The Indian Reform Letters of Helen Hunt Jackson, 1879-1885

The Indian Reform Letters of Helen Hunt Jackson, 1879-1885

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Helen Hunt Jackson’s passionate crusade for Indian rights comes to life in this collection of more than 200 letters, most of which have never been published before. With Valerie Sherer Mathes’s helpful notes, the letters reveal the behind-the-scenes drama of Jackson’s involvement in Indian reform, which led her to write A Century of Dishonor and her protest novel, Ramona.

Ralph Waldo Emerson described Jackson as the "greatest American woman poet." These stirring letters will intrigue anyone interested in Indian affairs, nineteenth-century women’s studies, or the social history of Victorian America, where Jackson made her mark despite the restrictions on women. Among her correspondents were Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Moncure D. Conway, Henry B. Whipple, Henry L. Dawes, Henry Teller, Carl Schurz, and of course, commissioners of Indian affairs and such prominent editors as Whitelaw Reid, Charles Dudley Warner, and Richard Watson Gilder.

The letters are presented in sections on the Ponca and Mission Indian causes, allowing readers to focus on the time period and Indian group of choice.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806153728
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 10/15/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 400
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

Helen Hunt Jackson(1830-1885) is best known for her novel, Ramona, which is set in California and explores the same theme of injustice to the Indian.

Valerie Sherer Mathes is a faculty member in the Social Science Department at City College of San Francisco. Among the books she has authored or edited are Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy and The Indian Reform Letters of Helen Hunt Jackson.

Read an Excerpt

The Indian Reform Letters of Helen Hunt Jackson, 1879â"1885

By Valerie Sherer Mathes


Copyright © 1998 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5372-8



The Ponca Cause and the Writing of A Century of Dishonor


A Century of Dishonor



"I BEGIN TO HAVE A HALF SUPERSTITIOUS FEELING ABOUT THIS IRRESISTIBLE impulse I feel to say especial words & phrases — as if they were put into my mind from outside," wrote Helen Hunt Jackson to her husband, William Sharpless Jackson, one mid-December day in 1879 from her Boston hotel room. A prominent nineteenth-century author, Jackson had only recently embarked on a crusade to awaken the public to the wrongs Indians suffered because of inept federal policies. "I write these Indian things in a totally different way from my ordinary habit of composition — I write these sentences ... as fast as I can write the words," she remarked to Will, who had already expressed some criticism of his wife's newest endeavor. Three days later she confided to him: "Every hour my feelings grow intenser on this subject — & I feel more & more impelled to work for the cause."

Marriage to Will Jackson, a prominent Colorado Springs banker and businessman, had provided Jackson for the past four years with the emotional and financial support that she needed. No longer forced to earn her own way, she could write on subjects that she was passionate about rather than on topics that sold well. By 1879 she was already well known. Under the initials "H.H." or pseudonyms such as "No Name," "Rip Van Winkle," "Marah," and "Saxe Holm," her articles as well as her fiction and poetry appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Nation, Christian Union, Hearth and Home, St. Nicholas, Independent, Scribner's Monthly Magazine, and others. She had written more than a dozen books, and Ralph Waldo Emerson "heartily praise [d]" her work, describing her as the "greatest American woman poet." He carried an 1870 newspaper clipping of one of her poems inside the front cover of his notebook. Despite Emerson's praises, Jackson is best known today not for her poetry, but for A Century of Dishonor, an indictment of the government's Indian policy, and Ramona, her protest novel, both results of this "irresistible impulse."

Between 1879 and her death in 1885, Jackson devoted her energies to the Indian cause. She spent months away from her husband, traveling by train across the continent, living in hotel rooms in New York City, Boston, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and San Francisco, researching, writing, and at times demanding that editorial friends and acquaintances publish or read her articles written to awaken the public to the mistreatment of the Indians. Furthermore, she toured various California Mission Indian villages, initially for material for her Century Magazine articles and later as an official agent for the Department of the Interior.

