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Ramona, a novel written by Helen Hunt Jackson (1884), is the story of a part-Scottish and part-Native American orphan girl growing up and getting married in Southern California, suffering racial discrimination and hardship. Originally serial in the Christian Union on a weekly basis, the novel became immensely popular. Overall, it has had more than 300 printings, been made into four film version, and has been performed as an outdoor play annually since 1923. The impact the novel had on the culture and image of Southern California was enormous. Its sentimentalisation of Mexican colonial life gave the region a unique cultural identity and its publication coincided with the arrival of railroad lines to the region, bringing in countless tourists who wanted to see for themselves the locations in the novel.

Plot summary

In Southern California, shortly after the Mexican-American War, a part-Native American and part-Scottish orphan girl, Ramona, is raised by Señora Gonzaga Moreno, sister of Ramona's deceased foster mother. Señora Moreno has raised Ramona as part of the family, giving her every luxury, because Ramona's foster mother had requested it. Because of Ramona's Native American heritage, Moreno does not love her. That love is reserved for her only child, Felipe Morena, whom she adores. Señora Moreno still considers herself a Mexicanmarker, even though Californiamarker is no longer a province of that country, and she hates the Americansmarker, who have cut up her huge rancho and taken away lands.

Señora Moreno delays the sheep shearing that year so the band of Indians from Temeculamarker that she always hires can arrive, as well as the priest, Father Salvierderra, from Santa Barbaramarker. She does this to ensure that the "heathens" have mass in her chapel and an opportunity to make their confession. Ramona falls in love with a young Indian sheepherder, Alessandro, who is also the son of the Chief of the tribe, Pablo Assis. Señora Moreno is outraged. Ramona realizes that Señora Moreno has never loved her and, to the old woman's chagrin, she and Alessandro elope.

Alessandro and Ramona have a daughter. They also endure misery and hardship. They are run off of several of their homes, due to the greed of Americans for their land, and cannot find a permanent home. They finally move up into the San Bernardino Mountainsmarker. Alessandro loses his mind. He is in town one day and rides off on the horse of an American. The man follows him home and shoots him.

In the meantime, Señora Moreno has died. Felipe finds Ramona and they are married. They leave to live in Mexicomarker.


  • Ramona – part-Native American and part-Scottish orphan girl
  • Señora Moreno – sister of Ramona's dead foster mother
  • Felipe Moreno – Moreno's only child
  • Alessandro – a young Native American sheepherder
  • Father Salvierderra – a Catholic priest
  • Pablo Assis – a tribe chief

Major themes

Jackson wrote Ramona three years after A Century of Dishonor, a report on the mistreatment of Native Americans in the United States. By following that commentary with a novel, she sought to depict the Indian experience "in a way to move people's hearts." She wanted to arouse public opinion and concern for the betterment of their plight much as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin had done for slaves. Her success was limited, however.

Ramona was intended to appeal more directly to the emotions of the American public, something it clearly succeeded at. The novel's policy criticism was clear, but that was not its most potent message. Jackson had become enamored of the Spanish missions in California, which she romanticized. This rosy, but almost entirely fictional, vision of Franciscan churchmen, señoritas and caballeros permeated the novel and captured the imaginations of readers by portraying the Americans as villains and the Native Americans as "noble savages".

A number of Americans had not always thought kindly of the Hispanic population who inhabited California at the time of their own arrival. They looked with a disparaging eye on what they saw as a decadent lifestyle of leisure and recreation among a people with enormous tracts of land, excessively mild weather and unusually fertile soil, who relied heavily on Native American labor. They cherished rather the Protestant work ethic. This view was not universal, however, and was swept away by Jackson's escapist fantasy. Readers accepted the sentimentalized Spanish Californio aristocracy that was portrayed and the Ramona myth was born.


Ramona was immensely popular almost immediately upon its release, with over 15,000 copies sold in the ten months before Jackson's death in 1885. Just a year later in 1886, the North American Review called it "unquestionably the best novel yet produced by an American woman" and named it, along with Uncle Tom's Cabin, one of two most ethical novels of the 19th century. Sixty years after its publication, 600,000 copies had been sold. There have been over 300 reissues to date and the book has never been out of print.

Another reason for the novel's initial popularity may have inadvertently been subtle racism. Ramona was only part Indian, and she was described as beautiful, with black hair but blue eyes. Errol Wayne Stevens of the California Historical Society cited a number of contemporary reviews in which the idea that Ramona could have come from a race that was "dull, heavy and unimpressionable" and "lazy, cruel, cowardly, and covetous" was rejected.

