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A Call for Reform: The Southern California Indian Writings of Helen Hunt Jackson

A Call for Reform: The Southern California Indian Writings of Helen Hunt Jackson


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Journalist, novelist, and scholar Helen Hunt Jackson (1830–85) remains one of the most influential and popular writers on the struggles of American Indians. This volume collects for the first time seven of her most important articles, annotated and introduced by  Jackson scholars Valerie Sherer Mathes and Phil Brigandi. Valuable as eyewitness accounts of Mission Indian life in Southern California in the 1880s, the articles also offer insight into Jackson’s career.

The articles served as the basis for Jackson’s 1884 romantic novel, Ramona, still popular among Americans today. Jackson journeyed to Southern California in the 1880s to learn firsthand how Indians there lived. She found them in a demoralized state, beset by failed government policies and constantly threatened with losing their lands. The numerous articles and editorial responses she penned made her a leading voice in the fight for American Indian rights, a role she embraced wholeheartedly.

As this collection also shows, Jackson’s fondness for Old California helped shape the region’s mythology and tourist culture. But her most important work was her influence in getting reservations set aside for the beleaguered Southern California tribes. Although her recommendations were not implemented until after her death, Helen Hunt Jackson’s stark and revealing portrait drew national attention to the effects of white encroachment on Indian lands and cultures in California and inspired generations of reformers who continued her legacy. This unprecedented collection offers fresh insight into the life and work of a well-known and influential writer and reformer.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806143637
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 10/16/2015
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

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.

Phil Brigandi was an independent scholar who specialized in the history of Southern California, especially Orange County, and for thirty years served as the historian for the Ramona Pageant.

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A Call For Reform

The Southern California Indian Writings of Helen Hunt Jackson

By Valerie Sherer Mathes, Phil Brigandi


Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5273-8


The Present Condition of the Mission Indians in Southern California

The Century Magazine


HELEN HUNT JACKSON FIRST CAME TO SOUTHERN California as a travel writer charged with writing four descriptive articles for The Century Magazine. What her editor, Richard Watson Gilder, expected is unclear, but what he got was an article on California's old Spanish missions, which had grown so long it had to be published in two parts, a piece on Los Angeles's lingering Mexican heritage, a fairly conventional booster account of local agriculture, and an outraged polemic on Southern California's Indians.

"The Present Condition of the Mission Indians in Southern California" sets the stage for the rest of Jackson's writings and reform efforts. It grew out of her first visits to a few villages in the spring of 1882 — her first direct encounters with native peoples since her work on "the Indian question" began — and additional documentary research. This article was written before her government inspection tour of early 1883, though it did not appear in print until that summer. "I am greatly relieved on reading the proof now to find that I had so nearly grasped the truth of the situation," Jackson wrote to Henry Teller in June 1883. "There are some respects in which I would now have stated it a little differently; but in the main, the article is right, and in good shape to make popular sentiment on the subject, and get some Congressmen I hope, ready for the bill next winter."

That bill, based on the recommendations in her Report, did not pass that winter, but the "popular sentiment" Jackson hoped to stir continued to grow. Her message was especially influential among individuals and organizations already sympathetic to the Indian cause. Jackson's work helped to inspire many other reformers, who continued the fight long after her death.

* * *

THE OLD LAWS OF THE KINGDOM OF THE INDIES ARE INTERESTING reading, especially those portions of them relating to Indians. A certain fine and chivalrous quality of honor toward the helpless, and tenderness toward the dependent, runs all through their quaint and cumbrous paragraphs.

It is not until one studies these laws in connection with the history of the confusions and revolutions of the secularization period, and of the American conquest of California, that it becomes possible to understand how the California Mission Indians could have been left so absolutely unprotected, as they were, in the matter of ownership of the lands they had cultivated for sixty years.

