Writers who lived in Amherst showed reality of native tribes

This is the last in a series of four posts about 14 famous writers featured in the Amherst Writers Walk. See end for links to previous posts.

By Nick Grabbe

Three writers who lived parts of their lives in Amherst made major contributions to our understanding of Native Americans.

This is the house at 249 South Pleasant Street, where Helen Hunt Jackson grew up.

Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) lived at 249 South Pleasant Street until her early teens. The house, which is across from Amherst College, was built in 1830. Jackson was born Helen Maria Fiske two months before Emily Dickinson, and the two writers became friends later in their lives.

Jackson lost her parents when she was a teenager, and after leaving Amherst, she lost her husband and her two sons. She expressed her sorrow in poetry that was published anonymously in the Atlantic and other magazines. She also wrote several novels, using pseudonyms instead of her real name. Her novel “Mercy Philbrick’s Choice” is thought to depict Amherst, disguised with the name “Penfield.” She remarried in 1875, changing her last name for the second time. She lived in Colorado, but returned to Amherst to visit Dickinson in 1876 and ’78, urging her friend to submit a poem to a journal. Unlike Dickinson, Jackson avidly sought publication of her writing.

In Boston in 1879, she heard a lecture by Chief Standing Bear of the Ponca tribe that awakened her to the injustices suffered by indigenous people. She worked as an agent for the Department of the Interior, and then she exposed the violation of treaties and documented the corruption of government agents and settlers in her 1881 book “A Century of Dishonor.” This time, she used her real name, and she sent copies to every member of Congress.

Helen Hunt Jackson

But she’s best known for her 1884 novel “Ramona.” It focused on an orphan of mixed parentage and the struggle for land in Southern California. “Ramona,” which was inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s monumental “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” had sold 600,000 copies by the mid-1940s. Focusing on oppression of native tribes and Mexicans, it was so popular that tourists sought out the places it described. “Ramona” was made into a movie starring Loretta Young in 1936.

Jackson wrote a 56-page report on the treatment of native tribes in Southern California, and a bill incorporating her recommendations passed the Senate but died in the House. On her deathbed, she wrote to President Grover Cleveland urging him to address “the wrongs of the Indian race.”

She also corresponded with W.E.B. Du Bois during the final two decades of her life. She died the year before Dickinson did.

Charles Eastman (1858-1939) was the first major Native American author to write about the tribes from their own perspectives, and the first Native American to be certified in Western medicine.

Charles Eastman

He grew up in Minnesota as a Santee Dakota but also had English and French ancestors. He graduated from Dartmouth (where there’s still a fellowship named for him) and received a medical degree from Boston University.

Eastman (also known as Ohiye S’a) was a government physician in Pine Ridge, S.D. when he witnessed the Wounded Knee massacre. While caring for the wounded, he met Elaine Goodale (1863-1953), a poet, social worker, educator and Massachusetts native. They were married in 1891 and had six children.

In 1902, Eastman wrote his first book, “Indian Boyhood.” Describing his 15 years of training in hunter/warrior ways, it was very popular and was translated into many languages. It also portrayed the harsh realities of famine, disease, confrontations with other tribes, and conflicts with white settlers.

The house at 850 Belchertown Road.

After Eastman had a dispute with a government agent, in 1903 the couple left the Dakotas and moved to Amherst, where they lived at 850 Belchertown Road. He led a project to choose surnames for Sioux to protect their property rights, renaming about 25,000 people.

Elaine started helping him with his writing. Charles wrote short stories about Sioux customs, articles for the Boy Scouts of America magazine, and a book about religious beliefs of the native tribes (though he converted to Christianity). He was one of the founders of an organization that sought to improve conditions on the reservations and protect the tribes from injustice.

In 1914 Eastman published “Indian Scout Talks,” a guide for Boy Scouts and Campfire Girls on how to make bows and arrows, tepees and canoes, and how to survive in the wilderness. He managed one of the first Boy Scout camps. In a 1915 book, he provided an overview of the history, customs and beliefs of the native tribes.

Elaine Goodale Eastman

Elaine Goodale Eastman managed her husband’s many public appearances and wrote books of her own, but they received less recognition. She started a day school on the Dakota reservation in 1886 and was appointed superintendent of Indian education for the Dakotas in 1890. She published books of poetry, several novels, and a biography of the founder of a school for Native Americans. Her memoir of her time as a teacher, “Sister to the Sioux,” was published posthumously.

Charles and Elaine Eastman separated in 1921. One possible reason was tension stemming from Elaine’s belief that the native tribes should seek assimilation with white society, while Charles emphasized observing their cultural traditions. Charles Eastman published no major works afterwards, which is perhaps an indication of how much Elaine’s help contributed to his success.

Upon Charles’s death, Elaine Goodale Eastman acquired his manuscripts and published his work on Sacajawea, the Shoshone woman who traveled with Lewis and Clark. She is buried in Northampton.

This is “Fort Juniper” at 170 Market Hill road, where Robert Francis lived for 47 years.

The last house on the Amherst Writers Walk is at 170 Market Hill Road, where poet Robert Francis (1901-87) lived. The two-room house, where Francis lived simply for 47 years, is known as “Fort Juniper,” because of that tree’s near-indestructibility.

Francis moved to Amherst in 1926 and taught English at the high school but only lasted there a year. He supported himself by writing, for such publications as the New Yorker and Saturday Review, and by teaching violin.

Robert Francis

He wrote six volumes of poetry, a novel and an autobiography called “The Trouble with Francis” that touched on his frugal lifestyle and his struggle for recognition. “My specialty has been not to earn much but to spend little,” Francis said.

His poem “The Pitcher” is popular with baseball players and coaches. His last book, which included his journals from 1931 to 1954, was called “Traveling in Amherst.”

His friend Robert Frost called Francis “of all the great neglected poets, the greatest.” Like Frost, Francis wrote poems about nature and filled them with hidden meanings.

Robert Francis gave readings at the Jones Library, laid out an herb garden in back of the building, and had a study on the third floor. Special Collections has his correspondence and personal effects, as well as essays Francis wrote in The Atlantic and Christian Science Monitor.

It is remarkable that so many celebrated writers have called Amherst home at some point in their lives. As a writer myself, I have felt buoyed by this tradition, and by becoming more acquainted with the people in this series. By visiting these houses and learning about these writers, to paraphrase Thoreau, I have traveled widely in Amherst.

The Amherst Writers Walk was created by the Historical Commission. Other posts in this series:

Part One: Ray Stannard Baker, Eugene Field, Mary Heaton Vorse and Norton Juster

Part Two: Emily Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd

Part Three: Howard and Lilian Garis, Shirley Graham Du Bois and Noah Webster

3 thoughts on “Writers who lived in Amherst showed reality of native tribes”

  1. The series is excellent and inspires me to put my boots on and hike these spots.

    For those who enjoy Robert Francis’ “The Pitcher,” see also “The Base Stealer” https://allpoetry.com/poem/13971515-The-Base-Stealer-by-Robert-Francis

    As a tenth grader at ARHS I had trouble locating a copy of the poem in the local stacks – Jones, AC and UMass – and ultimately had to leave town for the Smith College Library to read and transcribe it for my paper. Ah the pre-internet days…!

    Tom Porter


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