by Helen Hunt Jackson

Ramona was a huge best-seller in the decades after its publication in 1884. It was printed over and over again, and was filmed at least four times—including three widely different silents—in the first part of the 20th century. If your name is Ramona there’s a good chance this novel was partly responsible.

So that’s good, right?

Wrong. The novel was not written to inspire a bunch of Anglos to fill their homes with Mission-style furniture and name their daughters Ramona. It was written to inspire moral indignation on the pattern of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to act as the sugar-coated version of the author’s earlier A Century of Dishonor. Although Ramona is fiction, its significant events were inspired by things that really happened, and many of its characters were based on real people. But readers couldn’t, or wouldn’t, get past the romance.

Full Disclosure: I really wanted to put A Century of Dishonor online. It’s an important historical text, showing the infor­mation that was available to (white) American citizens if they had chosen to become aware of it. But I never managed to get past the Preface, by the Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota, and the Intro­duction, by the President of—irony alert!—Amherst* College, where the author’s father had taught. Fortunately, it turns out the book already exists online.

I don’t know if the author personally believed that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, or if she decided that the concept of more than two sides to a story would simply be too confusing for her readers. Either way, Spain, Mexico, and the Missions are consis­tently the good guys, even when it requires glossing-over of history. For example, secular­ization of the missions—an event bemoaned by just about everyone in the book—happened under Mexican rule. The book itself admits this. Property was later restored to some missions . . . by the U.S. government.

* Amherst, Massachusetts, was named in honor of colonial governor Jeffrey Amherst, who pioneered the “let’s kill them off with smallpox-infected blankets” technique. More exactly: they distributed blankets that were known to have been used by smallpox victims, with the intention of passing on the disease to the recipients. The actual behavior of the smallpox virus is therefore irrelevant; it’s the thought that counts.

On Screen

It is not every day you find the words “one reel” and “D. W. Griffith” in the same sentence. The first known film version of Ramona, directed by Griffith and starring Mary Pickford, came out in 1910 and ran a whopping 17 minutes.

The next known silent, a three-hour version from 1916, is largely lost.

But the most notable “silent” came out in 1928. I put “silent” in quotes because, although there is no dialogue, the film does have synchro­nized sound. This version featured Mexican actress Dolores del Rio, Chickasaw director Edwin Carewe . . . and Warner Baxter, who was not only 100% full-blooded Anglo but almost twice the age of his character. Two out of three isn’t bad for 1928.

By the time talkies were established, Ramona was going out of fashion, so there’s only one more film version, made in 1936 with Loretta Young and Don Ameche. That is: only one more Hollywood film version. As recently as the year 2000, Ramona was produced as a miniseries for Mexican TV. This becomes perfectly under­standable once you know that at the end of the book, most of the surviving characters relocate and live happily ever after in Mexico.


For the benefit of readers who are not from California: Alta California (Upper California), part of the region wrested from Mexico in 1846, corre­sponds to the U.S. state. Its counterpart is Baja California (Lower California), which still uses its full name.


The San Luis Rey mission is near modern-day Oceanside in San Diego County. It was one of the last Alta California missions, though geogra­phically it is second from the south.

Temecula, Saboba (really Soboba) and San Pasquale (San Pascual) are all real places, called by something close to their real names. The historical San Pascual was a good choice for the novel’s characters to take refuge. The pueblo was established in 1835, with such solid paperwork that its inhabitants weren’t decisively forced off the land until 1878—before Ramona was written, but well after its dramatic date.

The “Convent of the Sacred Heart at Los Angeles” was probably a real place; the author didn’t make up this kind of thing. But the name “Sacred Heart” has been used so many times, it’s impossible to pin it down.

Rancho Moreno, at the heart of the story, is based on two real places, Camulos and Guajome. Vroman’s article goes into exhaustive detail.


The author’s heart was in the right place, but she wasn’t from California and didn’t speak Spanish—and neither did her intended audience. Moreover, she wrote the book in a tearing hurry. So misspel­lings and unexpected forms may be either genuine mistakes, or intentional changes.

Luiseño (always printed “Luiseno” without tilde) is not, of course, the people’s original name for themselves. But it is the name generally used today. They are linguis­tically and culturally related to the book’s other named group, the Cahuilla (Kawiya).

The spelling “Alessandro” was intentional; the author didn’t trust her readers to pronounce the Spanish form “Alejandro” correctly. She didn’t seem worried about “Juan” and “José”, though.

The surname Assis looks like a fusion of two names: Apis (the historical Pablo Apis, prototype of Alessandro’s father), and Assís (Spanish form of “Assisi”).

