On a cold January afternoon in 1882, author Helen Hunt Jackson pulled up in her carriage to the rustic Rancho Camulos, nestled among the citrus groves in the Santa Clara River Valley outside of Piru, on her way to Santa Barbara.
Coming off the heels of a scathing work of journalism titled “A Century of Dishonor,” in which she reported on atrocities against Native Americans by researching U.S. government records, she wanted to further explore the lives and conditions of Native Americans in Southern California.
Actors from the Rancho Camulos Museum played out this locally famous historical event on Sunday by re-creating Jackson’s visit, which became the inspiration for Jackson’s famous 1884 novel, “Ramona.”
It began with actress and former California history teacher Connie Tripp as Jackson, being escorted out of a carriage by her husband, Rodney Tripp, playing Jackson’s driver.
All the actors wore period-era clothing and the carriage Tripp stepped out of was an actual 19th century carriage owned by the family that owned the rancho — the Del Valles.
According to the reenactment, those present at the rancho were initially confused by Jackson’s arrival but eventually welcomed her into the parlor to meet the lady of the house, Susana Del Valle, played by Maria Christopher.
The conversation’s topics included why Jackson was in the area, her thoughts on it and Jackson’s inquiries as to the status of Native Americans in the area. “The Indian Problem” was a term frequently used during the conversation.
Jackson was in the area to document the living conditions of Native Americans in Southern California following her appointment as an interior agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. While her work was done on this assignment, she was also researching for what she hoped would be her version of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” after “Century of Dishonor” failed to prompt any serious legislation reform in regards to Indian relations. She hoped a fictional romance novel might increase favorable public opinion to reform.
She came on the invitation of Don Antonio Coronel, former mayor of Los Angeles, who briefed her on the region’s history and the status of relations with local Native Americans. The trip, Coronel’s briefing and the conversations she had while in Southern California would inspire “Ramona” in 1884.
For Tripp, Jackson’s trailblazing and anti-status-quo attitude was what made her such an appealing character to portray.
“She had such a real heart for, not just the Indians but for California. She was a die-hard reformer. She wanted to make things better for people and I think that’s why she made such an impression on me,” said Tripp. “I taught at [College of the Canyons] for years. I taught California history and I taught the role of women in U.S. history. So she was one of the women I could bring in because she just was not afraid to say what she thought was right, especially against people who didn’t want to hear it.”
In the parlor, during the re-creation of Jackson’s conversation with Susana Del Valle, played by Maria Christopher, the two talked about life in the area — including the presence and conditions of Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians on the rancho.
Rancho Camulos was built and designed by Fernandeño Tataviam Mission Indians and, by the time Jackson got to the estate, they were still living on the property as “agricultural laborers and domestic servants.”
In May 2019, FTBMI built an interpretive village at Rancho Camulos that aims to serve as a place of spirit, culture and education. The village was a part of the tour given following the reenactment.
While “A Century of Dishonor” failed to achieve the legislative response Jackson wanted as a result, “Ramona” was a best-seller upon its release, selling 15,000 copies before Jackson’s death in 1885. The book continued to be popular well into the 20th century, but never escaped the romantic picture it painted in readers’ minds and, like “A Century of Dishonor,” never sparked the reform Jackson had hoped for — even though portions of the 1887 Dawes Act were inspired by her work.
As the conversation in the parlor concluded, Jackson thanked her hosts for having her and for the information they provided — information that would eventually go on to sell a critically acclaimed piece of fiction.
Afterward, the actors answered question from the audience and Tripp gave insight into her character’s sentiments in the years following her visit to Rancho Camulos.
“The book has never been out of print and it’s been all those years and why did everybody read it? Because it is a love story, about star-crossed lovers and that’s why it really did very little,” said Tripp. “The Dawes Act was passed in 1887 but it didn’t really… it was designed by good-hearted people like Helen Hunt Jackson and it did make some changes. But it really wasn’t helpful, as far as the Indians were concerned.”