Born Helen Maria Fiske on October 14, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, to Deborah Waterman Vinal Fiske and Nathan Welby Fiske, an Amherst professor, she was a rebellious child. She had lost both of her parents by the time she was seventeen and, at thirty-five, had lost her husband, Edward Bissell Hunt, a West Point engineer and army officer, as well as their two sons, Murray and Warren Horsford. To assuage her grief and to supplement a small income, she turned to writing.

When Jackson embarked upon her Indian work, she joined the ranks of hundreds of middle- and upper-class men and women who eventually transformed the federal government's Indian policy. However, she was atypical of most of these reformers, who were part of a strong evangelical Protestant movement that included a good portion of the American elite. Devoted Christians, they would have been critical of Jackson, who had forsaken the severe Congregationalism of her family and, rather than attending weekly church services, much preferred her Sunday carriage rides through the peaceful Colorado Springs countryside, accompanied at times by her husband. Her fellow Indian reformers were anti-Catholic, whereas Jackson presented a sympathetic picture of the Franciscan missionaries in California.

Jackson was less interested in assimilation of the American Indians and more interested in the protection of their land rights and adherence to treaty provisions. In a November 20, 1879, letter to the editor of the New York Daily Tribune, she asked: "Has the Indian any rights which the white man is bound to respect?" By the time of her death in August 1885, national Indian associations were just beginning to implement their acculturation and Indian rights protection programs; the Dawes Severalty Act, an attempt to end communal land ownership and substitute private property ownership through land allotment in severalty, was still two years from passage. Had she lived longer, one can only speculate whether she, too, would have been swept along with other reformers in demanding acculturation and private ownership of land.

Jackson worked alone, like a muckraker, ferreting out bits and pieces of neglect, fraud, or treaty violations as she researched in New York's Astor Library. Pressuring her wide circle of literary acquaintances, she succeeded in publishing initially in New York and Boston newspapers, later in popular magazines, and finally in book form, while other reformers engaged in petition drives, wrote pamphlets suggesting policy changes, or sponsored a lobbyist who worked the halls of Congress. Thus her one-woman crusading journalistic approach differed from that of the missionary-minded reformers, who worked within the confines of such organizations as the Women's National Indian Association, founded in 1879, and the Indian Rights Association, founded in 1882, or participated annually in the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indians, founded in 1883 as a forum for discussing various reform ideas.

The catalyst that threw Jackson into the arena of Indian reform was the forcible removal of the Poncas from their 96,000-acre reservation in the southeastern corner of Dakota Territory. They were driven to desolate Indian Territory as a result of a bureaucratic error in which their lands were mistakenly included in the Great Sioux Reservation of 1868. Repeated attacks by the more aggressive Sioux resulted in congressional appropriations in 1876 to relocate the Poncas for their safety. Although many tribal members, including Chief Standing Bear, opposed this move, newly appointed secretary of the interior Carl Schurz, busy acquainting himself with the details of running his department, chose to follow the previous administration's decision and allowed the removal to proceed under the direction of Inspector Edward C. Kemble. By mid-May 1877 the Indians were in Indian Territory. That fall Standing Bear and other headmen met with President Rutherford B. Hayes and Secretary Schurz in Washington, D.C. The Indians' request either to return to their old reservation or to join their Omaha kin in Nebraska was denied.

Standing Bear could only watch helplessly as 160 of his people, including his only remaining son, died of malaria and other diseases. On the night of January 2, 1879, the old chief headed north with the body of his son, accompanied by a small party of followers, to bury the boy in the land of his birth. Often befriended and fed by white settlers, the Poncas traveled for ten weeks before reaching the Omaha reservation in March, where they were welcomed by Chief Joseph La Flesche and given land to settle and cultivate.

General George Crook, commander of the Department of the Platte, on orders of Secretary Schurz, dispatched troops to arrest the Poncas for leaving without permission. The Indians, too weak to be returned to Indian Territory, were temporarily detained at Fort Omaha on March 27. Critical of the government's Indian policy and disturbed by the cruelty of the arrest, Crook conferred with Omaha Herald assistant editor Thomas Henry Tibbies. The two men had earlier worked together to publicize the general's views on Indian policy. An interview with Standing Bear and others left both men deeply moved by the hardships the Poncas had endured.

