Monday, July 6, 2015

On The California Trail of Joaquin Miller- Poet of the Sierras

  On the California Trail of...

                                                                    Joaquin Miller



Flying down Highway 13, just on the Northern edge of Oakland, where the pickle marshes meet the redwoods, there is a green highway sign- Joaquin Miller Dr. There is also a Joaquin Miller School and Joaquin Miller dog park. I had heard of the famous outlaw Joaquin Murietta-famous for allegedly losing his head- but who was Joaquin Miller?

Joaquin was born Sept 8,1839 and given the  exceptional name of Cincinnatus Heine Miller-“Nat” to his family. (Joaquin later changed his birthdate to November 19, 1841. The reason for the date change is unclear, but  perhaps he felt if he were younger he would be more marketable.)  About 1850-52 his father moved the family West along the Oregon Trail and finally settled in Willamette Valley, Oregon. Nat had to work hard, and I believe that is the one thing that he did not want to do. Through the history of his life, it seems he was always trying to find the easier way to make his living. 

Madonna is known for her constantly changing persona, but she has nothing on Joaquin Miller.

In his lifetime Joaquin Miller was married three times, had five or six children, (depending on which story you want to believe,) was a horse thief, a judge, a Pony Express rider, an Editor, a Newspaper man, a cook , a naturalist, a poet and a play write.

His notoriety, here in California at least, has everything to do with his books and poetry as well as the company he was able to keep. He was not as witty as Samuel Clements, had none of the style of Brete Harte nor the dedication of Ina Coolbrith. He wasn’t as sexy as  Jack London or as acerbic as Ambrose Bierce. Yet these people welcomed him into their circles, invited him to join their clubs and read his material with care. He must have had a powerful personality, as well as a literary mind.

At the age of 17, Nat ran away from Willamett, and began immediately changing everything about himself. At 18 he aligned himself with William Walker, the 1st President of the Republic of Lower California (Nov 1853-January 21, 1854.)(Nicaragua) He said he went to Nicaragua with Walker but  they had a falling out and Nat left before long.  Good thing too- William Walker was executed by the Government of Honduras in 1860.

Castle Crags, Shasta Co

The year of 1854 found Nat now in the company of the Pitt River Indian Tribe. He was young and full of juice, speaking up when he should have been quiet. It was known that he was fond of the women, and took one for himself. Though he denied having a romantic relationship, he sired a daughter named Cali-Shasta. The Pitt River Indians fought the U.S Army at the Battle ofCastle Crags in 1855. He often said he was on the 'wrong' side of that altercation,for an Indian woman was credited with saving his life. He also was injured there,claiming his cramped handwriting was a product of an arrow through his wrist and his neck, though no one ever remembered seeing him there and most accounts are taken from Nat himself ( and we know by now that he exagerated a bit!)

Somewhere along the way he was arrested for the borrowing of a horse that he didn’t buy, nor return. His Native American 'wife' is credited with freeing him from prison. He also said he was a Pony Express rider. Of course most of those records are lost to history, and there is no definitive list of riders. If Nat did ride for the Pony Express, it probably was short runs between Sacramento and Oakland, not overland.

Nat returned to Oregon and supposedly finished college. He moved around towards Nevada and Idaho, saying he mined a fortune in gold. He worked for a time as a mining camp cook- but contracted scurvy from eating his own cooking. 
By using the gold and  money he earned from the Pony Express, he bought into a newspaper, The Democratic Regester,installed himself as Editor and began writing in 1862.

 In 1864 He was elected as a Judge in Canyon City Oregon, Grant County. Evidently the charge of horse thief wasn’t a deterrent to him practicing law. In this time he began writing poems, sending them out to the Literati of the day. Bret Harte thought him a bit theatrical, but was kind in his critique, which served to encourage Nat, rather than deter him.

He married, legally for the first time around 1867, and had two (or three) children. In 1868 he published his own book of Poems- 500 copies of “Specimens”. He gave most of them away.

