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Was Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona real?

What they say at the Woodward Historical Museum in Ramona

"Once I was at a dinner where I was given an award for Helen’s biography, and afterwards a woman told me she owned a chair in which the real Ramona had sat."
"Once I was at a dinner where I was given an award for Helen’s biography, and afterwards a woman told me she owned a chair in which the real Ramona had sat."

During late winter and early spring of every year, a bit of confusion reigns up north in the town of Ramona. The folks at the chamber of commerce there get a rash of long-distance phone calls and upwards of twenty-five letters a day — many of them with checks enclosed — from people all over the nation who want to buy tickets to the Ramona Outdoor Pageant, which they believe to be held each spring in the town of Ramona.

In 1923, the citizens of Hemet started putting on the Ramona Outdoor Pageant in a natural amphitheater.

Mary Kay Pinkard, who works at the chamber of commerce, tells how one spring day she was walking to work along the town’s eucalyptus-thronged main drag when she was hailed by a couple of out-of-towners in a Cadillac who wanted directions to the Ramona Bowl. Mrs. Pinkard replied, “Well, you’ve got a good two-hour drive ahead of you, because it isn’t here. It’s in Hemet, and that’s up in Riverside County.”

Mrs. Jackson traveled to San Diego County, where she hooked up with Father Yubach, who had been in the area since mid-century. Together, they traveled by carriage to Mission San Luis Rey and Mission San Diego.

“Lucky for them, it was early in the day and so they had time to make it,” she said recently. “But believe you me, those two people were having a bitter fight as they drove off.”

That domestic squabble wouldn’t have occurred if Helen Hunt Jackson hadn’t come to California one hundred years ago. In the year 1882, Mrs. Jackson, a popular magazine and children’s story writer, arrived in Southern California for the dual purpose of writing magazine articles about the region’s old missions and of researching the sorry state of the local Indians.

A year or two earlier, she had published a massive tome titled A Century of Dishonor, which took a hard look at the ways in which native Americans had been dispossessed of their lands and otherwise cheated by Anglo-Europeans. After giving a copy of the book to every member of Congress, she was rewarded with an appointment as special commissioner to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There was no salary attached to the post, and no power; and the appearance of her book got no other results.

After a stay in the Santa Barbara area, Mrs. Jackson traveled to San Diego County, where she hooked up with a priest named Father Yubach, who had been in the area since the first years of U.S. hegemony around mid-century. Together, they traveled by carriage to Mission San Luis Rey and Mission San Diego and made stops at several of the old haciendas in the county, where the vestiges of patrician Mexican families held on to the vestiges of their land grants. (Since the Americans had come in, the U.S. Land Commission had been busy separating these families from their holdings on the pretext that their Mexican grants weren’t legal.)

Ramona falls for a noble Indian shepherd named Alessandro.

She also looked in at the Indian villages, taking note of the poverty experienced by the people who had once been lords of all they surveyed — back before the coming of the rancheros, whose servants they had been, and earlier, before the coming of the Franciscan fathers and the establishment of the missions, whose wards they had been. As she filed her mission articles to a magazine back East, she also went about researching and writing a “Report on the Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians.” When she had completed this document, she submitted it to the powers that be in Washington. This time, her efforts met with even less success than did A Century of Dishonor — probably because there were no more nominal posts to which she could be appointed.

Frustrated over her inability to find a way of helping the native peoples who had been so shamefully treated by her countrymen, upon returning to New York City she struck on the idea of couching her argument in a romantic novel — her hope being that the common reader would gulp down the love story and retain a bit of the social message it contained. Accordingly, in the winter of 1883-84 she began writing Ramona. She needed only a few months to finish it.

The fictitious Rancho Moreno would have been located in the area of Hemet-San Jacinto, and the people of this area began to feel that they ought to get in on the fame and glory.

The novel tells the story of a half-breed Indian maiden who is raised by Señora Moreno, an aristocratic widow and last holder of the remains of the once-almost-incalculable Moreno rancho. Though Felipe Moreno, the señora’s son and heir, entertains hopes of winning the beautiful girl for his wife, Ramona falls for a noble Indian shepherd named Alessandro. When the imperious señora gets wind of the match, there’s hell to pay, and Ramona and Alessandro needs must depart the hacienda under cover of night and go in search of a priest who will marry them.

Chapter headings in the 1916 version of Ramona

In the meantime, Alessandro’s people — who have been tending their herds and crops in the vicinity of Temecula — have been chased off by greedy Americans, and Alessandro has begun to feel consumed by an ineradicable bitterness over the fate of his kind. Still, he and Ramona make their way south to the presidio in San Diego, where a priest marries them. Now joined in holy wedlock, the couple make their way to the Poway Valley, where Alessandro’s tribe has gained a new foothold. They set up house, have a baby, and for a time are happy and content; but eventually the Americans come rampaging along, and Alessandro’s tribe must scatter.

"The young girls in the audience just can’t wait till Alessandro gets shot so that Ramona can go off with that handsome Felipe.”

The couple find themselves increasingly chased from pillar to post by American avarice and end up living in a hut on Mt. San Jacinto, in pitifully reduced circumstances. Their first baby had sickened and died after a government physician refused to leave his post to treat her, and Ramona gives birth to another. Poor Alessandro, meanwhile, has become subject to “spells,” and during one of them he mistakenly takes a horse belonging to an American and rides it back to the mountain hut. No sooner has he come to his senses and realized that he must return the animal forthwith than its owner arrives and shoots him dead. When word of the incident gets around, a few of the more well-meaning Americans make an effort to prosecute the murderer, but it comes to nothing.

Mission San Luis Rey. "She was never in Ramona! She was in San Diego and went out to San Luis Rey and traveled up to Hemet and Riverside, but she never came through here."

Finally, Felipe Moreno — who, wracked with guilt over his mother’s harsh treatment of Ramona, has been searching for the girl ever since the old lady died — finds her in the care of the Cahuilla Indians in San Jacinto and takes her home. Realizing there is no future for them in California, he resolves to sell what’s left of the rancho and relocate in Mexico City with Ramona, her baby, and the rest of the household. Just before embarking for the south, he impulsively asks Ramona to marry him. She acquiesces, out of gratitude but with a marked air of resignation, and they both live out their days far from the scene of her tragedy.

The inner court at Camullos Rancho. The folks at the Ramona Outdoor Pageant Association believe the Camullos Rancho was the original for the Moreno estate.

Ramona was published in 1884 and became almost instantly popular. Even so, when Helen Hunt Jackson died a year later, at the age of fifty-five, she had no way of knowing what a perennial classic and long-lived phenomenon her story would become. Nor did she have any way of suspecting how it would set about influencing the course of history in Southern California. A kind of Ramona-mania took hold of the country during the 1890s that went a very long way toward giving the region — which until then had enjoyed only the most limited tourist and commercial appeal — an aura of storied loveliness.

"Father Yubach, who was a friend of Mrs. Jackson’s and was with her during her visit to the area, said he seemed to remember marrying a woman by that name in Conde Street.”

Rail lines were actually laid that would take Ramona pilgrims to spots reputed to be models for locales in the book, and enthusiasts combed the area in search of the “original” Ramona. Also, land speculators — who until the book’s appearance were stuck with countless acres that had been taken from the Mexican landholders and now couldn’t be sold — suddenly found themselves in possession of real estate that had a lustrous mythos attached to it. In due course, the first Southern California land and population boom was on, thanks in no small part to Mrs. Jackson’s novel.

From 1937 brochure. "Later, when they got back to Guajome, Senora Couts was so mad she locked Mrs. Jackson in her room."

The decades passed. Generations of young American women wept copious tears at Ramona’s sad plight; three movie treatments (including a silent by D.W. Griffith and a sound version starring Loretta Young and Ramon Navarro) were made; at one point there was talk of a full-scale opera; and the book was required reading in California schools until well into the Fifties. Then and only then did the book begin to “date,” to be less frequently read, and to fade somewhat from the popular awareness. The ultimate irony may be that one thing the book never did accomplish was its author’s main purpose: promoting a more humane attitude toward native Americans.

“The way I understand it, one of the real girls who went into the story was a daughter of the Bandini family — who were, like the Coutses, prominent in local matters back then.”

This summer I spent a few days traveling around the county searching for evidence of the book's continuing influence and found that, faded as its renown may be in our own day, there are countless ways in which Mrs. Jackson’s handiwork still permeates the life of the region. Besides such obvious things as the town and the pageant, I discovered personal beliefs and obsessions regarding its origins, rumors, controversies, old grudges, bodies of learned conjecture, even state decrees. Almost everywhere I turned I found shards of the legend.

“The story goes that in her later years Mrs. Jackson’s big weakness was her fondness for young women. Supposedly, her friends had to keep careful watch on her."

