Article

A Century of Dishonor by Helen Hunt Jackson

a red book named A Cause of Dishonor
A shelf in the Memorial Library showing A Century of Dishonor by Helen Hunt Jackson

NPS

Many of the books in the Memorial Library at James A. Garfield National Historic Site were gifted to Garfield from the author and are inscribed to him with some variation of the phrase, “with compliments of the author.” This week’s book is so inscribed, and is dated January 25, 1881. The book A Century of Dishonor by Helen Hunt Jackson, who wrote under the pen name “H. H.” is considered “the first serious study of US federal Indian policy” by scholars and her intent in writing it was to “do for Native Americans what Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had done for African American slaves. Despite the brief and cordial inscription, this was no mere gift. Helen Hunt Jackson deliberately sent a copy of her book to every member of congress along with a note which read, “Look upon your hands: they are stained with the blood of your relations.” Garfield had been victorious in the 1880 election just a few months prior, but he did not take office until March 4, 1881.

Helen Hunt Jackson shares a connection to First Lady Lucretia Garfield by way of her acquaintance with Emily Dickinson. Dickinson, the famed American poet, was fifth cousin to Lucretia, and a childhood friend of Helen Hunt Jackson. Jackson and Dickinson both pursued fictional writing and conferred with one another, sharing notes and ideas frequently. In 1879, however, Jackson attended a lecture in Boston and heard Ponca Chief Standing Bear describe the process by which his tribe was expelled from their ancestral lands. Standing Bear’s lecture struck a nerve with Jackson and she immediately and tirelessly began to research federal policy, visit Indian tribes, and campaign for better treatment.

A Century of Dishonor combines government documents, first-hand accounts, and the interpretation by the author. In her first introductory paragraph, she asks “[w]hat was the nature of the Indians’ right to the country in which they were living when the continent of North America was discovered?” The following pages are her effort to answer that question and to demonstrate the lack of faith with which the federal government had entered into treaties and agreements with Native Americans.

a black and white photo of a woman leaning on her hand
Author and activist Helen Hunt Jackson.

Library of Congress

Jackson’s book describes the poor treatment of seven Native American tribes in her book; the Delaware, the Cheyenne, the Nez Perce, the Sioux, the Poncas, the Winnebagoe, and the Cherokee. The following three chapters record three massacres of Native Americans; the Sand Creek Massacre – the site of which is currently under management of the National Park Service, the Gnadenhutten Massacre which occurred in Ohio, and the massacre of the Apaches.

During James A. Garfield’s nine terms as an Ohio congressman, the subject of Indian Affairs came up frequently. Many of the celebrated US Army officers who had fought in the Civil War were sent to explore and settle new territories which would become states as part of the Westward Expansion. In 1868, Garfield attempted to pass a bill which would have given control over the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the War Department, taking responsibility away from the Department of the Interior, which he referred to as “so spotted with fraud, so tainted with corruption” as to be “a stench in the nostrils of all good men.” The bill ultimately failed, and the Department of the Interior remained in charge of Indian affairs in the American West. Garfield’s overall opinion of the Native American tribes whose lands were administered by the Interior, as biographer Allan Peskin mildly stated, “did not show Garfield at his best.” In later years, and closer to the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s book, Garfield’s dim view of Native Americans did turn around. He was even selected to meet with the Flathead Indians as a representative, and took his furthest trip into the West to do.

two men in suits standing side by side
James R. Garfield and Theodore Roosevelt

Library of Congress

After the death of James A. Garfield, his son James R. Garfield was tapped by President Theodore Roosevelt to lead the Department of the Interior. He held that position from 1907 to 1909, overseeing the many different agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The late nineteenth century policies of “removal” and expansion had mostly been revised by the early twentieth century, in no small part thanks to the outrage over Jackson’s book, and the department adopted a new policy of assimilation and management.

While Helen Hunt Jackson’s book did little to dissuade American politicians from their continued push towards settlement of lands formerly promised to Native American tribes, in time the message of the book compelled many readers to petition their government for better treatment of the Indians and ultimately reform the nature of the Bureau of Indian Affairs under leadership of the Department of the Interior. The book, as it sits in the Garfield Memorial Library is one of many examples of the complex, painful, and revealing episodes in the forming of American history.
handwritten inscription from 1881 to Pres. Garfield
Inscription in Garfield’s copy of A Century of Dishonor

NPS

A fully digitized copy of this book can be found at: https://archive.org/details/centuryofdishono00jackrich/page/n7/mode/2up

For more information on the Sand Creek Massacre, please visit our colleagues at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site: https://www.nps.gov/sand/index.htm

Read more about the National Park Service Native American Heritage resources at: https://www.nps.gov/americanindian/?

Additional Reading & Bibliography:

Jackson, Helen Hunt. A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Dealings With Some of the Indian Tribes. Haper & Brothers, New York, 1881.

Nunis, Doyce B. Southern California Quarterly 47, no. 3 (1965): 343. Accessed June 7, 2020. doi:10.2307/41169954.

Last updated: January 23, 2021