Honey talks about Helen Jackson’s Ramona

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September 30, 2014 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 



By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)

In a voiceover to Billy Wilder’s noir film classic Double Indemnity (1944), adapted by Raymond Chandler from a James M. Cain novel, insurance salesman Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray) describes the house where psychopathic killer Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) lives as: “It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago. This one must have cost someone about 30,000 bucks – that is, if he ever finished paying for it.”

Cain’s joke or note in his book was that architect Wallace Neff designed a great many of Southern California’s “Spanish” houses, drawing on styles that evoked the Spanish missions.

Art historian Rexford Newcomb described the genesis of then- contemporary (1937) Spanish architecture:

“….Spanish blood, Spanish institutions and consequently Spanish architecture was of necessity cosmopolitan. But the primitive Iberians were not great architects; therefore the real beginnings of architecture in Spain may be said to date from the period of Roman domination. The Moors contributed a certain oriental quality, many effects of which are to be detected in the provincial expressions of Texas, Arizona and California.”

That California architecture reflected – and continues to reflect — California’s Indian, Spanish and Mexican heritage appears to be a natural evolution but it isn’t.

Twenty years after the United States entered into the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, gringos had transformed California and regarded Mexicans as inferior and the native people as subhuman. Although California entered the Union as a “free” state, the legislature passed a statute allowing the enslavement of Indians.

By 1872, Anglos outnumbered Mexicans and Indians in Los Angeles. The Catholic missions – except for those still used as churches – had fallen into disrepair. In 1895, Tessa Kelso, the Los Angeles Public Library librarian, wore that San Diego, San Luis Rey, the Assistencia of Pala, san Juan Capistrano and San Fernando Rey “were falling to ruin with frightful rapidity, their roofs being breached or gone, the adobe walls melting away under the winter rains.”

East Coast residential and commercial Victorian architecture, paved streets and trolleys replaced the quiet adobes with their central gardens and pepper trees and dusty streets. Newcomb (1937) wrote:

“These Yankees from the Atlantic Seaboard for a time tried to make the American Colonial and its derivatives give expression to life in these great open spaces still largely peopled by descendants of the original Spanish stock and the Mexicans who, during the long Spanish regime, had drifted into the country….. Little by little the incongruity of attempting to make these ‘foreign’ forms express the life and thought in this vast Hispanic domain dawned upon architect and layman alike with the result that, within the past quarter century, there has grown up … a staunch regard for these fine old structures and a real desire to make them, through the beautifully appropriate precedent which they afford, the inspiration of new architectural work, both private and public.”

Nothing just one day dawned on Yankees in California about the need to save what was left of the Spanish missions or to create architecture based on older Spanish models. Part of Yankee obsession with its fake past, with a landed gentry of “Spanish” who were not actually the “Mexicans” they despised was boosterism. Los Angeles did not have much of an economy other than real estate and tourism before oil wells and movies up until the Second World War.

The intellectual and cultural roots of made-up Los Angeles history begins with a woman who did not exist: Helen Hunt Jackson’s half-Indian heroine Ramona.

Ramona (1885) was so stunningly successful that it drew even more Americans to California. Americans named streets and schools after its Ramona and her Indian husband Allesandro. (Usually misspelled.) Tourists traveled by train to the fictional setting of Ramona, Rancho Camulos. Hollywood made two silent films and one talkie of Ramona.
The Ramona pagent in Hemet continues to this day.

Other peoples’ stories contributed to the Ramona fiction, beginning with Helen Hunt’s attendance at a lecture in Boston by Standing Bear, a 60-year-old Ponca Chief, who talked about the forcible removal of his people from their land.

On her first visit to California in 1872, Helen had found the native people picturesque but she frequently used the terms “Loathsome,” “abject” and “hideous” to describe them.

After she listened to Standing Bear at that lecture and one informal talk, she became committed herself to studying the history of the government’s dealing with the Indians and began extensive research in the Astor Library in New York City. She charged the Department of the Interior with betrayal of its treaties. She incorporated her research into her study: A Century of Dishonor (1881). She eventually successfully petitioned to be appointed a commissioner by the Department of the Interior to research the mission Indians. Accompanied by Abbott Kinney – who was to build the Venice canals in California – she traveled in an open carriage through much of the state on roads so difficult the travelers risked being thrown out of the carriage. She submitted her report to Congress. Not much happened. She outraged some people in Congress.