Although it’s never explicitly stated in the novel, the internal evidence suggests that the fictitious Rancho Moreno would have been located in the area of Hemet-San Jacinto; and, as the Ramona legend grew in scope and influence, the people of this area began to feel that they ought, by rights, to get in on a little of the fame and glory. And so, in 1923, the citizens of Hemet started putting on the Ramona Outdoor Pageant in a natural amphitheater a couple of miles south of the town. From inauspicious beginnings the pageant took flight and became an annual spring event to be reckoned with. In the Thirties, an entire infrastructure was built around the amphitheater, and to this day thousands of spectacle-seekers make their way to the Ramona Bowl every spring to be regaled with the tragic tale of Ramona.

"Mrs. Jackson know me heap well. One day when I live at Rancho Guajome, after Sam Temple shoot poor Ramon dead, Señora de Couts send for me to come see lady in house I go in and see lady. She was fine lady, speak so soft and sweet to me about how poor Ramon got killed, and I cry with her when I tell her how I love him."

“I guess there’s just something about the story that attracts the actors to get involved and the people to come see it,” Roland Parker told me when I visited him at the offices of the Ramona Outdoor Pageant Association, which are situated directly outside the bowl. “There’s something sort of magical about it. We take each person and put him in a costume, on a horse, have them tramping all over the hillsides — and somehow it works! And yet, if you took almost any of these people and built a conventional play around him, it would be a failure. After all, nobody in the pageant is Robert Goulet. But each piece in the play is so set — like Luigi chasing the snake — that it almost can’t help but work.”

For the last year, Parker has been the manager of the Pageant Association. He’s a friendly, rather florid fellow of around fifty. As he spoke, I was wracking my brains trying to remember: (1) a character in the book named Luigi and (2) an episode wherein such a character chases a snake. Although I had recently read the novel, neither of these elements came to mind. Anyway, Parker was continuing.

“That’s the unique part of it: You take a whole lot of people who are local people — postal workers, dairymen, lawyers, doctors, housewives, kids still in school — and when they all get together, it’s a great show. There’s Elmer Grohs, who’s been in every pageant except one since 1924. He’s like a lot of other people, he just keeps coming back. We have a ritual at the beginning of every season where everyone has to climb the trail from the cast house up to the amphitheater, and if you can’t make it, it’s time to retire. But Elmer always makes it.

“The bowl was built in the early Thirties, when there were only about 5000 people living in Hemet — today there’s about 80,000. That’s like putting on a Shakespeare festival out in El Centro — or, wait, no, more like out in Brawley, for heaven’s sake. There weren’t even paved roads out here then. To tell you the truth, I think we’ve kind of sat on our tails ever since, living off the hard work of those first people. I mean, they were getting 30,000 people out for the pageant! And today we get 39,000. I tell the board, hey, these folks who read the book back in the Twenties and Thirties are going to die off, and then you’ll really have to work for those entertainment dollars.

“As it is, about a third of the people who came to see the play this year had seen it before. That’s good repeat business. It’s like one of those cult movies, almost — Star Wars, say, or The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Of course, the hook of the story is that the Americans come in and stomp all over the locals — Mexicans, Indians, Spaniards. It’s the same sort of thing that’s going on all over the world right now. And it’s interesting that we don’t get any protests from Mexicans or Indians. I guess they see it for what it is: history with a little bit of conscience. We’ve got Indians playing some of the roles, as well as Mexicans; and I guess that makes a difference. Besides, you get the feeling that times were hard in those days, and if someone wanted to kill a Mexican or an Indian, so be it. They’d get about as excited as if you’d killed a cat. I guess the story’s main appeal these days is that it’s like Romeo and Juliet set in Southern California. The young girls in the audience just can’t wait till Alessandro gets shot so that Ramona can go off with that handsome Felipe.”

Parker showed me some of the abundant press coverage the pageant has garnered over the years, including an article published not long ago in the Wall Street Journal. “The woman who wrote this had come to stay in a bed-and-breakfast out here and ended up writing about the pageant,” he explained. My brain whirled: a bed-and-breakfast in Hemet? Out the office window I could see endless mobile-home parks, endless housing developments, a couple of thickly built-up commercial strips, and an endless stream of smog flowing in from Riverside. “And the people around here got all offended because she described Hemet as a dusty little town,” he went on. “I don’t get it. Look out there, what do you see? That’s what it is — a dusty little town.”

The Ramona Bowl is fronted by an entire complex of native-rock retaining walls leading up from level to level, with huge masses of desert greenery ensconced in every nook and cranny. There is the smell of sap, the twittering of birds in foliage, the shushing sound of wind through the hills. The amphitheater itself is something to behold: two big hunks of desert promontory studded with granite and brush; a dirt trail winding steeply up between them; cement tiers of seating that lead down toward the cleft between the hills. Backed against the slope to the right is a permanent stage hacienda, complete with Spanish roof tiles, vines clinging to porch pillars and cornices, and shady green trees at either end. If you go through the hacienda’s main entrance, you find dressing rooms, No Smoking signs, bits of movable scenery, pipes, tools, a musty backstage smell.

Outside, on the hillside facing the hacienda, there is a tiny wooden hovel, “Ramona’s Hut,” where Alessandro meets his fate every spring, to the delight of the young girls.

The workmen — many of them Indians — who built the bowl around the amphitheater during the Thirties left signs of their passage. In one of the concrete steps you can see this scrawled legend: “Pomo Indians roasted chia seeds and ground into meal. Also used as poultice for gunshot wounds. Taken from this hill April 8, 1938.” A scrawled arrow points to the imprint of a chia leaf.

“I first read the book when I was no more than twelve,” Mary Kay Pinkard told me the next day. “It’s a marvelous love story, and it was on the best-seller list even then — had been ever since it was published. I admit I haven’t reread it since 1936, when the school here started taking all the children out to Hemet for the pageant; I wanted to see how close the play would be to the book. And it’s not very close, but whoever wrote the play did a wonderful job, and if he had made it closer to the book, why, it’d be six hours long! The children still make the trip out to Hemet every year, as do a lot of the other folks who live in the town, and the library can’t keep copies of the book on the shelves since everyone wants to read it before seeing the play.”

Arriving in the town of Ramona — which is a nondescript agglomeration of feed and hardware stores, gas stations, coffee shops, and convenience marts — I had found Mrs. Pinkard sitting at a desk in the Ramona Chamber of Commerce fielding telephone inquiries concerning an upcoming livestock competition for teens, and she was gracious enough to indulge my curiosity as to how the town got its name. She is a woman somewhat in excess of sixty years of age, with dark, short hair that she wears in tight waves.

“I guess one reason everyone is so interested in the pageant and the book is that it seems important to know everything there is to know about why our town got its name,” she mused. “At one time, it was known as the Santa Maria Valley — and there’s a fine old story attached to that name, too.

“The story goes that once upon a time the Indians who lived here were suffering from a terrible drought, and the chief said, 'We’ll sacrifice our most beautiful maiden and bury her between those two mountain peaks. Then the gods will relent and send us rain.’ And they did. And you can still see where she was buried.”

I begged her pardon.

“There's a geological formation out away from town that looks like a woman was buried there — you can see her chin, her head, her arms. I know all this because my sister wrote a thesis on both legends — Ramona and Santa Maria — when she was going to school up in Berkeley many years ago.

“Now, there really was a Ramona, and she really did travel through our town,” she went on. “Of course, her lover’s name wasn’t really Alessandro — it was Jesus, but Helen Hunt Jackson changed it because Jesus wasn’t a romantic enough name. Ramona and Jesus came through here on their way to find a priest who would marry them. They were being chased, you see. They stopped for the night at the old Stokes house which is still there off of Highway 78 outside of town. My sister learned all this when she was researching her thesis.

“Once Ramona and Jesus got to Old Town and were married, the chase stopped. It was all over; there was nothing anyone could do about it. Then they lived in a hut on a mountain in Hemet. They had no money, and Jesus would get epileptic fits. One day he was in Hemet when one of these fits came on him, and he stole a horse to give to Ramona. When he got back to the hut, she said, ‘Where on earth did you get that horse?’ And Jesus said, ‘Well, it was just walking around the streets.’ And she said, ‘For heaven’s sake, take it back this minute!’ You couldn’t do anything worse in those days than to steal someone’s horse. But just as Jesus was leaving to return the horse its owner rode up with a gun and killed him. Ramona lived the rest of her life in Hemet, doing little odd jobs to stay alive. There was a photograph of her in an old issue of Arizona Highways years ago. She was overweight, ragged, really nothing but an Indian squaw.”

I asked Mrs. Pinkard if she could give me the phone number of Guy B. Woodward, who I had been told would be an excellent person to talk to. She plucked the information out of her Rolodex and passed it along. “Guy runs the historical society in town,” she explained, “and he’s put together a wonderful museum right up the street. Now, Guy and I don’t agree on everything. He gets some things wrong. Why, the eucalyptus trees in front of the house where I used to live — he told someone they were planted 150 years ago. I planted those trees myself, and I know I’m not 150 years old. I planted them around 1960, somewhere in there.”

