I recently cataloged an early twentieth-century postcard in the Caroline F. Schimmel Fiction Collection of Women in the American Wilderness of potential interest to both deltiologists and aficionados of the mythology of Southern California. The image on the card is a square sepia photograph of a Native American woman seated with her hands in her lap before the open door of a wooden building. The portrait is captioned “Ramona,” identifying its subject as Ramona Lubo (ca. 1865-1922), a Cahuilla basket-maker frequently supposed to be the “original” of the protagonist of Helen Hunt Jackson’s bestselling novel Ramona (1883). Lubo’s husband, Juan Diego, was prone to manic episodes, during one of which he took a joyride on a white man’s horse. The horse’s owner murdered him in retaliation but claimed self-defense; Lubo, the only other witness to the crime, was barred by racist legalities from testifying and the killer went free. Jackson incorporated a version of these events into Ramona, a work she hoped “would do for the Indian a thousandth part that Uncle Tom’s Cabin did for the negro” (quoted in Mathes 77).
The novel indeed became a touchstone for activists, but it also spawned “Ramonaland,” a kitsch-romantic version of Spanish-Mexican-American settler colonialism:
Tourist attractions sprang up throughout Southern California, catering to Ramona fans. At different times, one could visit “Ramona’s Birthplace” at San Gabriel, two different “Homes of Ramona” (Ranchos Camulos and Guajome), and “Ramona’s Marriage Place” in Old Town San Diego. Postcards and souvenirs were sold, and books and articles were written about the “real” Ramona and the “true” story. Hollywood got into the act, too, producing four motion picture versions of the story between 1910 and 1936. And best known of all is the Ramona Pageant in Hemet, which began in 1923 and is now America’s oldest continuing outdoor drama. (Brigandi and Robinson)
Lubo—whose birth name might not even have been Ramona! (Brigandi and Robinson)—was popularized as “the real Ramona” by journalist and photographer George Wharton James in his book Through Ramona’s Country (1909). Her image became a Ramonaland staple and Lubo “a tourist attraction. Streams of visitors to Southern California wanted to meet the ‘real Ramona’ and have their pictures taken with her. Lubo was able to make a modest income from these tourists by selling them her baskets, but she was never comfortable with the celebrity thrust upon her” (Sonneborn 141)—a celebrity fostered by local business owners for their profit, not hers. The myth of Ramona was a tremendous boon to Southern California’s nascent tourism industry: “Author Cary McWilliams once suggested that the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce should erect a huge bronze statue of Helen Hunt Jackson at the top of Cajon Pass, with the simple inscription ‘In Gratitude’” (Brigandi and Robinson).*
The Schimmel Collection holds numerous editions of Jackson’s novel as well as ephemera related to its fandom. This divided back postcard featuring Ramona Lubo’s image (Schimmel Fiction 6042) is addressed to “Mrs. Geo. A. May, Santa Maria Cal. Santa Barbara Co.” from a correspondent who signs herself “Mrs. G.” Postmarked “HEMET M[…] […] 6[…] 190[…] CAL” over a penny stamp, the card originates from the heart of Ramonaland, Hemet, California. Divided back postcards—that is, “postal cards … [which] could have messages on the left half of the address side”—were introduced by the U.S. Postal Service on 1 March 1907 (“Postcard History“). This fact provides a terminus post quem for the postmark and dates the message from Mrs. G. to “Mrs. M.” (as she salutes her friend) between 1907 and 1909. The Santa Barbara City and County Directory 1908-9 lists a George A. May, farmer, among the citizens of Santa Maria (362); U.S. census data adds that he was born in California in 1870 to English immigrant John C. May (1833-1907) and his Illinoisian wife Rebecca (née Trekell; 1840-1900). In 1891 George May married Annie Laura Noyes (1873-1943), the daughter of Montana pioneer George Raymond Noyes (1832-1887) and his second wife, Martha Beall Hubbard (1834-1910) (Noyes 17). The future Mrs. May grew up in Butte, Montana, before emigrating to California; she outlived her husband George by nine years and died in Los Angeles.
Mrs. G., on the other hand, eludes identification. Her note covers both the writing area on the back of the card and the blank space beneath Ramona Lubo’s portrait on the front, but never once mentions her full name:
Dear Mrs. M. I received your letter some time ago. We are all pretty well now though Will had quite a time with the grippe. We have been just as busy as could be getting our place in. I suppose you will soon begin building. Is your car on the way yet? How I would like to see you and do some talking. I had a letter from Abbie the other day–said they were coming this sumer [sic]. Mrs. G.
Is the formerly ailing Will Mrs. G.’s husband? Her son? Could Abbie and “they” be a married daughter or sister and her family? Mrs. G., saving space by assuming Annie May’s knowledge of her relatives and/or friends, doesn’t say. Since writer and correspondent are on “Mrs. <Initial>” terms, I suspect Will and Abbie are members of a younger generation, but I have no proof. Nor can I say whether the image of “the real Ramona” had any particular resonance for Mrs. G. or Mrs. M. Did Annie May own a well-thumbed copy of Jackson’s novel? Was Mrs. G.’s interest piqued by local boosters’ marketing of all things Ramona? Or was she attracted not by the picture on the postcard, but by the blank space beneath it—room for her own narrative, more relevant to her than historical fiction?
*Even Juan Diego’s murderer tried to cash in on the Ramona myth: “Indeed so did he glorify his own action that during the World’s Fairs, both at Chicago and St. Louis, he thought he saw a great chance to win money and fame by posing there as the man who killed Alessandro” (James 137). He invited George Wharton James to back his appearances, but James turned him down flat: “[H]e seemed somewhat taken aback when I declared … that I would far rather raise money to have him tried and hanged for his crime than to send him to the World’s Fair to pose as a hero” (ibid.).
Brigandi, Phil, and John W. Robinson. “The Killing of Juan Diego.” Journal of San Diego History, Winter 1994, sandiegohistory.org/journal/1994/january/juandiego/. Accessed 13 December 2021.
James, George Wharton. Through Ramona’s Country. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1909.
Mathes, Valerie Sherer. Helen Hunt Jackson and Her Indian Reform Legacy. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
Noyes, Alva J. The Story of Ajax: Life in the Big Hole Basin. Helena, Montana: State Publishing Company, 1914.
“Postcard History.” Smithsonian Institution Archives, siarchives.si.edu/history/featured-topics/postcard/postcard-history/. Accessed 13 December 2021.
Santa Barbara City and County Directory 1908-9. Santa Barbara: Santa Barbara Directory Company, 1908.
Sonneborn, Liz. “Lubo, Ramona.” A to Z of American Indian Women. Rev. ed. New York: Facts on File, 2007. 140-141.