A Century of Dishonor (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]


Through A Century of Dishonor, Helen Hunt Jackson sought to galvanize the American nation against the United States federal government’s Native American treaty abuses. She combed the archives of the Astor Library in New York and studied the official reports of the War Department and the Department of the Interior, in effort to give Native Americans back their “humanity” in the eyes of whites. 

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A Century of Dishonor (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Through A Century of Dishonor, Helen Hunt Jackson sought to galvanize the American nation against the United States federal government’s Native American treaty abuses. She combed the archives of the Astor Library in New York and studied the official reports of the War Department and the Department of the Interior, in effort to give Native Americans back their “humanity” in the eyes of whites. 

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"Look upon your hands! They are stained with the blood of your relations," said Benjamin Franklin. Embossed upon the blood-red cloth cover of Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor, Franklin's words foretold the story that would unwind within this book, which chronicles the story of Native American treaty abuses by the United States federal government. Through A Century of Dishonor, Helen Hunt Jackson sought to galvanize the American nation against further abuses. So strong were Jackson's beliefs that when the book was published in January 1881, she sent, at her own expense, copies to every member of Congress, urging them to read the missive and act to restore the United States' honor. The story, however, really began in 1879 when Jackson attended a lecture by Ponca chief, Standing Bear, and listened to his story of forced removal to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma). Already beginning to question her purpose for writing, Jackson's spirit was drawn to, and revived by, the struggle native peoples were undergoing. That same year, in a letter to Charles Dudley Warner, the editor of the Hartford Evening Press, she explained that she wished to write a book about the treatment of Native Americans as unsentimentally and as "curtly" as possible. She wanted it to be a book of facts covering the promises and broken treaties of the federal government, believing that the American public, made aware of this mistreatment, would demand justice and force Congress to redress what was known as the "Indian Question." Thus, for four months during 1880, Jackson combed the archives of the Astor Library in New York, sifted through and studied the official reports of the War Department and the Department of the Interior. Controversial when it was written, the book is a polemic piece, written from the heart, but with a specific agenda in mind.

Born on October 14, 1830, Helen Maria Fiske was the second of four children (only two of whom would survive the rigors of infancy and childhood) born to Deborah Waterman Vinal and Nathan Welby Fiske of Amherst, Massachusetts. She had a strong, orthodox Calvinist upbringing. Nathan Fiske had been trained as a Congregational minister, but chose to become a professor of language and rhetoric. Deborah wrote children's stories and letters, which were full of advice and concern. They were mainly to her daughters, but published secretly in the Youth's Companion. Both parents were strongly dogmatic in their belief that their duty was to lead their readers to salvation by promoting Christian morality. Jackson's upbringing was turned toward this same goal and her faith was sorely tested through most of her life. Death seemed to be an almost constant companion in her youth and early adulthood, with only short spurts of happiness. In 1844, after repeated bouts with tuberculosis (then called consumption), Deborah died when Helen was only thirteen years old. Two years later, her father, suffering from the same disease, left for Palestine after his doctors advised a complete change of climate. In 1847, Nathan Fiske died of dysentery in Palestine, leaving sixteen-year-old Helen an orphan. Away at boarding school at Ipswich Female Seminary, however, Jackson did not learn of her father's death for two months. While her maternal grandfather, David Vinal, supported Helen and her sister, Ann, he never directly cared for them. Instead, he arranged for a Boston lawyer, Julius A. Palmer, to assume guardianship of his two young granddaughters.

For about a four-year interlude, Helen's life was happier. She became a close friend to both Julius Palmer and his young daughter, Lucy. Then, in 1851, at the age of nineteen, Helen went to live with the Reverend Ray Palmer, brother to Julius, and his family in Albany, New York. It was here that she met Edward Hunt, a civil engineer and lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers; they were married on October 28, 1852. A year after her marriage, Helen gave birth to a son, Murray.

Unfortunately, Helen's happiness was short-lived, as Murray died of a brain tumor before his first birthday. Two years after her son's death, Jackson's Great-Aunt Vinal, with whom she had lived at various times while her mother had been ill, and Henry Root, a close friend, also died. In 1855, Helen had another son, Warren Horsford (nicknamed Rennie), which seemed to revive her and lift her spirits. But, misfortune struck again when, two years later, Edward Hunt was stationed in Key West, Florida. Despite Edward's attempts to have his orders revoked, between 1857 and 1862, he and Helen spent most of each year apart. Then, just three weeks before her eleventh wedding anniversary in 1863, tragedy stuck again. Edward died in an accident in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he was experimenting with a weapon he had designed. Although Jackson rarely spoke of Edward's death, she would later allude to it in poems and a short story titled "The Elder's Wife." Instead, she devoted herself to Rennie. Eighteen months later, though, Rennie contracted diphtheria and died three days later on April 13, 1865.

