In 1884 Helen Hunt Jackson published the book Ramona which set off a celebration of a largely made-up depiction Spanish and Mexican culture in southern California. This excited public interest in turn created a huge business and tourist opportunity for the region, and a new imagined history for the state.
Jackson’s Ramona follows the fictional life of Ramona, a half-Indian half-Scottish woman who lives on a Mexican rancho in Ventura County owned by the Moreno family. She falls in love with Allesandro, an Indian sheepherder. When her family denies her marriage request, the couple elopes. They then face a series of misfortunes at the hands of Americans until one of them kills Allesandro. Ramona ends up returning to her rancho and marries the Moreno’s son. They move to Mexico rather than face the encroachment of Americans upon their rancho. Before Ramona elopes the book also introduces the character of Father Salvierderra from Mission Santa Barbara who ministers to the Native Americans. Jackson’s plan was to paint a picture of life in a Mexican rancho just after the American conquest of California to engage the reader, and then introduce the mistreatment of the Native Americans, her calling for the last several years of her life. The problem was that Americans were not interested in reading about their mistreatment of Native Americans, especially after General George S. Custer was killed at Little Big Horn in 1876. Instead what people remembered about Ramona was the love story and life on the rancho with its Spanish-Mexican heritage, which began and ended the book.
The writing of Jackson was followed by that of Charles Lummis, who at one time or another was the editor of the Land of Sunshine and Out West magazines, librarian for the city of Los Angeles, founder of the Landmarks Club, author of several books on California and editor of the Los Angeles Times. Lummis began advocating for southern Californians to adopt a fusion of American, Spanish, and Mexican culture. This was based upon his romanticized vision of benevolent priests bringing Christianity and civilization to “primitive” Indians and the life of leisure and class that he envisioned the Mexican ranchos to be like. As the head of the Landmarks Club he also started a movement to restore California’s 21 missions that had fallen into disrepair after the American take over in 1848, and praised their contribution to California’s history and culture.
Together the work of Jackson and Lummis created what became known as the Mission Myth. This was the belief that California’s missions were benevolent institutions that converted and civilized the state’s Native Americans. This was quite a change in the U.S.’s view of the missions. The Americans and Europeans who visited and wrote about them when they were still operating often compared them to slavery, describing the lack of freedom the Indians had under the priests’ strict rules, and the harsh punishments they received such as beatings for transgressions. However, by the 1880s few in California had any notion of this earlier point of view, which opened the door for Jackson and Lummis’ interpretations.
The popularity of Ramona and Lummis’ activities coincided with the Santa Fe Railroad entering southern California, making it cheaper to come to the region, and tourism that was growing in the rest of the country. Inspired by Ramona, a huge trade grew up around places mentioned in the book that were inspired by real life people and locations Jackson met during her two trips to California. The book became such a phenomenon that there were parades, plays, pageants, movies, beer, and just about anything else you could think of based upon the book or bearing Ramona’s name. The missions that Lummis helped to revive also became popular destinations to visit. As some tourists stayed in California and became residents, this in turn helped to further stimulate the growth of southern California’s population.
The Mission Myth and Ramona still affect California to this day. There are various towns and place names based upon the book. Mission Revival Architecture was also created during this period, known for its adobe bricks and tile roofs. This style is seen unknowingly by millions of Americans when they pass by a Taco Bell whose façade is modeled after a mission. The Mission Myth shaped generations of kids’ views of the Spanish and Mexican period when it was incorporated into the 4th Grade curriculum of California public schools for many decades. Together, Jackson and Lummis helped create a new history for California and made the state a popular tourist destination, leading to further growth in the sate’s population.
- Students explain how explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s.