In 1870, his wife Teresea Dyer finally  tired of his shenanigans. He had been linked romantically with several woman, his lack of work ethic and his general malaise in respect to their marriage led to their divorce. Never one to weep, Nat continued to send his poems off, and in 1870 took encouraging words from Bret Hart to heart and lit off for San Francisco. He met the other circle of Bay Area writers there, most especially Ina Coolbrith who had a soft spot for him. It was she that told him he would never be a world class writer with a name like Cincinnatus- so he changed it, emulating someone he had just been writing about; Outlaw of California- Joaquin Murietta.

Joaquin  began to get more and more eccentric, his stories became more flamboyant.  Ambrose Bierce scoffed that Joaquin had,” invented himself reading dime novels.”  At this time his daughter Cali-Shasta showed up. Unsure what to do with her, he left her in the charge of Ina and went to England.

The Europeans have always been fascinated by the Wild West. In Joaquin Miller they found everything that they desired, eating his stories up and begging for more. Joaquin dressed in red flannel shirts, wore a sombrero hat like a cowboy, gauntleted his hands and stomped about in boots. He howled. He drank. He fornicated. He published ,The Song of the Sierra, and Life among the Modoc’s, claiming every word to be true to his life. 
Ambrose Bierce said of him,” He was the greatest liar this country ever produced. He cannot or will not tell the truth.”

Ambrose, Jack and Mark Twain all claimed that their stories were ‘true life’, and while that may mostly be true, there is still a bit of poetic license in all of them. The fact that they all called Joaquin Miller out on his ‘tall stories’ makes one wonder about their objectives. Of course,Joaquin’s claims about every aspect of his life also become suspect.

While in England he began to call himself, “The Byron of the Rockies”, or "The American Byron", and made quite a show of visiting Lord Byron's gravesite. He even laid a laurel wreath fashioned by Ina of California Laurels (Bay) on the grave of Lord Byron as a tribute.

By 1871 Joaquin was back in New York. Despite his rousing success, the adulation of the Europeans was wearing thin. Girl trouble?  I think probably.  While in New York he touted himself as a Play write, orator and writer but that success was just not enough.  He married Abigail Leland and had ( at least) one more child.But the West called him and soon he was back in San Francisco.

He began getting more notoriety, money was coming in. He bought several tracts of land and built a ‘compound’ he called “ The Hights’. The little house he built was called  "The Abby"  now a California State Park. Many notable writers began coming around, he hosted long parties, entertaining his friends and detractors alike.
Plaque at The Abby
The Abby

His love for the open spaces and the tall trees of his youth spurred him to plant hundreds of trees on his property as well as Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. Arbor Day was a Joaquin Miller invention, and the people who travel to Joaquin Miller Park can still see the trees he planted there. He even hired guards to protect his trees from revelers’ who wanted to cut Christmas Trees on his property during the holidays.

Redwood trees

Perhaps he was encouraged and jealous by the adventures of Ambrose Bierce and Jack London, because in 1897, not content to sit in The Hights and write, he travelled to The Yukon. It wasn’t a successful trip. He lost a few toes to frostbite.

Ever the lothario, he returned to The Hights, fended off a lawsuit from a 16 year old girl, and was kept company by his daughter Juanita. He died February 17 1913.

But of course the story doesn’t end there!  During his life Joaquin was captured by the stories of other mythic heroes- he considered himself one. On his property he had erected several monuments to people he considered worthy- Robert and Elizabeth Browning, Moses and John C Fremont. Why he didn't erect one to his hero Lord Byron is a mystery. He also erected a Funeral Pyre for himself, with instructions that his body should not be embalmed, and there should be no religious ceremony. This is what he wanted , but his wishes were mostly ignored. His funeral was held on Feb 19 and was attended by huge crowds of people, mostly wanting to be associated with his celebrated name. The Preacher who spoke called him  “The last of America’s great Poets”, although he himself said, "I couldn’t tell the difference between a hexameter and a pentameter to save my scalp.”

He was finally cremated and Members of The Bohemian Club  and The Press Club returned the ashes to the funeral pyre in May, where they burned the urn that held his ashes.

