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Helen Hunt Jackson

A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government's Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1881

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Summary and Study Guide


Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885) was a poet and novelist who, in the late 1870s and early 1880s, became an influential advocate on behalf of Indigenous Americans. Jackson began writing A Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes (1881) after learning about the 1879 Ponca legal case, and in particular the story of Chief Standing Bear, which Jackson describes in Chapter 6 and again in the book’s appendix. A Century of Dishonor garnered national recognition and brought Jackson to the attention of US government officials, including Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz. Jackson’s correspondence with Schurz appeared in newspapers in early 1880 and is also reprinted in the book’s appendix.

Note: this guide uses the phrase “Indigenous Americans” to refer to members of tribes whose ancestors occupied the North American continent at the moment of European contact. Jackson’s book uses the word “Indians,” which will be preserved in quotations.


The first part of the book summarizes and analyzes the US government’s relations with individual tribes over a period of decades. All chapters in Part 1 feature lengthy extracts from published documents. As Jackson explains in the opening Author’s Note, most of these extracts come from official reports of the War Department or the Department of the Interior. Several chapters in this part focus on individual tribes, while others describe four massacres of Indigenous Americans perpetrated by European-Americans, three in substantial detail. The second part of the book includes additional documentation, most of which supports arguments advanced in Part 1.

The book’s subtitle, A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes, establishes Jackson’s approach: Jackson provides only a “sketch” of US government relations with these tribes, not a comprehensive history. Though she is neither a historian nor a lawyer, she combines historical narrative with a lawyerly use of evidence to arraign the US government before the bar of public opinion. Drawing upon more than a century’s worth of government documents and other printed materials, she proves that US government officials have always recognized Indigenous Americans’ rights to the land they occupy before presenting an extensive catalog of the US government’s unfulfilled promises. The subtitle also alludes to the book’s major theme. Each broken treaty and forced removal of a tribe highlights the fact that the US Government Lies. No relevant institution escapes unscathed, but the principal villains in Jackson’s story include the US Senate, the Department of the Interior, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the United States Army.

The US government might have maintained a more honorable record in its dealings with Indigenous Americans had it not been for the relentless pressure of western expansion and the corresponding demands of settlers, which made the situation on the frontier exceedingly complex and therefore combustible. For example, when US government officials struck a treaty with a particular tribe, they might have intended to honor the treaty, until settlers, often ignorant of treaty provisions, intruded upon tribal lands. Repeated intrusions exhausted tribal patience, unanswered appeals produced desperation, and desperation led to conflict. Retaliation was often brutal: Jackson documents many such incidents, including shameful massacres of peaceful Indigenous Americans by frontier vigilantes or US troops. Because of both isolated incidents and full-blown warfare, Jackson characterizes US relations with tribes as a Century of Violence.

Jackson’s evidence also shows that good people tried in vain to do the right thing. Some government officials and US citizens respected treaties and did their best to honor them. Many tribes remained friendly and peaceful. None, however, could stem the general tide of injustice and violence. Despite some admirable exceptions, Jackson concludes that the US government bears responsibility for the (then) century-long plight of Indigenous Americans. She appeals to her fellow citizens to pressure officials into changing their dishonorable behavior. This History as Advocacy is the book’s primary objective.