Sticky hands and ‘Ramona’

Helen Hunt Jackson

San Juan Bautista today might be a tawdry tourist destination
devoted to a fictitious Spanish legend if a toddler back in 1883
hadn’t had sticky fingers.
San Juan Bautista today might be a tawdry tourist destination devoted to a fictitious Spanish legend if a toddler back in 1883 hadn’t had sticky fingers.

And this brings us to Helen Hunt Jackson. She’s the third remarkable individual we’ll meet in columns throughout March celebrating local ladies during Women in History Month.

Contemporaries described Helen Hunt Jackson as “the most brilliant, impetuous, and thoroughly individual woman of her time.” She was born Helen Maria Fiske in 1830 to parents who were both accomplished authors. Perhaps their literary achievements encouraged the spirited young Helen to pursue her own career as a writer.

After graduating from Massachusetts’s Ipswich Female Seminary School, Helen married U.S. Army Capt. Edward Hunt. Unfortunately, he soon died in a military accident. Her next husband was a wealthy Massachusetts railroad executive and banker named William Jackson.

Under a pseudonym, Helen wrote several volumes of poetry as well as novels, children’s stories and essays. Then one night in 1879, she attended a Boston lecture given by Chief Standing Bear, a Native American leader. He described the forced removal by the U.S. government of Ponca Indians from their Nebraska reservation. His speech kindled Helen’s campaign to fight social injustice.

Helen wrote a non-fiction book denouncing the government’s policy toward Native Americans as well as its myriad broken treaties. Published in 1881, “A Century of Dishonor” is considered a landmark publication on the mistreatment of Native Americans. Helen sent a copy to each member of Congress. Washington’s politicians, however, gave little response to her appeals.

One of Helen’s New England friends was Harriet Beecher Stowe, famous for penning the classic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” which ignited the abolition movement that led to the Civil War. Stowe’s success inspired Helen to try something similar for Native Americans. “If I can do one hundredth part for the Indian that Mrs. Stowe did for the Negro, I will be thankful,” she confided to a friend.

In the autumn of 1883, Helen arrived by stagecoach in San Juan Bautista to begin research on a novel she tentatively titled “In The Name of the Law.” She had visited the town years before and found it captivating enough to set her novel there.

Stagecoach driver Mark Regan first took Helen and her sister Annie Fiske to the Plaza Hotel, but that boisterous location wasn’t deemed proper for the upscale Victorian ladies.

Regan next took them to the Castro-Breen Adobe next door. They little suspected homemaker Mrs. Breen, an Irish woman with fiery red hair and a profusion of offspring, would be in a volcanic mood.

An article by Owen Treleven in the June 1916 edition of the Overland Monthly magazine related Helen’s short and unforgettable confrontation with the quick-tempered Mrs. Breen:

“On her way to the door to answer the summons, the woman (Breen) stumbled over one of the numerous progeny who was engaged in the delightful occupation of dipping both hands in a molasses jar and transferring a portion of the contents to his mouth, clothing and surroundings in general. The woman caught the child up astride her hip, and objecting strenuously to his removal from the source of so much sweetness, the youngster immediately began to claw his mother’s hair and clothing. The sticky ludicrous spectacle presented to the visitors on the door being opened was too much for Mrs. Jackson’s sense of humor. She was convulsed with laughter.”

Mrs. Breen glowered at the famous writer for “makin’ fun o’ me darlin’.” Then Regan made the mistake of proposing that Helen and Fiske rent the adobe for several weeks while the Breen family stayed in the hotel next door. According to Treleven, Mrs. Breen “replied most emphatically that they and ‘the likes’ of them would gain entrance only ‘over my dead body.'”

For lack of finding suitable habitation, Helen abandoned San Juan Bautista as the location for her novel. She transferred the story to San Diego.

Fired by the colorful history of California’s Spanish era, Helen’s novel poured out of her pen in three months. “As soon as I began, it seemed impossible to write fast enough,” she said of its creation. She retitled her romance “Ramona,” after the central character, a beautiful “half-breed” Indian girl who tragically falls in love with the noble son of an Indian chief whose tribe has been brutally disbanded by the U.S. government.

The book became a runaway best-seller. Helen died of cancer on Aug. 12, 1885, a year after her famous novel was published. Unfortunately, her book failed to arouse any public movement to gain social justice for Native Americans.

Its sentimental view of Spanish land-grant aristocracy, however, did create a romanticized fantasy of California’s mission era. The story’s invented nostalgia inspired the preservation of California’s 21 Spanish missions then crumbling from neglect.

The “Ramona myth” also inspired several films and a popular song in the 1920s. Today, tacky souvenirs commemorating “Ramona” are still sold in gift shops throughout the San Diego area.

The Southern California town of Hemet, the fictional birthplace of Ramona, even created a staged pageant based on Helen’s passionate love story. It draws thousands of people each year to the “Ramona Bowl,” a natural amphitheater in the foothills. Featuring more than 400 actors, Hemet’s theatrical drama “Ramona” is considered the nation’s longest-running outdoor play.

Fortunately, San Juan Bautista got spared Hemet’s fate of becoming a cheesy tourist town centered on the “Ramona” legend. And we today can thank the Breen boy with the molasses-sticky hands who, one autumn day back in 1883, caused Helen to break out in laughter and outrage a short-fused Irish woman.

Helen Hunt Jackson herself might consider the comical sticky-hand incident fortunate for the small town’s future. San Juan Bautista’s quiet charm and serene ambience could easily have been forever lost by over-commercialization from some tacky tourist trade.

As Helen said of her favorite mission town: “At San Juan there lingers more of an atmosphere of the olden time than is to be found in any other place in California.”

Leave your comments