Nevertheless, Jackson emerged from these years of trial. In her long periods of sorrow, she found refuge in the practice of the "virtues" of Christian submission, long instilled by her parents and later endorsed in her writing. In her case, however, Christian submission meant an acceptance of circumstances one could not change and the duty to meet each day with happiness, feigned or real. Jackson's solution, then, was to travel and work; and work meant to carve out a literary career. Less than two months after Rennie's death, a poem titled "The Key of the Casket" appeared in the New York Evening Post; it was her first publication. Then, early in 1866, she moved for the winter to Newport, Rhode Island, which was known as a literary center. There she met Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who became her literary mentor. Under Higginson's tutelage and with his encouragement, Jackson's writing matured and her poems received praise from one of the most notable contemporary poets, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Throughout the years, she published under various pseudonyms, including "Marah" (1866); "Rip Van Winkle" and "H. H." (1866-1871); and "Saxe Holm" and "No Name" (1873-1878). Jackson published most often in the New York Independent, eventually publishing over three hundred poems and prose articles for the Independent. But, she also published travel essays and reviews in other newspapers such as the New York Evening Post, the Denver Tribune, and the Christian Union, and both large and small subscription magazines such as Scribner's Monthly and its successor Century Magazine, Harper's Monthly, the Nation, and the prestigious Atlantic Monthly. In addition, Jackson published children's stories in St. Nicholas, Riverside Magazine for Young People, and her mother's old magazine, the Youth's Companion.

In 1873, Jackson suffered from several bouts of diphtheria, dysentery, and bronchial attacks, which prompted her physician, Dr. Cate, to suggest her removal to Colorado. Fearful that she might develop the disease that had killed her mother, Jackson agreed, and traveled to the developing town of Colorado Springs. As her health began to improve, she developed a friendship with William Sharpless Jackson, a Quaker and railroad promoter and banker. Although he soon proposed marriage, she hesitated for almost a year before they were finally married on October 22, 1874. Jackson continued her writing, turning out at least one publication (but more often three to four) per month. It was during this period that she wrote her first novel, Mercy Philbrick's Choice (1876); her second novel, Hetty's Strange History, followed in 1877.

Two years later, in 1879, Jackson's writing took on new meaning when she involved herself in correcting the injustices against Native Americans. Her introduction to Indian abuses came at a Boston lecture by Standing Bear and his interpreter, Susette La Flesche, also known as Inshta Theumba, or "Bright Eyes." The six-month tour of eastern cities, organized by activist Thomas Henry Tibbles, was to publicize the "miseries and deaths" the peaceful Ponca had suffered through forced removal from Dakota Territory to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Tibbles and his supporters hoped to raise money for the repatriation of the Ponca and for a Supreme Court suit to secure legal rights for Indians. Jackson was taken with the plight of the Poncas and La Flesche became extremely influential in Jackson's writing and thoughts about Indian reform. Jackson then began her effort to "rouse public sentiment." She believed this was the only way to force courts to grant Indians legal rights, including the right of citizenship, the right to testify in court, and the right to remain on their ancestral lands, as well as a variety of rights enumerated in many treaties signed with the federal government. With these rights, Jackson, like many reformers, believed Native Americans could hold their own in a white world. Almost immediately, Jackson began publishing Indian reform essays.

As Helen Jackson began investigating the Ponca's accusations against the federal government, she uncovered other tribes with similar troubles. She became determined to compile her discoveries in a book, convinced that once the American people read of the complicity of their government in the treatment of Indians, they would be moved to demand restitution. Thus, A Century of Dishonor was born. During this period, Jackson also helped organize the Boston Indian Citizenship Committee and was loosely affiliated with the Women's National Indian Association (WNIA). She wrote to various prominent literary acquaintances, such as jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, writer and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and publisher Henry Oscar Houghton, espousing the cause of Indian rights and asking for their support of the Ponca cause. She wrote to politicians and editor friends, asking the same. And she increased her own writing, publishing articles and open letters in newspapers; between November 1879 and February 1881, she published at least twenty-six articles and letters dealing with Indian reform.