"We command," said the Spanish king, "that the sale, grant, and composition of lands to be executed with such attention that the Indians be left in possession of the full amount of lands belonging to them, either singly or in communities, together with their river and waters; and the lands which they shall have drained or otherwise improved, whereby they may by their own industry have rendered them fertile, are reserved, in the first place, and can in no case be sold or aliened. And the judges who have been sent thither shall specify what Indians they may have found on the land, and what lands they shall have left in possession of each of the elders of tribes, caciques, governors, or communities."

Grazing estates for cattle are ordered to be located "apart from the fields and villages of the Indians." The king's command is that no such estates shall be granted "in any parts or place where any damage can accrue to the Indians." Every grant of land must be made "without prejudice to the Indians"; and "such as may have been granted to their prejudices and injury" must be "restored to whomever they by right shall belong."

"In order to avoid the inconveniences and damages resulting from the sale or gift to Spaniards of tracts of land to the prejudice of Indians, upon the suspicious testimony of witnesses," the king orders that all sales and gifts are to be made before the attorneys of the royal audiencias, and "always with an eye to the benefit of the Indians"; and "the king's solicitors are to be protectors of the Indians and plead for them." After distributing to the Indians what they may justly want to cultivate, sow, and raise cattle, confirming to them what they now hold, and granting what they may want besides, all the remaining land may be reserved to us," says the old decree, "clear of any incumbrance, for the purpose of being given as rewards, or disposed of according to our pleasure."

In those days everything in New Spain was thus ordered by royal decrees. Nobody had grants of land in the sense in which we use the word. When the friars wished to reward an industrious and capable Indian, and test his capacity to take care of himself and family, by giving him a little farm of his own, all they had to do, or did, was to mark off the portion of land, put the Indian on it and tell him it was his. There would appear to have been little more formality than this in the establishing of the Indian pueblos which were formed in the beginning of the secularization period. Governor Figueroa, in an address in 1834, speaks of three of these, San Juan Capistrano, San Dieguito, and Las Flores, says that they are flourishing, and that the comparison between the condition of these Indians and that of the Spanish townsmen in the same region is altogether in favor of the Indians.

On November 16, 1835, eighty-one "desafiliados" — as the ex-neophytes of missions were called — of the San Luis Mission settled themselves in the San Pasqual valley, which was an appanage of that mission. These Indian communities appear to have had no documents to show their right, either as communities or individuals, to the land on which they had settled. At any rate, they had nothing which amounted to a protection, or stood in the way of settlers who coveted their lands. It is years since the last trace of the pueblos Las Flores and San Dieguito disappeared; and the San Pasqual valley is entirely taken up by white settlers; chiefly on preemption claims. San Juan Capistrano is the only one of the four where are to be found any Indians' homes. If those who had banded themselves together and had been set off into pueblos had no recognizable or defensible title, how much more helpless and defenseless were individuals, or small communities without any such semblance of pueblo organization!

Most of the original Mexican grants included tracts of land on which Indians were living, sometimes large villages of them. In many of these grants, in accordance with the old Spanish law or custom, was incorporated a clause protecting the Indians. They were to be left undisturbed in their homes: the portion of the grant occupied by them did not belong to the grantee in any such sense as to entitle him to eject them. The land on which they were living, and the land they were cultivating at the time of the grant, belonged to them as long as they pleased to occupy it. In many of the grants the boundaries of the Indians' reserved portion of the property were carefully marked off; and the instances were rare in which Mexican grantees disturbed or in any way interfered with Indians living on their estates. There was no reason why they should. There was plenty of land and to spare, and it was simply a convenience and an advantage to have the skilled and docile Indian laborer on the ground.

