judge Dundy ruled that Standing Bear must be regarded as a human being under the law of habeas corpus.
After the trial, a group of Ponca Indians, including Standing Bear, visited several cities, including Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston. It was in Boston, however, that support was greatest; $3,000 of the $4,000 the Poncas thought they would need to pursue their land claim was raised there (Mathes, 1989, 46). Henry Wadsworth Longfellow played a crucial role in the success of the Poncas' efforts in Boston. The Poncas stayed in Boston several weeks from late October into December and were presented at numerous fund-raisers. In early December, more than 1,000 Bostonians gathered at Faneuil Hall to hear Standing Bear speak. After the speeches, more than half the audience crowded the stage to shake hands with him (Mathes, 1989, 47).
After hearing their story, Jackson collected funds for the Poncas and encouraged others to take an active part in their struggles. The mayor of Boston joined a fund-raising committee for the Poncas' legal campaign to win back their homeland. Jackson herself joined Standing Bear, Thomas Henry Tibbles, and Susette "Bright Eyes" LaFlesche on a tour throughout New England. Tibbles credited Jackson's support as being one of the major factors in the Poncas' ultimate victory (Banning, 1973, 150).
Jackson's acquaintance with the Poncas started her down a new literary road. Within two years of first hearing the Poncas' heartrending story, Jackson published A Century of Dishonor. Three years later, with a pledge to write a novel that would become the Native American version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, she published the best-seller Ramona.
A Century of Dishonor is a factual sketch of broken treaties and corruption in the Indian Bureau; Ramona is a fictional account of the abuses suffered by the Mission Indians of California, based on Jackson's travels in that area shortly after A Century of Dishonor was published. Both books were among the best sellers of their time, one more indication of just how many non-Indians sympathized with the Native American victims of westward expansion.
Jackson's books may have been so immensely popular during the 1880s because many people in the expanding United States, finding a need to reconcile the taking of a continent with notions of their own civility, sought to deal with the "Indian Problem" in what they believed to be a civilized and humane manner. Thus, cultural genocide (a late twentieth-century phrase) was advanced in the modulated tones of civility, of doing what was believed to be best for "the Indian."
Jackson's books fueled a national debate over what would become of Native Americans who had survived subjugation by immigrant non-Natives. Most of her books combined condemnation of the government's earlier behavior with advocacy of popular solutions to the Indian Problem, such as religious instruction, boarding schools, and allotment.
After A Century of Dishonor was published, Jackson sent a copy of it to each member of Congress at her own expense. She then visited each representative personally to emphasize what she thought must be done to remove the stain of the dishonorable century she had described. Jackson died by the time Congress passed the General Allotment (Dawes) Act in 1887, officially adopting allotment (which she had believed would save Native Americans from extinction), at the same time turning it into a real estate vehicle for homesteaders and corporations (Indians would lose two-thirds of their remaining land base in the fifty years to follow).
Ramona, which was reprinted 300 times after Jackson's death, was adapted for stage and screen several times. "Every incident in Ramona . . . is true," Jackson wrote. "A Cahuilla Indian was shot two years ago exactly as Alessandro is—and his wife's name was Ramona, and I never knew this fact until Ramona was half written" (Mathes, 1986, 43).
By the middle 1880s, Jackson was suffering recurring bouts of malarial symptoms and other health problems, which gradually debilitated her. In 1885, on her deathbed, Jackson wrote of her work, "As I lie here, nothing looks to me of any value except the words I have spoken for the Indians" (Banning, 1973, 224). Her last letter, dated August 8, was written to President Grover Cleveland: "I ask you to read my A Century of Dishonor. I am dying happier in the belief I have that it is your hand that is destined to strike the first steady blow toward lifting the burden of infamy from our country and writing the wrongs of the Indian race . . ." (Banning, 1973, 225).
Jackson died on August 12, 1885. Upon hearing of her death, Susette LaFlesche, "shut herself into her room and wept all day long," according to her husband Thomas Henry Tibbles. "For weeks afterward she mourned the loss of this closest of her intimate friends, who had given herself wholeheartedly to save an unhappy race" (Mathes, 1986, 44).
Dickinson penned a verse in eulogy of Jackson:
Helen of Troy will die,
but Helen of Colorado, never.
"Dear friend, you can walk"
were the last words I wrote her—
"Dear friend, I can fly"
—her immortal reply (Banning, frontpiece).
Bruce E. Johansen
Banning, Evelyn L. 1973. Helen Hunt Jackson. New York: Vanguard Press.; Hayes, Robert G. 1997. A Race at Bay: New York Times Editorials on the "Indian Problem." Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.; Jackson, Helen Hunt. 1972. A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes. St. Clair Shores, MI: Scholarly Press. [Originally printed in 1888 Boston: Roberts Bros.]; Mathes, Valerie Sherer. 1986. "Helen Hunt Jackson: A Legacy of Indian Reform." Essays and Monographs in Colorado History 4 (1986): 25–58.; Mathes, Valerie Sherer. 1989. "Helen Hunt Jackson and the Ponca Controversy." Montana 39 (Winter): 42–53.; Mathes, Valerie Sherer. 1990. Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy. Austin: University of Texas Press.