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Helen Hunt Jackson etched mark in local, national history

In 1883, the year following the creation of the Pechanga Indian Reservation by President Chester A. Arthur’s executive order, widely renowned author Helen Hunt Jackson visited the Temecula Indians at their relocated homes in Pechanga Canyon. The rest, as they say, is history and literature. By Teresa Lorden, Valley News

In 1883, the year following the creation of the Pechanga Indian Reservation by President Chester A. Arthur’s executive order, widely renowned author Helen Hunt Jackson visited the Temecula Indians at their relocated homes in Pechanga Canyon. The rest, as they say, is history and literature.

Jackson was appointed as a special agent of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs. Along with Special Agent Abbot Kinney, she filed a “Report on the Condition and Needs of the Mission Indians of California.”

The report included information on many of the Indian villages and reservations of Southern California.

They included, in the spellings and terms of that era, “Pachanga,” “Saboba,” Cahuilla Reservation, Warner’s Ranch, San Ysidros, Los Coyotes, Santa Ysabel, Mesa Grande, Capitan Grande, “Sequan,” Conejos, Pala, Pauma, Rincon, La Jolla, “Desert Indians” and San Gorgonio Reservation.

The following excerpts are some of her reflections on the Temecula-Pechanga people during the area’s pioneer era:

This little band of Indians is worthy of a special mention. They are San Luisenos, and formerly lived in the Temecula Valley, where they had good adobe houses and a large tract of land under cultivation.

A portion of these Temecula Indians, wishing to remain as near their old homes and the graves of their dead as possible [after the eviction in 1875], went over in the Pachanga canyon, only three miles distant.

It was a barren, dry spot; but the Indians sunk a well, built new houses, and went to work again. In the spring of 1882, when we first visited the place, there was a considerable amount of land in wheat and barley and a little fencing had been done.

In the following May we visited the valley again. Our first thought on entering it was, would that all persons who still hold to the belief that Indians will not work could see this valley.

It would be hardly an extreme statement to say that the valley was one continuous field of grain. At least four times the amount of the previous year had been planted. Corrals had been built, fruit orchards started…

The whole expression of the place had changed; so great a stimulus had there been to the Indians in even the slight additional sense of security given by the Executive order setting off their valley as a reservation.

And, strangely enough, as if nature herself had conspired at once to help and to avenge these Indians in the Temecula Valley from which they had been driven out, the white men’s grain crops were thin, poor, hardly worth cutting; while the Indians’ fields were waving high and green – altogether the best wheat and barley we had seen in the county.

It is fortunate that this little nook of cultivable land was set aside as a reservation. Had it not been it would have been ‘filed on’ before now by the whites in the region, who already look with envy and chagrin on the crops the Indian exiles have wrested from land nobody thought worth taking up.

Jackson was so appalled at the treatment of the Southern California Indians that she incorporated many of their firsthand accounts into her famous novel, “Ramona.”

That seminal novel on Native American treatment and cultural issues was first published in 1884. It is believed to have been based on characters drawn from Temecula’s early days.

In writing this novel, Jackson’s hope was to elicit the same public response for the plight of California Indians as her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe had done for African-American slaves with her novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Jackson remains a celebrated figure today. An annual pageant recreating portions of her book is produced annually in Hemet, where a high school has named after her. A Temecula elementary school has also been named after Jackson.

Teresa Lorden, MA, is the curator for the Pechanga Cultural Resource Department. She is working on her PhD in anthropology at the University of California, Riverside.