When Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona was published in November 1884, the effects of the Mexican-American war were still palpable on the cobblestone streets of the pueblo. Native American and Mexican residents, treated as second class citizens, were viewed as remnants of a faded Californio past by the newly arrived residents from the East Coast.
Jackson wrote the novel partly in an effort to bring awareness to the plight of the Mexicans and Native Americans in California, a subject she had previously explored in A Century of Dishonor. The novel sought to have the same impact on Native Americans as Uncle Tom's Cabin had had for black slaves. What resonated with readers, however, was not its intended political commentary, but the idyllic romance between two of its characters: Ramona, the daughter of a Ranchero, and Alessandro, a Gabrieliño Indian.
Reputedly based on Jackson's visit to Rancho Camulos, the world portrayed by the novel was not based on factual events but was instead a product of Jackson's own romantic (and biased) vision of the Californio lifestyle. As a result the novel had an almost opposite effect than had been intended by the author. Rather than shedding light on then contemporary issues, the novel stoked nostalgia for the bygone era of adobe missions, ranchos, handsome caballeros and fierce brown-eyed señoritas, becoming an instant classic for those who longed for a new life in the newly acquired landscape of the southwest.
Race and class issues mattered little to fans who flocked west in hopes of seeing the "real" settings of the narrative, turning the history of Southern California into an a tourist attraction. As much as Jackson wanted to create a vivid social commentary of U.S treatment of native populations, she inadvertently created a media and tourism market that required these same populations be consigned permanently to the past.
In addition to Ramona, pamphlets written by two prominent scholars of the American Southwest—Highland Park residents Charles Lummis and George Wharton James—also contributed to the tourism boom. Both Lummis and James used Ramona as a basis to for their literary explorations of the wonders of Southern California's past.
Below: A slideshow of historic images of reenactments and literature from Ramona, a novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, initiated as social commentary on Native American and Mexican injustices, but received by the public as an epic romance.