Tibbies convinced John L. Webster, an Omaha lawyer, to draw up a writ of habeas corpus preventing the return of the Poncas to Indian Territory. At Webster's request, Tibbies approached Andrew Jackson Poppleton, chief attorney of the Union Pacific Railroad, to assist. While the two lawyers organized their case, Tibbies wrote editorials to alert the public to the condition of the Poncas and assisted in organizing the Omaha Ponca Indian Committee, composed of Omaha ministers and interested citizens.

During the two-day trial of Standing Bear v. Crook, Nebraska district court judge Elmer S. Dundy declared the Indian a legal "person" with a right to sue for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. Once the Poncas were freed, Tibbies resigned his editorial post and organized a six-month lecture tour to eastern cities to generate support and raise money both to restore lost lands legally and to determine the legal status of the American Indian before the Supreme Court. The group included Tibbies, Standing Bear, nineteen-year old Francis La Flesche (also known as "Woodworker"), an Omaha Indian, and his twenty-five-year-old sister Susette or "Bright Eyes."

From the beginning Susette had been personally involved in the plight of the Poncas. White Swan, a Ponca chief, was her father's half-brother. She and Joseph had conferred with Ponca chiefs prior to removal, had visited the tribe during the removal process, had attended the trial, and, at the request of the Omaha Committee, had visited White Swan in Indian Territory in May 1879 to learn if the government was correct in its assertion that the Poncas were happy in their new home. Susette, educated at the Elizabeth Institute for Young Ladies in Elizabeth, New Jersey, was well prepared for her new role as Standing Bear's interpreter. The appearance onstage of the graceful Indian girl and the older dignified chief was a crowd pleaser.

After a journey on a Boston and Albany Railroad coach, Standing Bear and his party arrived on October 29 at the Tremont House in Boston, where they were greeted by Mayor Frederick O. Prince and other dignitaries. That evening a well-attended public reception was held at the Horticultural Hall. Residents opened their hearts and their purses to the visiting delegation, and the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee was organized to fight for the rights of the Poncas and other tribes. The personal interest of Delano A. Goddard, editor of the Boston Advertiser, Massachusetts governor Thomas Talbot and lieutenant governor John D. Long, and Massachusetts senator Henry L. Dawes, as well as prominent citizens like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., and the Reverend Edward Everett Hale, a member of the Society for Propagating the Gospel among the Indians, assured success. Numerous receptions were scheduled at local churches, the Merchants' Exchange, Faneuil Hall, and the Music Hall. In addition, the Goddards and publisher Henry Houghton opened their homes to the delegation, and Houghton gave Standing Bear and Susette a tour through every room of the busy Riverside Press.

Unfortunately, no letter has yet been found in which Helen Hunt Jackson describes her first meeting with Standing Bear. However, on November 18 she asked Hartford Courant editor Charles Dudley Warner to reprint an article on the Poncas she had just written for the Independent, a New York weekly. About the same time, she visited Tibbies at his Boston hotel, showing him the article. In his memoirs, Tibbies, described Jackson as throwing "every ounce of her own strong influence into the scale in dealing with members of Congress, senators, editors, and writers." He believed her help was essential for the success of the cause.

Jackson's article was only the beginning. On November 20, 1879, she wrote the first of many letters to the Tribune editor, relating the story of Standing Bear, the Ponca removal, and the Indians' need to raise money to regain their lost lands through the courts. Her initial writings had been driven by her moral outrage at the Ponca removal; by mid-December, as she learned more, she also began quoting from official government documents she found in the Astor Library.

After more than a month in Boston, the Ponca delegation arrived at the Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York City on December 5; that night they were invited to the home of Josiah M. Fiske, a prominent merchant, who along with former Boston mayor William H. Lincoln was in charge of the Poncas' schedule. Others opened their homes to the Indian delegation, including Professor Vincenzo Botta and his wife, Anne Charlotte Lynch Botta, a close friend of Jackson. Various receptions and meetings followed.

