Times Past

Annual 'Ramona' play depicts travails of California's Native Americans

Special to The TribuneMarch 22, 2014 

Rachel Tejada Welch as Ramona and Maurice Jara as Allesandro in the 1959 production of the play, "Ramona."


Times Past for 3-23 Images: (1.) Raquel Tejada (Welch) as Ramona and Maurice Jara as Alessandro in the 1959 Ramona Pageant. (2.) Raquel Tejada (Welch) as Ramona in the 1959 Ramona Pageant. (3.) Poster from the 1932 Ramona Pageant.

“The loss of cattle was fearful. The plains were strewn with their carcasses. In marshy places and around the cienegas (marshes), where there was a vestige of green, the ground was covered with their skeletons, and the traveler for years afterward was often startled by coming suddenly on a veritable Golgotha—a place of skulls—the long horns standing out in defiant attitude, as if protecting the fleshless bones.

“It is said that 30,000 head of cattle died on the Stearns Ranchos alone. The great drought of 1863-64 put an end to cattle-raising as the distinctive industry of Southern California.”

Historian James M. Guinn’s “A History of California Floods and Drought,” written in 1880, should be required reading for every Californian. Over the last several weeks, we’ve written about the impact of that drought and the recovery as dairy farming replaced beef cattle ranching in our region.

What was left of the old rancho days was nostalgia for an epoch of happy-go-lucky vaqueros and their beautiful senoritas. The nostalgia concealed a number of tragic events, not just for beef cattle but for human beings.

The shortage of water led to starvation and disease for tens of thousands of Native Americans, many of whom worked on the defunct ranchos. During the 1840s and 50s, smallpox and typhus devastated these communities. Then in the midst of the drought in 1864, a cholera epidemic killed hundreds of Native Americans in our region.

The fate of the California Indians brought Massachusetts-born Helen Hunt Jackson to our state. She took down the oral histories of many Native Americans living on reservations. While researching the mistreatment of the Indians for her nonfiction book, “A Century of Dishonor” (1881), Jackson fell in love with the romantic stories of life on the ranchos that had vanished with the drought.

In 1884, she published her novel Ramona. She intended it to “move people’s hearts” on behalf of the mistreated Indians, like her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had done for slaves a generation earlier. The novel quickly became a best seller.

Ramona, an orphan girl, half Indian and half Scots, brought up by a wealthy Hispanic Californio ranchero’s wife, was loosely based on historical figures. The girl and her Indian husband Alessandro, struggle for a portion of the former mission lands that were their birthrights.

In the end, Alessandro is murdered and a remaining Franciscan priest, based partly on Fr. Luis Antonio Martinez at San Luis Obispo, leads the Indian band to a remote part of Mexico where they could live in peace.

Mary Pickford starred in the silent film version of Ramona in 1910. Dolores Del Rio played the lead in the 1928 “talkie.”

In 1923 the community of Hemet created the Ramona Bowl to present an annual play nearby the historical setting for some of the events depicted in the novel. In 1959, Raquel Tejada, better known as Raquel Welch, starred in the Ramona Pageant.

Since the early 1990s, I’ve been involved in training docents who give tours for fourth graders and adults who come to Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. As part of our training, we do docent tours.

From May 4th to May 7th, I’ll be leading a tour titled “Following the Ramona Legend.” We will have box seats in the shady section of Ramona Bowl for the play, stay on the Pala Indian Reservation and visit sites associated with the novel including the Pala Assistencia, Missions San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Rey de Francia, San Diego de Alcala, Old Town San Diego and the Museum of Man in Balboa Park.

We would love to have some of the readers of Times Past join our Mission San Luis Obispo group. Transportation and arrangements are made by Bob Matchett at Silver Bay Tours, (805) 772-3409 or toll free (888) 304-3006.

Dan Krieger's column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association

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