The graves of Ramona Lubo and Juan Diego in a cemetery near Anza. Credit: Greg Niemann

Just five years after President Grant affixed his historic signature to the document granting Section 14 (Palm Springs) to the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, a wrathful woman aroused America with a crusade in behalf of better treatment for all Indians. Her name was Helen Hunt Jackson. —Ed Ainsworth, Golden Checkerboard

Helen Hunt Jackson was born in 1830 to a literary family in Amherst, Mass. Among her schoolmates was poet Emily Dickinson, and she was a friend of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Jackson herself was a poet of note and the writer of numerous children’s stories.

By the age of 35, she had lost her husband and two sons to accident and illness. After being widowed by U.S. Army Capt. Edward B. Hunt, she married wealthy banker and railroad executive William S. Jackson.

She got involved in American Indian rights after hearing Ponca Indian Chief Standing Bear in 1879 describe to a Boston audience his tribe’s forced removal from their Nebraska reservation. Her fire was lit—and the crusade would consume the rest of her life.

Jackson became, as one writer noted at the time, a “holy terror.” Incensed by what she heard, Jackson wrote letters to The New York Times, circulated petitions and raised money. According to The Indians of the Southwest by E.E. Dale,“Mrs. Jackson was a highly emotional woman and, like most reformers, she was far from realistic in her views. She saw only the wrongs committed against the Indians, and their sufferings; and wrote a vivid story about them, and blamed the people of the country.”

In 1881, Jackson’s scathing book, A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings With Some of the Indian Tribes, was published; the crusading Jackson sent a copy to every member of Congress, admonishing them that their hands were stained with the blood of their relations. She was disappointed that the book had little impact.

However, her zeal landed her the appointment as an Interior Department agent. In that capacity, with the respected California promoter Abbot Kinney, she would crisscross Southern California, documenting the conditions of Mission Indians—people who were converted to Christianity and forcibly relocated. Jackson and Kinney toured the backcountry of Riverside and San Diego counties in a two-horse, double-seat carriage. By that time, the few Mission Indians (former Gabrieliño, Luiseño and Diegueño/Kumeyaay) were living in slum shacks near white settlements.

Mrs. Jackson wrote of the contrast between them and the non-mission Cahuilla, who were happily living in industrious, peaceful communities, “cultivating ground, keeping stock, carrying on their own simple manufactures of pottery, mats, baskets, etc., and making their living—a very poor living, it is true; but they are independent and self-respecting in it and ask nothing of the United States Government now, except that it will protect them in the ownership of their lands.”

Jackson and Kinney did not visit the Palm Springs Cahuilla, but sent a former Indian agent, Capt. Stanley, to represent them. He met with Chief Cabezon and about 100 Cahuilla Indians from eight different village groups. His report indicated that one community of those Cahuilla, in a region called The Potrero, set a fine example of an industrious settlement under cultivation. He added that the Desert Cahuilla were unsullied by Christian missionaries and were still following their traditional customs and religions.

In 1883, Mrs. Jackson submitted a 56-page report calling for massive government relief, including purchasing more land and establishing more schools for the Mission Indians. To her credit, a lot of her recommendations were put into a bill which passed the US. Senate—but died in the House.

This photo of Helen Hunt Jackson was used as frontispiece in Little, Brown and Co.’s 1909 “Pasadena Edition” of Jackson’s 1884 novel, Ramona.

Undeterred, she soon realized that perhaps a novel might better explain the plight of the Indians. She wanted “to move people’s hearts” in a manner that worked for her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe with Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Jackson began writing Ramona in a New York City hotel room in December 1883. The novel, with real people as the characters, was completed in three months and published in November 1884.

She later remarked that “every incident in Ramona is true.” While the incidents might have been true, there was apparently a little bit of literary license. For example, the fictional husband of Ramona was Alessandro, a Luiseño, whose father was chief of the San Luis Rey Indians. In real life, the husband of Ramona Lubo was Juan Diego, a Mountain Cahuilla who did odd jobs. According to Cahuilla Chief Francisco Patencio, “Jackson, who was Special Indian Agent, made the story up from different things that happened at different places. Juan Diego was shot by Sam Temple about a horse. He was shot in his own yard just as the book says. His wife’s name was Ramona. The spring, the falling rock corrals of the goats, the foundation of part of the house, are still to be seen there. All as Mrs. Jackson told it.”

In The Cahuilla Indians of Southern California, authors Lowell Bean and Harry Lawton noted, “Alessandro, the tragic hero of Ramona, was a Cahuilla named Juan Diego, shot down by Sam Temple of San Jacinto. The real Ramona was also a Cahuilla, Ramona Lubo. She died on July 21, 1922, and is buried in the old Cahuilla cemetery in the San Jacinto Mountains.”

A while back, I visited the cemetery on a small hill near the Cahuilla Creek Casino (now the Cahuilla Casino Hotel). The employees I met there did not know of the nearby cemetery or its significance. The grave of Ramona is simply marked “Ramona, Died July 21, 1922.” It is at the side of one marked “Juan Diego ‘Alessandro’ Ramona’s Martyred Spouse, Died March 24, 1883.”

At the offices for Hemet’s Ramona Pageant—an outdoor stage adaptation of the novel which opened in 1923 and today is the longest-running outdoor play in the country—I saw photos of Sam Temple, a belligerent-looking man with mean eyes and a bushy handlebar mustache. Ramona Lubo’s lineage can be further traced. According to Frank Bogert in Palm Springs: First Hundred Years, Ramona’s grandson, Harry Hopkins, was married to Celia Patencio, the sister of the last Cahuilla ceremonial singer Joseph Patencio.

The book Ramona was immensely popular, but Jackson would only see a portion of the success. She died of cancer on Aug. 12, 1885, less than a year after Ramona was published. The name Ramona lives on—in towns, streets, and businesses throughout Southern California, along with several movies and songs, as well as the Ramona Pageant.

On Jan. 12, 1891, Congress passed the Act for the Relief of Mission Indians, which formally established reservations for Southern California Indians. The voice of one person can make a difference.

Sources for this article include Golden Checkerboard, by Ed Ainsworth, Desert Southwest Publishing, 1965; Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson, Roberts Brothers, 1884; The Indians of the Southwest, by E.E. Dale, Huntington Library, 1949; The Cahuilla Indians of Southern California, by Lowell Bean and Harry Lawton, Malki Museum Press, 1965; Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians, by Cahuilla Chief Francisco Patencio, Times Mirror, 1943; Palm Springs: First Hundred Years, by Frank Bogert, Palm Springs Heritage Association, 1987; The Smiley Commission Report, U.S. Congress, 1891.

Greg Niemann

Greg Niemann is a Palm Springs-based author with five published books: Baja Fever (Mountain ’N’ Air), Baja Legends (Sunbelt Publications), Palm Springs Legends (Sunbelt), Big Brown: The Untold Story...