The man who runs the Guy B. Woodward Historical Museum in Ramona is no shrinking violet, and as a curator and collector of small-town memorabilia, it’s possible that he has no peer anywhere. Within the restored confines of an old house and yard, he’s got an old barn, an old jail, an old blacksmith shop, an old general store — all dismantled in other parts of the area, moved here, reassembled on the spot, and filled to overflowing with old horseshoes, old riding gear, old newspapers, old books, old dresses (they’re draped around modern-day mannequins, who peer from beneath their modest bonnets with a disconcertingly unabashed come-hither gaze), old telegraph equipment, old gear, tackle, and trim of every kind. He drives a ramshackle Ford pickup that would look right at home in the museum. One thing he doesn’t have, though, is a strong opinion about whether there was a real Ramona or what her lover’s name was.

“Now, tell me what Mary Kay’s been telling you,” Mr. Woodward said, once we had seated ourselves in the study of the museum house. “She’s a good old gal, but she usually comes along just so far in a story and then says, ‘Go see Guy.’ Sometimes I get a little perturbed with her”

I explained to Mr. Woodward — who is eighty years old, very hale and slender, and today was wearing a Stetson with a snake-skin band around the crown — that Mrs. Pinkard had been telling me about how the town happened to be named Ramona. He leaped right in with his version of the facts.

“A long time ago, this area was called Big Valley. Then in 1872 it became known as Valle de Santa Maria de Pamo — because if you look between Mt. Woodson and Iron Mountain, off away from town here, you’ll see the perfect image of a woman; and that’s where the name Santa Maria came from. Then, in the later years of the Nineteenth Century, foot travel began coming along and a town sprung up. They called it Nuevo, because it was a new town, you see. Then a fellow named Milton Santee came down from Los Angeles and bought a 7000-acre parcel of land. At that time, Mrs. Jackson’s book was all the rage, and he wanted to name the town after it. Problem was, a man named R.B. Shorb had a town up near Pasadena that he wanted to name Ramona. They fought and they fought, and they were all set to go to court over it, when Santee just undercut the other fellow by going down to the post office and having the name registered.”

I mentioned that Mrs. Pinkard had said the original Ramona came through here and stayed at the old Stokes house. Mr. Woodward guffawed.

"She was never here!” he declared. “She was in San Diego and went out to San Luis Rey and traveled up to Hemet and Riverside, but she never came through here. I’m sorry, but it just isn’t true.”

Ramona was in San Diego and Hemet and — ?

“No, Helen Hunt Jackson,” he said. “There’s absolutely no record of the woman ever being in Nuevo. As for Ramona herself, all I know is that there’s someone by that name buried out near Hemet. Otherwise, I have no opinion. I don’t know where all these stories come from; I guess people just dream them up.”

One mustn’t imagine that Mrs. Pinkard’s idea that Alessandro’s real name was Jesus is necessarily the last word on the matter. In the four-color program printed by the Ramona Outdoor Pageant, it says that Mrs. Jackson based her story on a true-life incident in which an American named Sam Temple shot an Indian for taking his horse — and that the Indian’s name was Domingo. It further maintains that Mrs. Jackson first heard the story from one Mrs. J.C. Jordan, of Old San Jacinto, who put the writer in touch with Domingo’s widow, whose name was Ramona. However, if you turn to Evelyn I. Banning's 1973 biography, Helen Hunt Jackson, you’ll find nary a reference to Mrs. Jordan, Sam Temple, or Domingo. By the same token, just about any book you examine — especially those written around the turn of the century, when Ramona-mania was in full flower — will present its own theory about just who the charming maid was in real life and what her lover’s true identity was.

For example, here’s a little volume called The Real Ramona, by D.A. Hufford, published in 1900. Mr. Hufford puts forth the proposition that the model for Mrs. Jackson’s heroine was an Indian woman named Lugardo Machado (née Sandoval), who was married to a man named Ramon, and that it was Ramon (from whose lame the Active “Ramona” was fashioned) who was murdered by Sam Temple. Not content with presenting his reasoning, the author rounds out his little opus with an account of an interview he purports to have had with Mrs. Machado herself:

Last summer, while we were out kodaking during our vacation, we saw Mrs. Machado (the real Ramona) at her home of straw and chaparral, near Temecula (the rising sun). It is in the center of a very large important section of the county. Fine scenery, excellent hunting and mineral springs with valuable medicinal qualities are found there, making it an attractive spot for recreation and health-seekers.... We found about eighty Indian huts and grass houses scattered about in a little valley among sun-burnt hills, and how the people manage to get even the scantiest living was a baffling puzzle to us, as we toiled up a mesa from the canon road to the crude habitation which had been pointed out as the home of Ramona.”

(The italics are, of course, Mr Hufford’s.)

“An elderly dark but pleasant-faced Indian woman sat on the ground in the shade of the hovel as we approached. She was puffing at a corn-husk cigarette and taking it from her mouth looked inquiringly at her visitor. We informed her that we had come many miles across the country from Los Angeles to interview her about how she happened to be the Ramona in the book of that name.

"She held down her head and there was a long silence “

‘Oh, you ’nother one who wants to know about Ramona and Mrs. Jackson,’ she replied. Heap folks used come here all time and ask about Ramona book. Now not many here. More come in winter by and by. Some heap nice to me all the same. Folks get tired to hear me talk, and other folks say me no tell truth about Ramona.'

“Another long silence.

“Finally, after a generous donation of bags of smoking tobacco and a few packages of cigarette papers, some red handkerchiefs and beads, we induced the Indian woman to talk about herself, notwithstanding her aversion to telling the oft-told tale.

“’Yes, Mrs. Jackson know me heap well,' she stated. ‘One day when I live at Rancho Guajome, after Sam Temple shoot poor Ramon dead, Señora de Couts send for me to come see lady in house I go in and see lady. She was fine lady, speak so soft and sweet to me about how poor Ramon got killed, and I cry with her when I tell her how I love him. Mrs. Jackson ask me to sit down on bench on porch and tell Señora, and Señora she tell her all about awful hard times me and Ramon have with white folks. She like to hear me tell how poor Indian get robbed, starved, and cheated by white man. She say we all time have white man cheat us, and she feel so sorry for us. She was first ‘mericano who liked poor Indian and say white man who rob and kill us no good. She no say then she going to write book about Ramon and Lugardo... ’ ”

A similar controversy has surrounded — and continues to surround — the physical structures mentioned in the book, particularly Rancho Moreno and the place in San Diego where Ramona and Alessandro were married. Indeed, for several decades there was in Old Town an old adobe house that was advertised first as Ramona’s Home, then as Ramona’s Marriage Place, which was a mandatory stopping-off point for Ramona pilgrims (and they were legion).

“It’s now called the Estudillo House,” Mary Ward told me, “because that’s what it really is — a house built by the Estudillo family during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. It became known as Ramona’s Home when John Spreckels, the sugar king, owned the transit system and wanted to have attractions along the streetcar lines to boost business. He built the Mission Beach Plunge and the roller coaster at Belmont Park for the same reason. He restored the Estudillo house and touted it as Ramona’s Home, then Marriage Place, as a tourist attraction; and that’s how things stood until the late Fifties. Then Legler Benbough bought it and had it restored again and donated it to the state department of parks; and ever since then it’s been known — correctly — as the Estudillo House. In my research, I’ve come across old photos of that house, and of Camullos Rancho, Guajome Rancho, and other buildings where they’re each identified as Ramona’s Home.”

Mrs. Ward — who is a charming woman of about fifty, with short-cut gray hair and a complexion attractively darkened and freckled by the sun — works as a historian for the San Diego County Department of Parks and Recreation, and, as it happens, has had occasion to do a great deal of work on matters not unconnected with the Ramona legend. Although she would never cite Mr. Hufford’s book as substantiation, she does believe that an old adobe pile up near Mission San Luis Rey called Rancho Guajome — the home of the prominent Cave Couts family during the last century — is the actual model for Rancho Moreno. Mrs. Ward is much occupied these days trying to scare up funds to have Guajome preserved. She points out that Helen Hunt Jackson did indeed stay at the place for a couple of weeks during her Southern California visit.

“Let me tell you two little stories,” she said. “One Sunday during Mrs. Jackson’s stay, Señora Couts — her name was Ysadora — wanted to attend Mass at the mission, and so the Indian servants went on ahead carrying chairs from the house for the family to sit in. Mrs. Jackson arrived, and when she saw that the Indians were sitting on the floor, she said, ‘Why are you doing that? Get up and sit in the chairs.’ Which they did, and when Ysadora came in, she was furious. Later, when they got back to Guajome, she was so mad she locked Mrs. Jackson in her room.

“The other story goes that after Ramona was published, Ysadora — who thought that Señora Moreno was based on her and found it an unflattering portrait — brought a lawsuit against Mrs. Jackson for defamation of character”

I asked Mrs. Ward where these stories had come from.