Because the general public was more attached to the romanticized vision of Southern California, Jackson was disappointed that she was unable to raise the profile of Indian issues. However, historian Antoinette May argued in her book The Annotated Ramona that the novel was partially responsible for the Dawes Act being passed in 1887. This was the first act passed by Congress to deal with Indian land rights.

Cultural impact

The runaway popularity of the novel inspired people to name schools, streets, freeways (the segment of the US 101/I-10 that runs past Union Stationmarker in downtown Los Angelesmarker was originally named the Ramona Freeway) and even towns (Ramona, Californiamarker) after the novel's heroine. Because of the romanticized myth, there was a great increase in tourism, with many people wanting to see the locations that appeared in the story. This coincided with the opening of Southern Pacific Railroad's Southern California rail lines and created a tourism boom.

Rancho Camulos
As a result, locations all over Southern California tried to emphasize their Ramona connections. This was made possible due to Jackson having died without ever disclosing what locations she had based her story on, if any. Two places had the strongest claim to being the inspiration: Rancho Camulosmarker, near Pirumarker, and Rancho Guajome in Vistamarker, both of which Jackson had visited prior to the writing of her novel.

Camulos became the most accepted "Home of Ramona" due to several factors. The location of Moreno Ranch is roughly the same as the location of Camulos. Influential writers such as George Wharton James and Charles Fletcher Lummis avowed that it was so. Furthermore, Southern Pacific Railroad's main Ventura Countymarker line opened in 1887 and stopped right at Camulos and with the company engaged in a rate war, getting to Camulos was relatively easy. Finally, the Del Valle family of Camulos welcomed tourists and eagerly marketed the association, labeling their oranges and wine as "The Home of Ramona" brand.

In contrast, Guajome did not publicly become associated with Ramona until an 1894 article in Rural Californian made the claim. However, as the house was nearly four miles (6 km) away from the nearest Santa Fe Railroad station, getting there was not so easy. Additionally, the Couts family which owned the property was not nearly as eager to have tourists run rampant through the grounds, possibly due to a falling out between Jackson and Sra. Couts.

A third location, the Estudillo Housemarker in Old Town San Diegomarker, declared itself to be "Ramona's Marriage Place" due to brief descriptions of Ramona having been married in San Diego. Despite there being no records of Jackson having visited there, it too became a popular tourist destination and remained so long after the novel's publication. The Estudillo House was also unique in that it marketed itself solely in terms of Ramona-related tourism. The caretaker sold pieces of the house to tourists, which naturally hastened its deterioration. In 1907, new owner John D. Spreckels deliberately remodeled the house to more closely match descriptions in the novel. When the reconstruction was completed in 1910, the building reopened as a full-fledged Ramona tourist attraction. Estudillo House's application for National Historic Landmark status was even entitled "Casa Estudillo/Ramona's Marriage Place".

Other notable Ramona landmarks included "Ramona's Birthplace", a small adobe near Mission San Gabriel Arcángelmarker, as well as the grave of Ramona Lubo on the Cahuilla Indian reservation. Lubo called herself the "real Ramona," and her life bore some resemblance to that of the fictional Ramona. Nevertheless, a Ramona monument was not erected on the site until 1938, sixteen years after Lubo's death. The Ramona Pageant, an outdoor staging of the novel, started in 1923 in Hemetmarker and has been held every year since.

Most historians today believe that the fictional Moreno Ranch is an amalgamation of various locations and was not intended to represent a single place. As Carey McWilliams described in his book Southern California Country:

Not only that, but because of the explosive popularity, fact and fiction began to merge in the public eye. California historian Walton Bean wrote:

Crucially, the novel gave Southern California and the whole of the Southwest its own unique cultural identity. The architecture of the missions had recently gained national exposure and local restoration projects were just beginning. Railroad lines to Southern California were just opening and combined with the emotions stirred by the novel, it was a perfect storm of circumstances to suddenly thrust the region into the national spotlight. One result from this was the sudden popularity of Mission Revival Style architecture from about 1890 to 1915, which still survives in a reduced form today.

Film, TV or theatrical adaptations

Ramona exists in four different film adaptations, as well as a Mexican telenovela based on Jackson's novel. It has also been performed as an outdoor play annually since 1923, called The Ramona Pageant.

See also


External links

  • Ramona, available at Google Books

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