Chronicling and Making History from Adversity

“The pricelessness of water in a land where no rain falls during six months of the year cannot be appreciated by one who has not lived in such a country. There is a saying in South California that if a man buys water he can get his land thrown in. This is only an epigrammatic putting of the literal fact that the value of much of the land depends solely upon the water which it holds or controls.”

Helen Hunt Jackson, from her book, Glimpses of Three Coasts, published in 1886.

I recently discovered that very perceptive description of life in southern California while examining books by Jackson and other sources on western U.S. and southern California history. Glimpses of Three Coasts was published posthumously a year after Jackson’s death from cancer in 1885 at the age of 54. Her early death was the last of a long line of personal tragedies that had traumatized her life. Those tragedies began with losing her mother to tuberculosis when Helen was just 14 and losing her father to the same disease before she’d turned 18. Her 1852 marriage marriage to Edward Hunt, an Army engineer, would see one child die in infancy, Edward perishing in a military accident in 1863 and their only other child, Warren, dying of diptheria at the age of 9.

Her personal sorrows led her first into writing poetry, then prose, both fiction and non-fiction for magazines, then books.. Facing her own case of tuberculosis, Helen, a New Englander by birth, took a doctor’s advice and headed for Colorado. She visited California as well, becoming a chronicler of the west and also a voice of activism, speaking out against the oppression of Native Americans in books like A Century of Dishonor, published in 1881, the 1883 Report on the Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians of California, co-written with Abbott Kinney,  and the novel Ramona, published in 1884.

I salute Helen Hunt Jackson for her resilience in the face of personal hardship, and for both revealing new history while making some of her own.

Sources for this post included a number of online archives including and .

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