She had hoped Ramona would open the minds of Americans and change the way they looked at things. It did: people imagined away the reality of both Spanish and American treatment of Indians and instead focused on an idealized past.

As part of her research on the mission Indians, she presented a letter of introduction to Don Antonio Coronel, who had come as a colonist to Los Angeles when he was a boy. He had served the Mexican government in Alta California as the state treasurer. He, like his close friend Pio Pico resented the American invasion and occupation. Coronel was a life-long friend of the Indians and committed to their cause.

Coronel’s father had owned large ranchos in Southern California and Central Coastal California and lost them as a result of the Land Act. Coronel recouped part of the fortune in the California gold mines. He was mayor of Los Angeles for a time, and he owned the Los Feliz Rancho – this area includes about half of Silver Lake, parts of the San Fernando Valley, and Griffith Park.

Coronel’s father and two sisters were the first school teachers in Los Angeles’s first school, which means they taught Ina Coolbrith when she was a child, because she went to that school when it opened.

Coronel and his much younger wife lived in a pleasant adobe surrounded by orchards and vegetable fields at what is now Seventh and Alameda, an semi-industrial part of Los Angeles with a lot of parking lots and no trees at all.

Helen spent many pleasant days listening to Coronel’s stories about Old California, the missions, and the lives of the Indians after secularization. Some of those stories are probably in Tales of Mexican California, dictated to Thomas Savage for H.H. Bancroft in 1877.

In Tales, Coronel describes the history he lived through but also talked about clothing, dances, music, hair styles and how people lived and how they were buried. Although he shows great sympathy for Indian people, he refers in the stories to his Indian servants, which seem to have been unpaid servants.

From Tales:

(About the missions).

“The buildings of the missions were spacious blocks with apartments inside and one or two great doorways for general communication. Within the square was the house of the padre, the first building you saw as you entered; the chuch was attached to it….The public buildings were all adobe with wood and tile roofs, solidly built. At the peremptory peal of bells in the morning, all the Indians got up and went to the church for a short prayer. Another bell, and the single people went to the refectory while the married ones went to their own houses for breakfast, all before sunrise.”

Antonio Coronel’s stories about a way of life that ended thirty two years before he met Helen underpin her Ramona with a simulcure of real life. Until this time, Helen had taken up no large causes. She hadn’t opposed slavery. She was opposed to female suffrage. She disliked the idea of a woman as activist. She caused some upset in a hotel in California when she interfered with the manager’s disciplining of his child. Her early biographer, Ruth Odell, does not say what that discipline involved but I believe it was probably what we would call today child abuse. Helen also caused a family who invited her to stay with them a little trouble when she told the servants they should demand better food.

Helen thought her poetry would endure. It hasn’t. Her stories about picturesque and interesting people often condescended. The knowledge she gained, however, about American treatment of the native people transformed her. She had found her real work late in life and then fell down a flight of stairs, broke her hip, and began to die.

She wrote “A Last Prayer” four days before her death:

“Father, I scarcely dare to pray,
So clear I see, now it is done,
How I have wasted half my day,
And left my work but just begun.
So clear I see that things I thought
Were right or harmless were a sin;
So clear I see that I have sought,
Unconscious, selfish aims to win.

“So clear I see that I have hurt
The souls I might have helped to save;
That I have slothful been, inert,
Deaf to the calls Thy leaders gave.
In outskirts of Thy kingdoms vast
Father, the humblest spot give me;
Set me the lowliest task Thou hast,
Let me repentant work for Thee.”

The faux and sentimentalized view of California that grew out of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel did nothing to better the condition of the former Mission Indians. That had been her aim. She had wanted to write a book that would change public consciousness about Native Americans. It probably did affect the way some people thought: they made up a Spanish past that resembled the actual past in some ways. In 1888, H. H. Bancroft wrote about pre-Gold Rush California as an arcadia where “life was a long happy holiday.”

Peter Reich identifies the fake history as search for a cultural identity, abd a search by real estate and tourist boosters for an image of stability after the 1880s real estate crash.