“From a descendant of the Couts family, now deceased,” she replied. “You can simply say they came down through oral tradition. There are other stories, from another descendant, that are far less credible. One of them has it that Ulysses S. Grant visited Guajome and rode his horse into the dining room and that Ysadora ordered him out. Well, that’s simply not true at all. The record shows that when Grant visited California, he never came further south than Monterey.”

I mentioned that judging from remarks in their printed program, the folks at the Ramona Outdoor Pageant Association believe a place called Camullos Rancho was the original for the Moreno estate.

“I know they do,” Mrs. Ward said, “but I have good reason for believing that Guajome was the actual model. There are just too many coincidences. At the time of Mrs. Jackson’s visit, for instance, Cave Couts Jr. was recovering from an accident — which I think is reflected in the episode where Felipe is recuperating from a fever. And Señora Moreno does bear a very strong resemblance to Ysadora Couts. Also, there’s a photograph of the Couts household taken around 1862 that’s very intriguing. In the foreground there are three little Indian children, one of them a girl, and it’s always struck me as possible that that little girl was the original of Ramona. She would have been about the right age when Mrs. Jackson came to Southern California.”

Richard B. Yale, who works at the San Diego Union Museum in Old Town, has further things to say about the Couts/Moreno/Jackson connection. Mr. Yale is a retired reporter and is, like Guy Woodward, one of those extremely fit elderly men who one expects will be dancing on one's grave several decades hence.

“Virginia Kessler, a reporter on the Philadelphia Post-Intelligencer, once told a story about talking with Cave Couts Jr. and learning from him that when Helen Hunt Jackson visited the Couts place, he used to take her out every day in the buggy to show her around the area,” Mr. Yale related. “One day, when they returned to the house, Señora Couts sent word she’d like to speak with him. He went in, and she gave him some kind of warning about the dangers of being too friendly with these widow ladies. And Couts told Virginia, ‘If only she’d said something about it a day sooner!’”

(If one were inclined to quibble with such an amusing anecdote, one might point out that Mrs. Jackson was not at that time a widow.)

“The evidence suggests that Mrs. Jackson based the character of Ramona on a composite of about five different girls,” Mr. Yale went on. “Believe it or not, to this day when people come through here asking me about Ramona and I explain this, they can’t wait for me to finish so they can ask, ‘But where is she buried?’ ”

We both laughed.

“The way I understand it, one of the real girls who went into the story was a daughter of the Bandini family — who were, like the Coutses, prominent in local matters back then,” Mr. Yale said. “The story goes that the girl was riding on a haywagon with some friends one day and Cave Couts Jr. rode up on a horse, picked her up off the wagon, and rode away with her. A little later, he came back and put her on the wagon again. The rumor was that the girl ended up having a baby, and the baby was taken to live in a convent. This is very close to the story of Ramona’s birth, you see. Now of course, there’s no way of knowing if the story is true or not, but there was a woman around in my time who was descended from the Bandinis; and if you ever mentioned Helen Hunt Jackson in her presence, she’d just blow up. So there may be something to it.

“Also, the story goes that in her later years Mrs. Jackson’s big weakness was her fondness for young women. Supposedly, her friends had to keep careful watch on her for fear she’d get herself into trouble. She had lesbian tendencies.”

Leave it to an old newspaper man to give you the dirt. And leave it to a state ranger to give you the official lowdown on things pertaining to a state preserve. A state preserve is what Old Town is, and George Crowe is stationed there. Ranger Crowe, with his strong jaw and steely eyes, at first glance looks like the sort of no-nonsense Midwestern cop you’d give anything not to run afoul of. In reality, he is a loquacious and friendly fellow who plainly takes enormous pleasure in his work. He offered to show me around the Estudillo House, which proved to be a fascinating and meticulously restored structure smack dab in the big central part of Old Town. It consists of three spacious adobe wings embracing a courtyard garden; the cool old rooms give onto the garden and are filled to overflowing with period furnishings that railings prevent you from getting too close to. We found a seat on a bench in the patio shade, and Ranger Crowe spoke briefly about the State of California’s stand on the various Ramona controversies.

“The state has decreed — with the backing of historians — that the Estudillo House is not Ramona’s Marriage Place,” he explained, “and also that Ramona herself was a fictitious character. Since we get visitors here from all over the world, it’s important to have the best available information to pass along. According to the state, Ramona was a composite. We’ve always gotten a lot of people through here, however, who simply don’t want to believe it — mostly old women. One day I was conducting a tour of the house, and as I was explaining why we no longer call it Ramona’s Marriage Place, an elderly lady who was on the tour interrupted me and said to the others, ‘Don’t you believe a word he says!’ And she proceeded to take over the tour and give her version of the facts. But as the years pass, we get fewer and fewer of those questions, fewer and fewer people who have these ideas. When I first began working as a ranger in Old Town, back in 1959, we’d hear those questions every day. Over the last six months, I’ve heard only three or four. But as recently as 75 you’d still have old couples who were actually married here — that was part of the tourist attraction, that you could be married at Ramona’s Marriage Place — coming up and asking why we’d changed the name. But time passes and people’s memories get more and more vague, and they start to die off ...

“But if there was such a woman as Ramona, the odds are that she was married not here but in a little chapel on Conde Street. Father Yubach, who was a friend of Mrs. Jackson’s and was with her during her visit to the area, said much later that this was probably the case; and he even said he seemed to remember marrying a woman by that name in Conde Street.”

We walked together through Old Town — past the pottery yards, the margarita booths, the crowded restaurants, the T-shirt stores — over to Conde Street so Ranger Crowe could show me the chapel, which turned out to be yet another beautifully restored piece of work. Once again, railings prevent you from intruding too close to the materials inside; but from the porch you can see the old pews, the crucifixion scene; the holy water stoup. In short, it’s the perfect place for a fugitive Indian couple to be married — whether they ever existed or not.

Since more than one of Jm the people I’d talked to had said that “Ramona” was buried in Temecula, I made a trip out there to see for myself. At first, after driving for an hour north on Highway 15 past Escondido, I not only wasn’t able to find the Temecula cemetery, I wasn’t able to find Temecula, even though the town is plainly marked on the map and there are freeway exits bearing its name. The reason I was having this difficulty was that the town — like Hemet, only much more so — is in the process of being completely overrun by a riotous cancer of housing developments, many of them named Rancho something-or-other. Finally, after driving blindly from one accumulation of new stucco to the next for a half an hour or so, I stopped at a real-estate office and asked a young woman at the reception desk if she could give me directions to the cemetery. She was kind enough to provide me with a map of the area that showed all the various developments, as well as a two-lane strip identified as Old Temecula and, a bit farther along the road, a cemetery. A few moments later I was there.

It was a small, grassy hillock upon which about a hundred tombstones and monuments had been erected — some during the last century, others as recently as the last few years. I dodged from headstone to headstone, chased along by an automatic sprinkler system, looking for one that showed the name Ramona. Nada. Finally giving it up, I got back in my car and sped south toward San Diego. Several days later, I learned that there are not one but two old cemeteries in Temecula. Apparently I went to the wrong one.

Evelyn I. Banning, author of Helen Hunt Jackson, retired from her professorship at Wheaton College a number of years ago and set out to write a book about Emily Dickinson, the great poet who lived her whole life in Amherst, Massachusetts — where, as it happens, Helen Hunt Jackson also was raised (under the name Helen Maria Fiske) and where the two future writers formed a lifelong friendship. (It’s interesting to note that at the time of Mrs. Jackson’s death, she was a world-renowned author, while Miss Dickinson was completely unknown. Today, of course, hardly anyone reads Mrs. Jacksons books, while Emily Dickinson is universally regarded as one of the great originators of modern poetry.) When Evelyn Banning learned that some other writer was about to publish a book on the Belle of Amherst she decided to turn her attention to the Belle’s almost forgotten friend; and her biography is the prizewinning result.

Today, Banning lives in an apartment complex on La Jolla Boulevard within sniffing distance of the sea. Paying her a visit, I found her to be a pretty and graceful woman, possessed of a reasonable, courteous mien. I mentioned to her that I had been a bit perplexed at finding no reference to Sam Temple in her book.

“Well, it’s true I made no mention of him,” she answered thoughtfully, “although there probably was such a person. And it may even be that Helen used the Sam Temple incident in plotting out her book. But my basic opinion is that although the Ramona story is a historically sound one, there never was a real Ramona or Alessandro. And it’s a fact that Helen didn’t write the book because she wanted to write a love story; she wrote it because she wanted to call attention to the crimes committed against the Indian peoples. I wrote her biography because I felt her efforts on behalf of that cause were admirable and that some notice should be taken of them.

“As for this idea you hear that there was a ‘real’ Ramona, I think many of those beliefs are misconceived. But when all is said and done, it’s impossible to change the depth of those beliefs. Once I was at a dinner where I was given an award for Helen’s biography, and afterwards a woman told me she owned a chair in which the real Ramona had sat. How can you break such a belief? It’s very strong. And I think Helen herself would have said, ‘Let them believe it.’”