But when the easy-going, generous, improvident Mexican needed or desired to sell his grant, and the sharp American was on hand to buy it, then was brought to light the helplessness of the Indians' position. What cared the sharp American for that sentimental clause, "without injury to the Indians"? Not a farthing. Why should he? His government, before him, had decided that all the lands belonging to the old missions, excepting the small portions technically held as church property, and therefore "out of commerce," were government lands. None of the Indians living on those lands at the time of the American possession were held to have any right — not even "color of right" — to them. That they and their ancestors had been cultivating them for three quarters of a century made no difference. Americans wishing to pre-empt claims on any of these so-called government lands did not regard the presence on them of Indian families or communities as any more of a barrier than the presence of so many coyotes or foxes. They would not hesitate to certify to the land office that such lands were "unoccupied." Still less, then, need the purchaser of tracts covered by old Mexican grants hold himself bound to regard the poor cumberers of the ground, who, having no legal right whatever, had been all their years living on the tolerance of a silly, good-hearted Mexican proprietor. The Americans wanted every rod of his land, every drop of water on it; his schemes were boundless; his greed insatiable; he had no use for Indians. His plan did not embrace them, and could not enlarge itself to take them in. They must go. This is, in brief, the summing up of the way in which has come about the present pitiable state of the California Mission Indians.

In 1852 a report in regard to these Indians was made to the Interior Department by the Hon. B. D. Wilson, of Los Angeles. It is an admirable paper, clear and exhaustive. Mr. Wilson was an old Californian, had known the Indians well, and had been eyewitness to much of the cruelty and injustice done them. He says: "In the fall of the missions, accomplished by private cupidity and political ambition, philanthropy laments the failure of one of the grandest experiments ever made for the elevation of this unfortunate race." He estimates that there were at the time in the counties of Tulare, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego over fifteen thousand Indians who had been connected with the missions in those countries. They were classified as the Tulareños, Cahuillas, San Luiseños, and Diegueños, the latter two being practically one nation, speaking one language, and being more generally Christianized than the others. They furnished, Mr. Wilson says, "the majority of the laborers, mechanics, and servants of San Diego and Los Angeles counties." They all spoke the Spanish language, and a not inconsiderable number could read and write it. They had built all the houses in the country, had taught the whites how to make brick, mud mortar, how to use asphalt on roofs; they understood irrigation, were good herders, reapers, etc. They were paid only half the wages paid to whites; and being immoderate gamblers, often gambled away on Saturday night and Sunday all they had earned in the week. At that time in Los Angeles nearly every other house in town was a grog-shop for Indians. In the San Pasqual valley there were twenty white vagabonds, all rum-sellers, squatted at one time around the Indian pueblo. The Los Angeles ayuntamiento had passed an edict declaring that "all Indians without masters" — significant phrase! — must live outside the town limits; also, that all Indians who could not show papers from the alcalde of the pueblo in which they lived, should be treated as "horses thieves and enemies."

On Sunday nights the square and streets of Los Angeles were often to be seen full of Indians lying about helpless in every stage of intoxication. They were picked up by scores, unconscious, carried to jail, locked up, and early Monday morning hired out to the highest bidders at the jail gates. Horrible outrages were committed on Indian women and children. In some instances the Indians armed to avenge these, and were themselves killed.

These are a few out of hundreds of similar items to be gathered from the newspaper records of the time. Conditions such as these could have but one outcome. Twenty years later, when another special report on the condition of the California Mission Indian was asked for by the Government, not over five thousand Indians remained to be reported on. Vice and cruelty had reaped large harvests each year. Many of the rich valleys, which at the time of Mr. Wilson's report had been under cultivation by Indians, were now filled by white settlers, the Indians all gone, no one could tell where. In some instances whole villages of them had been driven off at once by fraudulently procured and fraudulently enforced claims. One of the most heart-rending of these cases was that of the Temecula Indians.

The Temecula valley lies in the northeast corner of San Diego County. It is watered by two streams and has a good soil. The Southern California Railroad now crosses it. It was an appanage of the San Luis Rey Mission, and the two hundred Indians who were living there were the children and grandchildren of San Luis Rey neophytes. The greater part of the valley was under cultivation. They had cattle, horses, sheep. In 1865 a "special agent" of the United States Government held a grand Indian convention there. Eighteen villages were represented, and the number of inhabitants, stock, vineyards, orchards were reported. The Indians were greatly elated at this evidence of the Government's good intentions toward them. They set up a tall liberty-pole, and bringing forth a United States flag, which they had kept carefully hidden away ever since the beginning of the civil war, they flung it out to the winds in token of their loyalty. "It is astonishing," says one of the San Diego newspapers of the day, "that these Indians have behaved so well, considering the pernicious teachings they have had from the secessionists in our midst."