In 1895, Charles F. Lummis, editor of the Los Angeles Times for a period, Los Angeles Public Librarian for a time, builder of El Alisal in Highland Park, author and editor of Land of Sunshine, helped create the Landmark Club, which rescued the missions. Lummis wrote,

“It seems incredible now what uphill work it was to arouse any interest whatever in this cause. In the first place a tidal wave of the thrice-damned APA (American Protective Association) had swept over even California and religions bigotry was intense. Absurd as it seems, it is a literal fact that thousands of otherwise sane business men and citizzens in Los Angeles firmly belieed that the Catholics were drilling every night in the basement of the Cathedral to rise and massacre the Protestants. The fact that the cathedral had no basement cut no figure at all. Thousands of less credulous ersons joined in saying, ‘The Catholic church owns those old Missions, don’t it? Let the Catholic church take care of them.’”

Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948) wrote fiction about the cultural conflicts between Mexicans and Americans and about Old California and the missions. Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) — one of Lummis’s many literary friends — wrote stories about the Paiute people she knew in Bishop, and she used their herbal remedies to help her with frequent bouts of illness and attended their ceremonies. Austin’s The Land of Little Rain (1903) is one of California’s best books about dry climate nature and its people. (Oddly, the editor of the version I read places Bakersfield in the San Fernando Valley.)

The Double Indemnity house – built in the 1920s – is at 6301 Quebec Drive, reached from North Gower in Hollywood, downhill from the Hollywood sign. The house was built in 1927, and it is one of the many “Spanish style” houses built in Southern California. The Zillow estimate of its current market value is $1,645,951. Modest versions of the style, mostly built in the 1920s, stand in small neighborhoods throughout Southern California and in San Jose’s Willow Glen district.

The Mission Revival Style architectural movement drew its inspiration from the late 18th and 19th century Spanish missions in California. It evolved into the Spanish Colonial Revival Style, established in 1915 at the Panama-California Exposition.

The Santa Fe The Mission Inn in Riverside – completed in 1939 — is one of the largest of the existing Mission Revival Style buildings in California. The Southwest Museum of the American Indian in Highland Park, founded by Charles Lummis is one of the first maor examples in Los Angles of the transition from Mission Revival to Spanish Revival. The San Juan Capistrano Depot, the Burlingame Station, the Santa Barbara Train Station, the Adamson House in Malibu, and the main quad of Stanford University are other examples. The California Tower, Balboa Park, San Diego, and Julia Morgan’s designs for Hearst Castle in San Simeon are examples of the Spanish Colonial Revival Style. Union Station in Los Angeles is a combination of Spanish Revival and Art Deco.






Gertrude Atherton, Doomswoman (1892)
_______ Before Gringo Come (1899)

Mary Austin, Land of Little Rain (1903)

Antonio Coronel, Tales of Mexican California, ed Doyce B. Nunis, Jr.

Edward D. Castillo, ed Native American Perspectives on the Hispanic Colonization of Alta California (1991)

Dydia DeLyser, Ramona Memories: Tourism and the Shaping of Southern California. (2005).

Turbese Lummis Fiske and Keith Lummis, Charles F. Lummis The Man and His West (1975)

Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson, Mary Austin and the American West (2008)

Valerie Sherer Mathes, “Helen Hunt Jackson and her Indian Reform Legacy,” Southern California Quarterly, Volume 74, Winter 1992, pp 375-378.

Douglas Monroy Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California (1990)

Carey McWilliams, Southern California: An Island on the Land, “The Indian in the Closet.” (First published 1947). See http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/comm/steen/cogweb/Chumash/McWilliams.html.

___________North from Mexico (1948)

Rexford Newcomb, Spanish-Colonial Architecture in the United States (First published in 1937, republished by Dover in 1990)

Ruth Odell, Helen Hunt Jackson (1939)

Ramon Guitierrez Ricard J. Orsi (Contested Eden 1998) Edward Castillo and Robert H. Jackson, Indians, Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization: The Impact of the Mission System

Kate Phillips Helen Hunt Jackson A Literary Life (2003)

Peter L. Reich, “Mission Revival Jurisprudence: State Courts and Hispanic Water Law Since 1850,” Washington Law Review (October 1994) Volume 69, Number 4, pp 869-925.


El Alisal in Highland Park. Legacy Park.
Rancho Camulos.
Glendale Train Station
Mission San Gabriel
Santa Barbara Courthouse
Santa Barbara Mission
San Luis Obispo Mission



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