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"Once I was at a dinner where I was given an award for Helen’s biography, and afterwards a woman told me she owned a chair in which the real Ramona had sat."
"Once I was at a dinner where I was given an award for Helen’s biography, and afterwards a woman told me she owned a chair in which the real Ramona had sat."

During late winter and early spring of every year, a bit of confusion reigns up north in the town of Ramona. The folks at the chamber of commerce there get a rash of long-distance phone calls and upwards of twenty-five letters a day — many of them with checks enclosed — from people all over the nation who want to buy tickets to the Ramona Outdoor Pageant, which they believe to be held each spring in the town of Ramona.

In 1923, the citizens of Hemet started putting on the Ramona Outdoor Pageant in a natural amphitheater.

Mary Kay Pinkard, who works at the chamber of commerce, tells how one spring day she was walking to work along the town’s eucalyptus-thronged main drag when she was hailed by a couple of out-of-towners in a Cadillac who wanted directions to the Ramona Bowl. Mrs. Pinkard replied, “Well, you’ve got a good two-hour drive ahead of you, because it isn’t here. It’s in Hemet, and that’s up in Riverside County.”

Mrs. Jackson traveled to San Diego County, where she hooked up with Father Yubach, who had been in the area since mid-century. Together, they traveled by carriage to Mission San Luis Rey and Mission San Diego.

“Lucky for them, it was early in the day and so they had time to make it,” she said recently. “But believe you me, those two people were having a bitter fight as they drove off.”

That domestic squabble wouldn’t have occurred if Helen Hunt Jackson hadn’t come to California one hundred years ago. In the year 1882, Mrs. Jackson, a popular magazine and children’s story writer, arrived in Southern California for the dual purpose of writing magazine articles about the region’s old missions and of researching the sorry state of the local Indians.

A year or two earlier, she had published a massive tome titled A Century of Dishonor, which took a hard look at the ways in which native Americans had been dispossessed of their lands and otherwise cheated by Anglo-Europeans. After giving a copy of the book to every member of Congress, she was rewarded with an appointment as special commissioner to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. There was no salary attached to the post, and no power; and the appearance of her book got no other results.

After a stay in the Santa Barbara area, Mrs. Jackson traveled to San Diego County, where she hooked up with a priest named Father Yubach, who had been in the area since the first years of U.S. hegemony around mid-century. Together, they traveled by carriage to Mission San Luis Rey and Mission San Diego and made stops at several of the old haciendas in the county, where the vestiges of patrician Mexican families held on to the vestiges of their land grants. (Since the Americans had come in, the U.S. Land Commission had been busy separating these families from their holdings on the pretext that their Mexican grants weren’t legal.)

Ramona falls for a noble Indian shepherd named Alessandro.

She also looked in at the Indian villages, taking note of the poverty experienced by the people who had once been lords of all they surveyed — back before the coming of the rancheros, whose servants they had been, and earlier, before the coming of the Franciscan fathers and the establishment of the missions, whose wards they had been. As she filed her mission articles to a magazine back East, she also went about researching and writing a “Report on the Conditions and Needs of the Mission Indians.” When she had completed this document, she submitted it to the powers that be in Washington. This time, her efforts met with even less success than did A Century of Dishonor — probably because there were no more nominal posts to which she could be appointed.

Frustrated over her inability to find a way of helping the native peoples who had been so shamefully treated by her countrymen, upon returning to New York City she struck on the idea of couching her argument in a romantic novel — her hope being that the common reader would gulp down the love story and retain a bit of the social message it contained. Accordingly, in the winter of 1883-84 she began writing Ramona. She needed only a few months to finish it.

The fictitious Rancho Moreno would have been located in the area of Hemet-San Jacinto, and the people of this area began to feel that they ought to get in on the fame and glory.

The novel tells the story of a half-breed Indian maiden who is raised by Señora Moreno, an aristocratic widow and last holder of the remains of the once-almost-incalculable Moreno rancho. Though Felipe Moreno, the señora’s son and heir, entertains hopes of winning the beautiful girl for his wife, Ramona falls for a noble Indian shepherd named Alessandro. When the imperious señora gets wind of the match, there’s hell to pay, and Ramona and Alessandro needs must depart the hacienda under cover of night and go in search of a priest who will marry them.

Chapter headings in the 1916 version of Ramona

In the meantime, Alessandro’s people — who have been tending their herds and crops in the vicinity of Temecula — have been chased off by greedy Americans, and Alessandro has begun to feel consumed by an ineradicable bitterness over the fate of his kind. Still, he and Ramona make their way south to the presidio in San Diego, where a priest marries them. Now joined in holy wedlock, the couple make their way to the Poway Valley, where Alessandro’s tribe has gained a new foothold. They set up house, have a baby, and for a time are happy and content; but eventually the Americans come rampaging along, and Alessandro’s tribe must scatter.

"The young girls in the audience just can’t wait till Alessandro gets shot so that Ramona can go off with that handsome Felipe.”

The couple find themselves increasingly chased from pillar to post by American avarice and end up living in a hut on Mt. San Jacinto, in pitifully reduced circumstances. Their first baby had sickened and died after a government physician refused to leave his post to treat her, and Ramona gives birth to another. Poor Alessandro, meanwhile, has become subject to “spells,” and during one of them he mistakenly takes a horse belonging to an American and rides it back to the mountain hut. No sooner has he come to his senses and realized that he must return the animal forthwith than its owner arrives and shoots him dead. When word of the incident gets around, a few of the more well-meaning Americans make an effort to prosecute the murderer, but it comes to nothing.

Mission San Luis Rey. "She was never in Ramona! She was in San Diego and went out to San Luis Rey and traveled up to Hemet and Riverside, but she never came through here."

Finally, Felipe Moreno — who, wracked with guilt over his mother’s harsh treatment of Ramona, has been searching for the girl ever since the old lady died — finds her in the care of the Cahuilla Indians in San Jacinto and takes her home. Realizing there is no future for them in California, he resolves to sell what’s left of the rancho and relocate in Mexico City with Ramona, her baby, and the rest of the household. Just before embarking for the south, he impulsively asks Ramona to marry him. She acquiesces, out of gratitude but with a marked air of resignation, and they both live out their days far from the scene of her tragedy.

The inner court at Camullos Rancho. The folks at the Ramona Outdoor Pageant Association believe the Camullos Rancho was the original for the Moreno estate.

Ramona was published in 1884 and became almost instantly popular. Even so, when Helen Hunt Jackson died a year later, at the age of fifty-five, she had no way of knowing what a perennial classic and long-lived phenomenon her story would become. Nor did she have any way of suspecting how it would set about influencing the course of history in Southern California. A kind of Ramona-mania took hold of the country during the 1890s that went a very long way toward giving the region — which until then had enjoyed only the most limited tourist and commercial appeal — an aura of storied loveliness.

"Father Yubach, who was a friend of Mrs. Jackson’s and was with her during her visit to the area, said he seemed to remember marrying a woman by that name in Conde Street.”

Rail lines were actually laid that would take Ramona pilgrims to spots reputed to be models for locales in the book, and enthusiasts combed the area in search of the “original” Ramona. Also, land speculators — who until the book’s appearance were stuck with countless acres that had been taken from the Mexican landholders and now couldn’t be sold — suddenly found themselves in possession of real estate that had a lustrous mythos attached to it. In due course, the first Southern California land and population boom was on, thanks in no small part to Mrs. Jackson’s novel.

From 1937 brochure. "Later, when they got back to Guajome, Senora Couts was so mad she locked Mrs. Jackson in her room."

The decades passed. Generations of young American women wept copious tears at Ramona’s sad plight; three movie treatments (including a silent by D.W. Griffith and a sound version starring Loretta Young and Ramon Navarro) were made; at one point there was talk of a full-scale opera; and the book was required reading in California schools until well into the Fifties. Then and only then did the book begin to “date,” to be less frequently read, and to fade somewhat from the popular awareness. The ultimate irony may be that one thing the book never did accomplish was its author’s main purpose: promoting a more humane attitude toward native Americans.

“The way I understand it, one of the real girls who went into the story was a daughter of the Bandini family — who were, like the Coutses, prominent in local matters back then.”

This summer I spent a few days traveling around the county searching for evidence of the book's continuing influence and found that, faded as its renown may be in our own day, there are countless ways in which Mrs. Jackson’s handiwork still permeates the life of the region. Besides such obvious things as the town and the pageant, I discovered personal beliefs and obsessions regarding its origins, rumors, controversies, old grudges, bodies of learned conjecture, even state decrees. Almost everywhere I turned I found shards of the legend.

“The story goes that in her later years Mrs. Jackson’s big weakness was her fondness for young women. Supposedly, her friends had to keep careful watch on her."