Capitan—both the dog’s name and the headman’s title—should properly be “Capitán” with accent.

I don’t know where the author got the name “Luigo”. The form is rare everywhere; when it does show up it’s generally Portuguese. Similarly, I don’t know why Marda wasn’t called Marta.

Maria, the author’s own middle name, was pronounced in English as “Mariah”, so Aunt Ri is “rye”, not “ree”. No Spanish-speaking character in the book is named Maria.

Ortegna (married name of the Señora’s sister, Ramona’s original adoptive mother) and Ortega (a neighboring ranch) seem to be different and unconnected names.

Ramona herself was named after at least one California woman whom the author had met and liked. The wife of Juan Diego, whose story inspired Alessandro’s fate in the book, may or may not have been named Ramona in real life; the author definitely didn’t know about her before creating the character.

It has been suggested that “Salvierderra” was an attempt at “Salvatierra”.

And finally: Majel—said to mean “wood-dove” in Luiseño—is probably “mahel”, with Spanish orthography. It is pronounced that way when used as a surname by current Luiseños; conversely, the sound represented by English /j/ doesn’t occur in the Luiseño language. It is anyone’s guess what pronun­ciation the author intended when she wrote the longer form “Majella”.


Pro tip: Do not try to work out the exact chronology. You will only come to grief. The author herself can’t decide how many years elapsed between each of these events, beginning “more than a half-century back”:


Apart from the titles Señor, Señora and Señorita, nobody in Ramona uses Spanish words; spoken Spanish is rendered as formal, old-fashioned English. The word “Ay” always means English “yes”, not Spanish “ay!”


The only characters whose speech is rendered phoneti­cally are white English-speaking non-Califor­nians. First and foremost this means the Hyers—“Aunt Ri” and her family—who come from Tennessee. Unfor­tunately their recorded speech has as much to do with literary conven­tion as with actual pronun­ciation. (What diphthong was represented by “aou” that made it different from “ou”? Clearly it meant something to the author, and maybe to her readers, but I have no idea.) The author does not explain the difference between “enuf” and the default “enough”, to say nothing of dialectal staples such as “wuz” and “sed”—or, best of all, “Ummeriken”. The spelling “gwine” (“gwine ter”) may have been a conven­tional represen­tation of the form now rendered as “gonna”.

But it’s all worth it for this authorial comment:

From totally opposite motives, the lazy, easy-going Tennesseean and the hurry-driven Vermonter cut down all their family names to the shortest. To speak three syllables where one will answer, seems to the Vermonter a waste of time; to the Tennesseean, quite too much trouble.

Spelling and Vocabulary

I list these here so you’ll know they are not typos or proofreading errors.

Unexpected and variable spellings:

Less common words and usages:

Sources and Formalities

The text of this ebook is from the earliest edition I could find: Roberts Brothers, 1884. The author must have read the proofs very, very care­fully: there are almost no typogra­phical errors. Corrected errors are shown in the text with mouse-hover popups, and are listed again at the end of each chapter, along with any longer notes. The word “invisible” means that the letter or punctu­ation mark can’t be seen, but there is an appro­priately sized blank space.

Early editions of Ramona had no illustrations at all, not even a frontis­piece. To supply them I turned to a 1913 printing of the “Pasadena Edition”, featuring chapter-head drawings by the Canadian illustrator Henry Sandham (1842–1910 or 1912):

Towards the end of 1882 the Century Monthly Magazine (formerly Scribner’s Monthly) sent him to southern California with Helen Maria Jackson in her investi­gation into the living conditions of the Mission Indians. This journey led to a series of four articles that were published on his return in 1883, and to illus­trations for Ramona (1900).

So although Sandham’s drawings were not originally made for the novel, they were done for and in the company of Helen Jackson.

The introduction to the Pasadena Edition, by Adam Clark Vroman (1856-1916) and T. F. Barnes, was originally published in 1899 as a short, heavily illustrated book, The Genesis of the Story of Ramona. Along with Sandham’s drawings, there are a number of photographs—the Plates referenced in Vroman’s text—which I decided not to use.





(H. H.),

Author of “Verses,” “Bits of Travel,” “Bits of Travel at Home,”
“Bits of Talk about Home Matters,” etc.

publisher’s logo: reading cherub with text “Qui legit regit”




Copyright, 1884,

By Roberts Brothers.





The chapters don’t have titles, so I’ve given the first line instead. I’ve tried to trim away blatant spoilers, though it wasn’t always possible. See Sources for more about the Pasadena Edition.