There were already anxiety in the minds of the Temecula Indians as to their title to their lands. All that was in existence to show that they had any, was the protecting clause in an old Mexican grant. To be sure, the man was still alive who had assisted in marking off the boundaries of their part of this original Temecula grant; but his testimony could establish nothing beyond the letter of the clause as it stood. They earnestly implored the agent to lay the case before the Interior Department. Whether he did or not I do not know, but this is the sequel: On April 15, 1869, an action was brought in the District Court, in San Francisco, by five men, against "Andrew Johnson, Thaddeus Stevens, Horace Greely, and one thousand Indians, and other parties whose names are unknown." It was "a bill to quit title," an "action to recover possession of certain real estate bounded thus and thus." It included the Temecula valley. It was based on grants made by Governor Micheltorena in 1844. The defendants cited were to appear in court within twenty days.

The Indians appealed to the Catholic bishop to help them. He wrote to one of the judges an imploring letter, saying, "Can you not do something to save these poor Indians from being driven out?" But the scheme had been too skillfully plotted. There was no way — or, at any rate, no way was found — of protecting the Indians. The day came when a sheriff, bringing a posse of men and a warrant which could not be legally resisted, arrived to eject the Indian families from their houses and drive them out of the valley. The Indians' first impulse was as determined as it could have been if they had been white, to resist the outrage. But on being reasoned with by friends, who sadly and with shame explained to them that by thus resisting, they would simply make it the duty of the sheriff to eject them by force, and, if necessary, shoot down any who opposed the executing of his warrant, they submitted. But they refused to lift hand to the moving. They sat down, men and women, on the ground, and looked on, some wailing and weeping, some dogged and silent, while the sheriff and his men took out of the neat little adobe houses their small stores of furniture, clothes, and food, and piled them on wagons to be carried — where? — anywhere the exiles chose, so long as they did not chance to choose a piece of any white man's land.

A Mexican woman is now living in that Temecula valley who told me the story of this moving. The facts I had learned before from records of one sort and another. But standing on the spot, looking at the ruins of the little adobe houses, and the walled graveyard full of graves, and hearing this women tell how she kept her doors and windows shut, and could not bear to look out while the deed was being done, I realized forcibly how different a thing is history seen from history written and read.

It took three days to move them. Procession after procession, with cries and tears, walked slowly behind the wagons carrying their household goods. They took the tule roofs off the little houses, and carried them along. They could be used again. Some of these Indian, wishing to stay as near as possible to their old home, settled in a small valley, only three miles and a half away to the south. It was a dreary, hot little valley, bare, with low, rocky buttes dropping out on either side, and with scanty growths of bushes; there was not a drop of water in it. Here the exiles went to work again; built their huts of reeds and straw; set up a booth of boughs for the priest, when he came, to say mass in; and a rude wooden cross to consecrate their new graveyard on a stony hill-side. They put their huts on barren knolls here and there, where nothing could grow. On the tillable land they planted wheat or barley or orchards, — some patches not ten feet square, the largest not over three or four acres. They hollowed out the base of one of the rocky buttes, sunk a well there, and found water.


Excerpted from A Call For Reform by Valerie Sherer Mathes, Phil Brigandi. Copyright © 2015 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Abbreviations,
The Present Condition of the Mission Indians in Southern California,
The Temecula Exiles,
Justifiable Homicide in Southern California,
A Day with the Cahuillas,
Three Pennsylvania Women,
Captain Pablo's Story,
The Fate of Saboba,
Appendix A. A Suggestion from a Western Friend,
Appendix B. A Letter from Mrs. Helen Jackson,

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