Although it’s never explicitly stated in the novel, the internal evidence suggests that the fictitious Rancho Moreno would have been located in the area of Hemet-San Jacinto; and, as the Ramona legend grew in scope and influence, the people of this area began to feel that they ought, by rights, to get in on a little of the fame and glory. And so, in 1923, the citizens of Hemet started putting on the Ramona Outdoor Pageant in a natural amphitheater a couple of miles south of the town. From inauspicious beginnings the pageant took flight and became an annual spring event to be reckoned with. In the Thirties, an entire infrastructure was built around the amphitheater, and to this day thousands of spectacle-seekers make their way to the Ramona Bowl every spring to be regaled with the tragic tale of Ramona.

"Mrs. Jackson know me heap well. One day when I live at Rancho Guajome, after Sam Temple shoot poor Ramon dead, Señora de Couts send for me to come see lady in house I go in and see lady. She was fine lady, speak so soft and sweet to me about how poor Ramon got killed, and I cry with her when I tell her how I love him."

“I guess there’s just something about the story that attracts the actors to get involved and the people to come see it,” Roland Parker told me when I visited him at the offices of the Ramona Outdoor Pageant Association, which are situated directly outside the bowl. “There’s something sort of magical about it. We take each person and put him in a costume, on a horse, have them tramping all over the hillsides — and somehow it works! And yet, if you took almost any of these people and built a conventional play around him, it would be a failure. After all, nobody in the pageant is Robert Goulet. But each piece in the play is so set — like Luigi chasing the snake — that it almost can’t help but work.”

For the last year, Parker has been the manager of the Pageant Association. He’s a friendly, rather florid fellow of around fifty. As he spoke, I was wracking my brains trying to remember: (1) a character in the book named Luigi and (2) an episode wherein such a character chases a snake. Although I had recently read the novel, neither of these elements came to mind. Anyway, Parker was continuing.

“That’s the unique part of it: You take a whole lot of people who are local people — postal workers, dairymen, lawyers, doctors, housewives, kids still in school — and when they all get together, it’s a great show. There’s Elmer Grohs, who’s been in every pageant except one since 1924. He’s like a lot of other people, he just keeps coming back. We have a ritual at the beginning of every season where everyone has to climb the trail from the cast house up to the amphitheater, and if you can’t make it, it’s time to retire. But Elmer always makes it.

“The bowl was built in the early Thirties, when there were only about 5000 people living in Hemet — today there’s about 80,000. That’s like putting on a Shakespeare festival out in El Centro — or, wait, no, more like out in Brawley, for heaven’s sake. There weren’t even paved roads out here then. To tell you the truth, I think we’ve kind of sat on our tails ever since, living off the hard work of those first people. I mean, they were getting 30,000 people out for the pageant! And today we get 39,000. I tell the board, hey, these folks who read the book back in the Twenties and Thirties are going to die off, and then you’ll really have to work for those entertainment dollars.

“As it is, about a third of the people who came to see the play this year had seen it before. That’s good repeat business. It’s like one of those cult movies, almost — Star Wars, say, or The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Of course, the hook of the story is that the Americans come in and stomp all over the locals — Mexicans, Indians, Spaniards. It’s the same sort of thing that’s going on all over the world right now. And it’s interesting that we don’t get any protests from Mexicans or Indians. I guess they see it for what it is: history with a little bit of conscience. We’ve got Indians playing some of the roles, as well as Mexicans; and I guess that makes a difference. Besides, you get the feeling that times were hard in those days, and if someone wanted to kill a Mexican or an Indian, so be it. They’d get about as excited as if you’d killed a cat. I guess the story’s main appeal these days is that it’s like Romeo and Juliet set in Southern California. The young girls in the audience just can’t wait till Alessandro gets shot so that Ramona can go off with that handsome Felipe.”

Parker showed me some of the abundant press coverage the pageant has garnered over the years, including an article published not long ago in the Wall Street Journal. “The woman who wrote this had come to stay in a bed-and-breakfast out here and ended up writing about the pageant,” he explained. My brain whirled: a bed-and-breakfast in Hemet? Out the office window I could see endless mobile-home parks, endless housing developments, a couple of thickly built-up commercial strips, and an endless stream of smog flowing in from Riverside. “And the people around here got all offended because she described Hemet as a dusty little town,” he went on. “I don’t get it. Look out there, what do you see? That’s what it is — a dusty little town.”

The Ramona Bowl is fronted by an entire complex of native-rock retaining walls leading up from level to level, with huge masses of desert greenery ensconced in every nook and cranny. There is the smell of sap, the twittering of birds in foliage, the shushing sound of wind through the hills. The amphitheater itself is something to behold: two big hunks of desert promontory studded with granite and brush; a dirt trail winding steeply up between them; cement tiers of seating that lead down toward the cleft between the hills. Backed against the slope to the right is a permanent stage hacienda, complete with Spanish roof tiles, vines clinging to porch pillars and cornices, and shady green trees at either end. If you go through the hacienda’s main entrance, you find dressing rooms, No Smoking signs, bits of movable scenery, pipes, tools, a musty backstage smell.

Outside, on the hillside facing the hacienda, there is a tiny wooden hovel, “Ramona’s Hut,” where Alessandro meets his fate every spring, to the delight of the young girls.

The workmen — many of them Indians — who built the bowl around the amphitheater during the Thirties left signs of their passage. In one of the concrete steps you can see this scrawled legend: “Pomo Indians roasted chia seeds and ground into meal. Also used as poultice for gunshot wounds. Taken from this hill April 8, 1938.” A scrawled arrow points to the imprint of a chia leaf.

“I first read the book when I was no more than twelve,” Mary Kay Pinkard told me the next day. “It’s a marvelous love story, and it was on the best-seller list even then — had been ever since it was published. I admit I haven’t reread it since 1936, when the school here started taking all the children out to Hemet for the pageant; I wanted to see how close the play would be to the book. And it’s not very close, but whoever wrote the play did a wonderful job, and if he had made it closer to the book, why, it’d be six hours long! The children still make the trip out to Hemet every year, as do a lot of the other folks who live in the town, and the library can’t keep copies of the book on the shelves since everyone wants to read it before seeing the play.”

Arriving in the town of Ramona — which is a nondescript agglomeration of feed and hardware stores, gas stations, coffee shops, and convenience marts — I had found Mrs. Pinkard sitting at a desk in the Ramona Chamber of Commerce fielding telephone inquiries concerning an upcoming livestock competition for teens, and she was gracious enough to indulge my curiosity as to how the town got its name. She is a woman somewhat in excess of sixty years of age, with dark, short hair that she wears in tight waves.

“I guess one reason everyone is so interested in the pageant and the book is that it seems important to know everything there is to know about why our town got its name,” she mused. “At one time, it was known as the Santa Maria Valley — and there’s a fine old story attached to that name, too.

“The story goes that once upon a time the Indians who lived here were suffering from a terrible drought, and the chief said, 'We’ll sacrifice our most beautiful maiden and bury her between those two mountain peaks. Then the gods will relent and send us rain.’ And they did. And you can still see where she was buried.”

I begged her pardon.

“There's a geological formation out away from town that looks like a woman was buried there — you can see her chin, her head, her arms. I know all this because my sister wrote a thesis on both legends — Ramona and Santa Maria — when she was going to school up in Berkeley many years ago.

“Now, there really was a Ramona, and she really did travel through our town,” she went on. “Of course, her lover’s name wasn’t really Alessandro — it was Jesus, but Helen Hunt Jackson changed it because Jesus wasn’t a romantic enough name. Ramona and Jesus came through here on their way to find a priest who would marry them. They were being chased, you see. They stopped for the night at the old Stokes house which is still there off of Highway 78 outside of town. My sister learned all this when she was researching her thesis.

“Once Ramona and Jesus got to Old Town and were married, the chase stopped. It was all over; there was nothing anyone could do about it. Then they lived in a hut on a mountain in Hemet. They had no money, and Jesus would get epileptic fits. One day he was in Hemet when one of these fits came on him, and he stole a horse to give to Ramona. When he got back to the hut, she said, ‘Where on earth did you get that horse?’ And Jesus said, ‘Well, it was just walking around the streets.’ And she said, ‘For heaven’s sake, take it back this minute!’ You couldn’t do anything worse in those days than to steal someone’s horse. But just as Jesus was leaving to return the horse its owner rode up with a gun and killed him. Ramona lived the rest of her life in Hemet, doing little odd jobs to stay alive. There was a photograph of her in an old issue of Arizona Highways years ago. She was overweight, ragged, really nothing but an Indian squaw.”

I asked Mrs. Pinkard if she could give me the phone number of Guy B. Woodward, who I had been told would be an excellent person to talk to. She plucked the information out of her Rolodex and passed it along. “Guy runs the historical society in town,” she explained, “and he’s put together a wonderful museum right up the street. Now, Guy and I don’t agree on everything. He gets some things wrong. Why, the eucalyptus trees in front of the house where I used to live — he told someone they were planted 150 years ago. I planted those trees myself, and I know I’m not 150 years old. I planted them around 1960, somewhere in there.”

