Discovering the Region: Commentary

12. Helen Hunt Jackson, "Puget Sound"

Helen Maria Fiske was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on October 15, 1830. She married twice, first to Major Edward Bissell Hunt (who died in 1863), and then to Colorado financier William Sharpless Jackson. She began her writing career following the death of her first husband, using the nom de plume "H.H." for many of her poems, essays, novels, and travel pieces (of which her visit to Puget Sound was one). She became a zealous convert to Indian reform in 1879 after hearing a lecture on the condition of the Poncas, a Midwestern tribe forced to resettle in Indian Territory. She spent the next two years compiling evidence to document the effects of federal Indian policy on Native Americans in the West. The result of this work, A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United State's Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes, was published in 1881. Helen Hunt Jackson's attention was then drawn to the Mission Indians of southern California where, in 1883, she was appointed to investigate their condition and suggest federal legislation (which was not enacted) to correct injustices. This work led to her last novel, Ramona, published in 1884, one year before her death. The book was intended to become a kind of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the cause of native peoples.

Jackson's concern about the treatment of Indians made her into a reformer, and she brought this perspective to her observations of conditions—both social and environmental—around Puget Sound. This approach set her off somewhat from James Swan, who also criticized American Indian policy but who wrote much more from the point of view of resident settlers who expected to make economic use of the region’s resources. As a short-term visitor, Jackson had a different angle on the Northwest, and felt less need to either promote the country or advance the interests of its white settlers.

Note that Jackson’s article appeared in the same year that the transcontinental railroad to the Northwest was finished. Jackson and her editors likely intended to give eastern audiences a glimpse of the newly accessible region. But it was hardly a uniformly rosy glimpse. Among other things, Jackson criticized Washington’s pioneers for their vigilantism and their wasteful use of timber resources. Her sense of environmental loss is remarkable, because it predates the rise of a widespread awareness of the problems of conservation and preservation. For more information on Jackson, see Odell (1939).

Click here to read the full text of H. H. [Helen Hunt Jackson], “Puget Sound,” Atlantic Monthly 51 (February 1883): 218-31.

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