New York, however, was not as supportive as Boston; less money was collected. Jackson, who was living at the Brevoort House in the city, remarked to Warner on December 14 that "New York does not care for [the Poncas]" and complained that the Tribune and editor Whitelaw Reid did not defend them, though the newspaper had already printed two of her letters to the editor and various articles by staff reporters.

The December 15 publication of her letter to the Tribune editor and an editorial, directing readers to it, forced Jackson to apologize to Reid. Quoting from Secretary Schurz's 1878 annual report, in her letter Jackson posed ten questions regarding the Indians. Still concerned about the Poncas, she noted that the secretary's assertion that they were content and acclimated to Indian Territory was incorrect. Instead, the Poncas were waiting like exiles while Standing Bear tried to obtain additional legal redress. She also introduced the public to a new concern, the White River Utes of Colorado, and inquired if readers were aware of the Utes' present condition.

Now personally maligned, Secretary Schurz could no longer remain silent. Already well-sensitized by extensive coverage of Standing Bear's tour in both Boston and New York, Schurz immediately telegraphed a rebuttal. His letter, addressing each of Jackson's ten questions, appeared in the December 19 Tribune. The Utes were suffering, he commented, because the government contractor had failed to deliver their supplies. Tried and convicted, the contractor was now imprisoned. Schurz conceded that the Ponca situation was a mistake; the orders for their removal had been enacted before he assumed office, but since then both he and Indian commissioner Ezra A. Hayt had been attempting to compensate them.

Reading Schurz's rebuttal, Jackson wrote William Hayes Ward, editor of the Independent, that she was "wild with delight." "What glory to have Schurz answer me by telegraph," she confided to Warner. "I had hardly hoped I could do anything for the Indians. Now I see that I can." Inspired by Schurz's response, on December 23 she wrote another letter to the Tribune, answering the secretary point by point.

On January 9, 1880, Jackson wrote directly to Schurz, enclosing excerpts from the letter of a Boston woman willing to contribute the remainder of the money needed to prosecute a suit to regain Ponca lands. Jackson inquired if Schurz approved of such a suit and, if not, if he would be willing to explain his reasoning. The secretary, answering on January 17, explained that Indian tribes could not sue the government or any state in federal courts. He suggested that money collected should go toward improving Indian schools. Schurz believed that the solution to Indian landholding was legislation transferring tribal ownership to individual ownership, enabling them to "hold their lands by the same title by which white men hold theirs, and ... [with] the same standing in the courts, and the same legal protection of their property."

Their private letters were printed in the Boston Advertiser, at Schurz's request, and the Tribune, at Jackson's request. The public interest generated by their publication prompted the New York Times on February 21, 1880, to review them in a lengthy editorial. The Times praised Jackson while criticizing Schurz for opposing the Indians' attempt to gain legal redress through the courts and for suggesting instead that the solution was individual land ownership in severalty. It was regrettable, remarked the editor, that the secretary did not adequately show "how the giving to an Indian of 160 acres of land can clothe him with civil rights which he does not now possess," rights which the secretary "thinks that the courts cannot give him."

This public debate between Secretary Schurz and Helen Hunt Jackson was inevitable, given their strong personalities and the charged atmosphere surrounding the Ponca removal. Jackson's tenacity made her a formidable opponent. According to her fellow author and mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "where her sympathy went," Jackson "was ready to give all she had, — attention, time, trouble, money, popularity, reputation, — and this with only too little thought of the morrow." As a consequence, her ardent sympathies brought both great joy and peril and "often involv[ed] misconception, perplexity, and keen disappointment to herself and to others." Sometimes she was "impulsive in her scorn of mean actions." Obviously she must have viewed the tragic Ponca removal, carried out under orders from Schurz, as a "mean action."


Excerpted from The Indian Reform Letters of Helen Hunt Jackson, 1879â"1885 by Valerie Sherer Mathes. Copyright © 1998 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Editorial Comments,
PART ONE: The Ponca Cause and the Writing of A Century of Dishonor,
PART TWO: The Cause of the California Mission Indians and the Writing of Ramona,

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