The man who runs the Guy B. Woodward Historical Museum in Ramona is no shrinking violet, and as a curator and collector of small-town memorabilia, it’s possible that he has no peer anywhere. Within the restored confines of an old house and yard, he’s got an old barn, an old jail, an old blacksmith shop, an old general store — all dismantled in other parts of the area, moved here, reassembled on the spot, and filled to overflowing with old horseshoes, old riding gear, old newspapers, old books, old dresses (they’re draped around modern-day mannequins, who peer from beneath their modest bonnets with a disconcertingly unabashed come-hither gaze), old telegraph equipment, old gear, tackle, and trim of every kind. He drives a ramshackle Ford pickup that would look right at home in the museum. One thing he doesn’t have, though, is a strong opinion about whether there was a real Ramona or what her lover’s name was.

“Now, tell me what Mary Kay’s been telling you,” Mr. Woodward said, once we had seated ourselves in the study of the museum house. “She’s a good old gal, but she usually comes along just so far in a story and then says, ‘Go see Guy.’ Sometimes I get a little perturbed with her”

I explained to Mr. Woodward — who is eighty years old, very hale and slender, and today was wearing a Stetson with a snake-skin band around the crown — that Mrs. Pinkard had been telling me about how the town happened to be named Ramona. He leaped right in with his version of the facts.

“A long time ago, this area was called Big Valley. Then in 1872 it became known as Valle de Santa Maria de Pamo — because if you look between Mt. Woodson and Iron Mountain, off away from town here, you’ll see the perfect image of a woman; and that’s where the name Santa Maria came from. Then, in the later years of the Nineteenth Century, foot travel began coming along and a town sprung up. They called it Nuevo, because it was a new town, you see. Then a fellow named Milton Santee came down from Los Angeles and bought a 7000-acre parcel of land. At that time, Mrs. Jackson’s book was all the rage, and he wanted to name the town after it. Problem was, a man named R.B. Shorb had a town up near Pasadena that he wanted to name Ramona. They fought and they fought, and they were all set to go to court over it, when Santee just undercut the other fellow by going down to the post office and having the name registered.”

I mentioned that Mrs. Pinkard had said the original Ramona came through here and stayed at the old Stokes house. Mr. Woodward guffawed.

"She was never here!” he declared. “She was in San Diego and went out to San Luis Rey and traveled up to Hemet and Riverside, but she never came through here. I’m sorry, but it just isn’t true.”

Ramona was in San Diego and Hemet and — ?

“No, Helen Hunt Jackson,” he said. “There’s absolutely no record of the woman ever being in Nuevo. As for Ramona herself, all I know is that there’s someone by that name buried out near Hemet. Otherwise, I have no opinion. I don’t know where all these stories come from; I guess people just dream them up.”

One mustn’t imagine that Mrs. Pinkard’s idea that Alessandro’s real name was Jesus is necessarily the last word on the matter. In the four-color program printed by the Ramona Outdoor Pageant, it says that Mrs. Jackson based her story on a true-life incident in which an American named Sam Temple shot an Indian for taking his horse — and that the Indian’s name was Domingo. It further maintains that Mrs. Jackson first heard the story from one Mrs. J.C. Jordan, of Old San Jacinto, who put the writer in touch with Domingo’s widow, whose name was Ramona. However, if you turn to Evelyn I. Banning's 1973 biography, Helen Hunt Jackson, you’ll find nary a reference to Mrs. Jordan, Sam Temple, or Domingo. By the same token, just about any book you examine — especially those written around the turn of the century, when Ramona-mania was in full flower — will present its own theory about just who the charming maid was in real life and what her lover’s true identity was.

For example, here’s a little volume called The Real Ramona, by D.A. Hufford, published in 1900. Mr. Hufford puts forth the proposition that the model for Mrs. Jackson’s heroine was an Indian woman named Lugardo Machado (née Sandoval), who was married to a man named Ramon, and that it was Ramon (from whose lame the Active “Ramona” was fashioned) who was murdered by Sam Temple. Not content with presenting his reasoning, the author rounds out his little opus with an account of an interview he purports to have had with Mrs. Machado herself:

Last summer, while we were out kodaking during our vacation, we saw Mrs. Machado (the real Ramona) at her home of straw and chaparral, near Temecula (the rising sun). It is in the center of a very large important section of the county. Fine scenery, excellent hunting and mineral springs with valuable medicinal qualities are found there, making it an attractive spot for recreation and health-seekers.... We found about eighty Indian huts and grass houses scattered about in a little valley among sun-burnt hills, and how the people manage to get even the scantiest living was a baffling puzzle to us, as we toiled up a mesa from the canon road to the crude habitation which had been pointed out as the home of Ramona.”

(The italics are, of course, Mr Hufford’s.)

“An elderly dark but pleasant-faced Indian woman sat on the ground in the shade of the hovel as we approached. She was puffing at a corn-husk cigarette and taking it from her mouth looked inquiringly at her visitor. We informed her that we had come many miles across the country from Los Angeles to interview her about how she happened to be the Ramona in the book of that name.

"She held down her head and there was a long silence “

‘Oh, you ’nother one who wants to know about Ramona and Mrs. Jackson,’ she replied. Heap folks used come here all time and ask about Ramona book. Now not many here. More come in winter by and by. Some heap nice to me all the same. Folks get tired to hear me talk, and other folks say me no tell truth about Ramona.'

“Another long silence.

“Finally, after a generous donation of bags of smoking tobacco and a few packages of cigarette papers, some red handkerchiefs and beads, we induced the Indian woman to talk about herself, notwithstanding her aversion to telling the oft-told tale.

“’Yes, Mrs. Jackson know me heap well,' she stated. ‘One day when I live at Rancho Guajome, after Sam Temple shoot poor Ramon dead, Señora de Couts send for me to come see lady in house I go in and see lady. She was fine lady, speak so soft and sweet to me about how poor Ramon got killed, and I cry with her when I tell her how I love him. Mrs. Jackson ask me to sit down on bench on porch and tell Señora, and Señora she tell her all about awful hard times me and Ramon have with white folks. She like to hear me tell how poor Indian get robbed, starved, and cheated by white man. She say we all time have white man cheat us, and she feel so sorry for us. She was first ‘mericano who liked poor Indian and say white man who rob and kill us no good. She no say then she going to write book about Ramon and Lugardo... ’ ”

A similar controversy has surrounded — and continues to surround — the physical structures mentioned in the book, particularly Rancho Moreno and the place in San Diego where Ramona and Alessandro were married. Indeed, for several decades there was in Old Town an old adobe house that was advertised first as Ramona’s Home, then as Ramona’s Marriage Place, which was a mandatory stopping-off point for Ramona pilgrims (and they were legion).

“It’s now called the Estudillo House,” Mary Ward told me, “because that’s what it really is — a house built by the Estudillo family during the second half of the Nineteenth Century. It became known as Ramona’s Home when John Spreckels, the sugar king, owned the transit system and wanted to have attractions along the streetcar lines to boost business. He built the Mission Beach Plunge and the roller coaster at Belmont Park for the same reason. He restored the Estudillo house and touted it as Ramona’s Home, then Marriage Place, as a tourist attraction; and that’s how things stood until the late Fifties. Then Legler Benbough bought it and had it restored again and donated it to the state department of parks; and ever since then it’s been known — correctly — as the Estudillo House. In my research, I’ve come across old photos of that house, and of Camullos Rancho, Guajome Rancho, and other buildings where they’re each identified as Ramona’s Home.”

Mrs. Ward — who is a charming woman of about fifty, with short-cut gray hair and a complexion attractively darkened and freckled by the sun — works as a historian for the San Diego County Department of Parks and Recreation, and, as it happens, has had occasion to do a great deal of work on matters not unconnected with the Ramona legend. Although she would never cite Mr. Hufford’s book as substantiation, she does believe that an old adobe pile up near Mission San Luis Rey called Rancho Guajome — the home of the prominent Cave Couts family during the last century — is the actual model for Rancho Moreno. Mrs. Ward is much occupied these days trying to scare up funds to have Guajome preserved. She points out that Helen Hunt Jackson did indeed stay at the place for a couple of weeks during her Southern California visit.

“Let me tell you two little stories,” she said. “One Sunday during Mrs. Jackson’s stay, Señora Couts — her name was Ysadora — wanted to attend Mass at the mission, and so the Indian servants went on ahead carrying chairs from the house for the family to sit in. Mrs. Jackson arrived, and when she saw that the Indians were sitting on the floor, she said, ‘Why are you doing that? Get up and sit in the chairs.’ Which they did, and when Ysadora came in, she was furious. Later, when they got back to Guajome, she was so mad she locked Mrs. Jackson in her room.

“The other story goes that after Ramona was published, Ysadora — who thought that Señora Moreno was based on her and found it an unflattering portrait — brought a lawsuit against Mrs. Jackson for defamation of character”

I asked Mrs. Ward where these stories had come from.