In January 1881, Harper and Brothers published A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes, with a preface by the Reverend H. P. Whipple, Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota and an introduction by Julius H. Seelye, President of Amherst College. Her thesis began in the "introductory" chapter, which details international law regarding original right of occupancy, citing precedents from France, Spain, and England, and arguing that these laws must be applied to Native Americans. She continued her argument that the United States government repeatedly violated treaties made in good faith with Indian tribes, which negated the principal of justice, for which the United States stands. To illustrate her points, she chose seven of the most notable tribes who had suffered at the hands of the federal government-the Poncas, Sioux (Lakota), Cheyenne, Delaware, Cherokee, Winnebago, and the Nez Perce-but acknowledged that these were not the only victims of the government's perfidy. These chapters are similar in content, containing a brief history of the interactions between each tribe and the federal government, including all the broken promises. In a supplementary chapter, Jackson counteracts accusations of Indian savagery and brutality by including information on three little-known massacres of Indians by whites-the Conestoga (1763), Gnadenhutten (1779), and Apache (1871) massacres. In addition, almost half of the original book comprised an extensive appendix consisting of her debates with various politicians and newspaper editors over Indian issues and a lengthy summary of the economic and social conditions of each important Indian tribe in the United States.

The book, however, fell short of Jackson's expectations. It neither garnered the public support she had anticipated, nor influenced legislators toward repatriation or restitution. While Jackson always considered the book one of her finest pieces of writing, critics and supporters alike agree that though its contents were admirable, the writing was not up to her usual standards. Jackson's strength lay in her use of primary sources produced by the government itself-official reports of the War Department, the Department of the Interior, and the Indian Bureau, Senate investigation testimonies, Supreme Court decisions, Congressional records, and eye-witness accounts. Strangely enough though, this was one of the main criticisms of her book-that the liberal use of excerpts of Indian bureau reports, digests of treaties, and portions of Congressional commissions and investigations so weighed the book down with facts that it was dry and unreadable for most Americans. And, while Jackson never claimed to be a historian, since she interjected her own opinions and emotions into the book, contemporary critics maintained her view was too sentimental, exaggerated, or one-sided.

After A Century of Dishonor was published, Jackson was appointed by the Indian Bureau as special agent to the Mission Indians of California to report on their conditions and offer recommendations for further policy. From these visits, she went on to write her best-selling romantic novel, Ramona, which chronicled the misery white Californians had brought upon the Californian Indians. Since her nonfiction book did not produce the reaction Jackson believed was necessary for Indian reform, she hoped a fictional, romantic novel would appeal to the American public and incite furor toward the federal government; this would become her most famous book. Jackson died four years after publishing A Century of Dishonor, at the age of fifty-five.

Today, the legacy of Jackson's writings on Indian reform is an important reminder of the failure of Indian policy of the nineteenth century and the attempts to address that failure. Rather than a true missionary reformer or objective historian, Helen Hunt Jackson can be classified as an early muckraker, as important to Indian reform as Ida Tarbell, Upton Sinclair, and Jacob Riis were to late-nineteenth and early twentieth century national reform. She wrote a well-crafted exposé of governmental abuses that had been increasing in the last several decades. Government Indian policy had become entrenched in patronage and inefficiency, which resulted in graft, fraud, and abuse of Native Americans. Thus A Century of Dishonor was a groundbreaking book in documenting that mistreatment of Indian peoples; there were few comparable books. Jackson's book also had a greater impact because she went beyond the scope she set for herself-to show cause for national shame. The inclusion of the chapters on original occupancy rights and white massacres of Indians augmented her arguments. Moreover, Jackson gave Indians back their "humanity" in the eyes of whites, and she gave Indians their own voice, including letters written by natives in the book's appendix.

In addition, Jackson's activist writings were extremely progressive for the era, promoting a cultural pluralistic view of American society. While many Christian reformers sought to turn native peoples into white imitations, Jackson never became involved with such missionary zeal. Jackson did not promote assimilation and the destruction of Native American culture; instead she focused on forcing the federal government to live up to its commitments in the form of existing treaties. The work of Jackson and other reformers did result in some immediate changes, such as a thorough inspection of Indian Territory, and monetary restitution and land allotments for the Ponca tribe. Jackson's influence continued after her death, with the WNIA, the Indian Rights Association, and the Lake Mohonk Conference of the Friends of the Indians, continuing her work on behalf of native peoples.

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