“From a descendant of the Couts family, now deceased,” she replied. “You can simply say they came down through oral tradition. There are other stories, from another descendant, that are far less credible. One of them has it that Ulysses S. Grant visited Guajome and rode his horse into the dining room and that Ysadora ordered him out. Well, that’s simply not true at all. The record shows that when Grant visited California, he never came further south than Monterey.”

I mentioned that judging from remarks in their printed program, the folks at the Ramona Outdoor Pageant Association believe a place called Camullos Rancho was the original for the Moreno estate.

“I know they do,” Mrs. Ward said, “but I have good reason for believing that Guajome was the actual model. There are just too many coincidences. At the time of Mrs. Jackson’s visit, for instance, Cave Couts Jr. was recovering from an accident — which I think is reflected in the episode where Felipe is recuperating from a fever. And Señora Moreno does bear a very strong resemblance to Ysadora Couts. Also, there’s a photograph of the Couts household taken around 1862 that’s very intriguing. In the foreground there are three little Indian children, one of them a girl, and it’s always struck me as possible that that little girl was the original of Ramona. She would have been about the right age when Mrs. Jackson came to Southern California.”

Richard B. Yale, who works at the San Diego Union Museum in Old Town, has further things to say about the Couts/Moreno/Jackson connection. Mr. Yale is a retired reporter and is, like Guy Woodward, one of those extremely fit elderly men who one expects will be dancing on one's grave several decades hence.

“Virginia Kessler, a reporter on the Philadelphia Post-Intelligencer, once told a story about talking with Cave Couts Jr. and learning from him that when Helen Hunt Jackson visited the Couts place, he used to take her out every day in the buggy to show her around the area,” Mr. Yale related. “One day, when they returned to the house, Señora Couts sent word she’d like to speak with him. He went in, and she gave him some kind of warning about the dangers of being too friendly with these widow ladies. And Couts told Virginia, ‘If only she’d said something about it a day sooner!’”

(If one were inclined to quibble with such an amusing anecdote, one might point out that Mrs. Jackson was not at that time a widow.)

“The evidence suggests that Mrs. Jackson based the character of Ramona on a composite of about five different girls,” Mr. Yale went on. “Believe it or not, to this day when people come through here asking me about Ramona and I explain this, they can’t wait for me to finish so they can ask, ‘But where is she buried?’ ”

We both laughed.

“The way I understand it, one of the real girls who went into the story was a daughter of the Bandini family — who were, like the Coutses, prominent in local matters back then,” Mr. Yale said. “The story goes that the girl was riding on a haywagon with some friends one day and Cave Couts Jr. rode up on a horse, picked her up off the wagon, and rode away with her. A little later, he came back and put her on the wagon again. The rumor was that the girl ended up having a baby, and the baby was taken to live in a convent. This is very close to the story of Ramona’s birth, you see. Now of course, there’s no way of knowing if the story is true or not, but there was a woman around in my time who was descended from the Bandinis; and if you ever mentioned Helen Hunt Jackson in her presence, she’d just blow up. So there may be something to it.

“Also, the story goes that in her later years Mrs. Jackson’s big weakness was her fondness for young women. Supposedly, her friends had to keep careful watch on her for fear she’d get herself into trouble. She had lesbian tendencies.”

Leave it to an old newspaper man to give you the dirt. And leave it to a state ranger to give you the official lowdown on things pertaining to a state preserve. A state preserve is what Old Town is, and George Crowe is stationed there. Ranger Crowe, with his strong jaw and steely eyes, at first glance looks like the sort of no-nonsense Midwestern cop you’d give anything not to run afoul of. In reality, he is a loquacious and friendly fellow who plainly takes enormous pleasure in his work. He offered to show me around the Estudillo House, which proved to be a fascinating and meticulously restored structure smack dab in the big central part of Old Town. It consists of three spacious adobe wings embracing a courtyard garden; the cool old rooms give onto the garden and are filled to overflowing with period furnishings that railings prevent you from getting too close to. We found a seat on a bench in the patio shade, and Ranger Crowe spoke briefly about the State of California’s stand on the various Ramona controversies.

“The state has decreed — with the backing of historians — that the Estudillo House is not Ramona’s Marriage Place,” he explained, “and also that Ramona herself was a fictitious character. Since we get visitors here from all over the world, it’s important to have the best available information to pass along. According to the state, Ramona was a composite. We’ve always gotten a lot of people through here, however, who simply don’t want to believe it — mostly old women. One day I was conducting a tour of the house, and as I was explaining why we no longer call it Ramona’s Marriage Place, an elderly lady who was on the tour interrupted me and said to the others, ‘Don’t you believe a word he says!’ And she proceeded to take over the tour and give her version of the facts. But as the years pass, we get fewer and fewer of those questions, fewer and fewer people who have these ideas. When I first began working as a ranger in Old Town, back in 1959, we’d hear those questions every day. Over the last six months, I’ve heard only three or four. But as recently as 75 you’d still have old couples who were actually married here — that was part of the tourist attraction, that you could be married at Ramona’s Marriage Place — coming up and asking why we’d changed the name. But time passes and people’s memories get more and more vague, and they start to die off ...

“But if there was such a woman as Ramona, the odds are that she was married not here but in a little chapel on Conde Street. Father Yubach, who was a friend of Mrs. Jackson’s and was with her during her visit to the area, said much later that this was probably the case; and he even said he seemed to remember marrying a woman by that name in Conde Street.”

We walked together through Old Town — past the pottery yards, the margarita booths, the crowded restaurants, the T-shirt stores — over to Conde Street so Ranger Crowe could show me the chapel, which turned out to be yet another beautifully restored piece of work. Once again, railings prevent you from intruding too close to the materials inside; but from the porch you can see the old pews, the crucifixion scene; the holy water stoup. In short, it’s the perfect place for a fugitive Indian couple to be married — whether they ever existed or not.

Since more than one of Jm the people I’d talked to had said that “Ramona” was buried in Temecula, I made a trip out there to see for myself. At first, after driving for an hour north on Highway 15 past Escondido, I not only wasn’t able to find the Temecula cemetery, I wasn’t able to find Temecula, even though the town is plainly marked on the map and there are freeway exits bearing its name. The reason I was having this difficulty was that the town — like Hemet, only much more so — is in the process of being completely overrun by a riotous cancer of housing developments, many of them named Rancho something-or-other. Finally, after driving blindly from one accumulation of new stucco to the next for a half an hour or so, I stopped at a real-estate office and asked a young woman at the reception desk if she could give me directions to the cemetery. She was kind enough to provide me with a map of the area that showed all the various developments, as well as a two-lane strip identified as Old Temecula and, a bit farther along the road, a cemetery. A few moments later I was there.

It was a small, grassy hillock upon which about a hundred tombstones and monuments had been erected — some during the last century, others as recently as the last few years. I dodged from headstone to headstone, chased along by an automatic sprinkler system, looking for one that showed the name Ramona. Nada. Finally giving it up, I got back in my car and sped south toward San Diego. Several days later, I learned that there are not one but two old cemeteries in Temecula. Apparently I went to the wrong one.

Evelyn I. Banning, author of Helen Hunt Jackson, retired from her professorship at Wheaton College a number of years ago and set out to write a book about Emily Dickinson, the great poet who lived her whole life in Amherst, Massachusetts — where, as it happens, Helen Hunt Jackson also was raised (under the name Helen Maria Fiske) and where the two future writers formed a lifelong friendship. (It’s interesting to note that at the time of Mrs. Jackson’s death, she was a world-renowned author, while Miss Dickinson was completely unknown. Today, of course, hardly anyone reads Mrs. Jacksons books, while Emily Dickinson is universally regarded as one of the great originators of modern poetry.) When Evelyn Banning learned that some other writer was about to publish a book on the Belle of Amherst she decided to turn her attention to the Belle’s almost forgotten friend; and her biography is the prizewinning result.

Today, Banning lives in an apartment complex on La Jolla Boulevard within sniffing distance of the sea. Paying her a visit, I found her to be a pretty and graceful woman, possessed of a reasonable, courteous mien. I mentioned to her that I had been a bit perplexed at finding no reference to Sam Temple in her book.

“Well, it’s true I made no mention of him,” she answered thoughtfully, “although there probably was such a person. And it may even be that Helen used the Sam Temple incident in plotting out her book. But my basic opinion is that although the Ramona story is a historically sound one, there never was a real Ramona or Alessandro. And it’s a fact that Helen didn’t write the book because she wanted to write a love story; she wrote it because she wanted to call attention to the crimes committed against the Indian peoples. I wrote her biography because I felt her efforts on behalf of that cause were admirable and that some notice should be taken of them.

“As for this idea you hear that there was a ‘real’ Ramona, I think many of those beliefs are misconceived. But when all is said and done, it’s impossible to change the depth of those beliefs. Once I was at a dinner where I was given an award for Helen’s biography, and afterwards a woman told me she owned a chair in which the real Ramona had sat. How can you break such a belief? It’s very strong. And I think Helen herself would have said, ‘Let them believe it.’”

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