Joaquin Miller was one of the founders of the The Press Club of Alameda in 1909- A faction split off and is now renamed The California’s Writers Club.

Visitors to Oakland can visit Joaquin Miller Park take an easy hike around the park and see the monuments Joaquin erected. During the summer there are plays and music on The Steps. Every where the ghost of Joaquin lurks.  

The Writers Memorial Grove at Joaquin Miller Park in California celebrates Californias writers by the planting of trees. Of course the first tree planted was for Joaquin. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

On The California Trail of Captain Joseph R Walker- Mountain Man

My footfalls are softened as I walk among the tilting concrete and wooden stumps of potter’s field. 

The air is warm and sharp with pine and the graveyard is anything but quiet. Sugar pines  sway,throwing mottled shadows against grey granite tombstones, ship horns blare, as the steady rattle of a freight train floats up from below the ridge. This place is alive with sound, color, and  history.
This is not my first visit to the cemetery. I am a frequent visitor here. But today I am looking for a particular man.  I find him buried near the top of the hill, a leader among men; Captain Joseph R. Walker.

Born in 1798, Joseph Rutherford Walker was born in Roane County,Tennessee. How did he come to be buried at a Pioneer Cemetery in Martinez, California? 

Inscribed on his large granite tombstone are a list of accomplishments and a very succinct inscription:
“Camped at Yosemite Nov 13, 1833”

Tombstone of Joseph R Walker.
Photo taken by Sam Colacura

The power of that statement is readily apparent, perhaps more so to those of us living in California; California didn't become a State until Sept 9,1850, 

At the age of fifteen, Joe and his older brother Joel, joined General Andrew Jackson’s Army. It must have been a mighty adventure, especially since Joe was related to Jackson, as well as another hero of the War of 1812; Sam Houston. He learned about horses during this time, as his job was 'horse boy'. It was something that lasted him most of his life. Frequently history records that Joe was traveling with a herd of 100 or more horses, and on one instance he took a herd of 500 into Arizona. 

It wasn’t until Joe was nearing his 30’s that he decided to go west, when asked by Benjamin Bonneville to lead his trapping expedition. It is a matter of some speculation weather Joe was being paid by the U.S. Government to be a scout or a spy. Since Bonneville obtained a passport and visa for Joseph R Walker to enter into the Mexican held Territory of California, I might speculate to the latter.

Joe stayed with Bonneville and his party, making it as far as Green River Wyoming.   In January 1832 Bonneville sent  Joseph and a band of 58 well provisioned men, to scout passage to The Great Salt Lake and the Mormon held territory beyond. He was to return the following summer. But Joe Walker had his own ideas. It was rumored that Joe built his own party to continue into California. Perhaps he was working on behalf of the United States, recording new trails into and out of California. His extensive knowledge of  topography and Native American peoples served him well as he ventured where only two other white men had ever traveled. 

 He and his men traveled down the Humboldt River, camped around the Humboldt Sinks, and then went on to the shores of what is now Mono Lake. Seeking a passage across the mountains, they came across one of the greatest sights known to any man, Yosemite Valley.  Joseph and his men camped on the rim, unable to reach the valley floor. It must have made quite an impression, for every man that was able described it later in diaries and personal papers as one of the greatest sights of their lives. The date- you guessed it- November 13, 1833.

They had to continue South and then over the mountains, an arduous journey that proved to be nearly deadly. Though he never lost a man, the party was reduced to eating quite a few of their horses. Finally they reached the the Sequoia Big Trees, then North to San Juan Bautista where they obtained permission to camp from the Mission  Fathers. They were were 40 miles from St.(San) Francisco and 50 miles from Monterey. 

Over the next 34 years Joseph R Walker continued to criss-cross the deserts and mountains of California. He traveled frequently to the Southwest, selling mules and horses to the Army. He was friendly to the Native Tribes when able, and though he was asked to scout for the Mexican Government, he declined, preferring to travel and trade horses, scout trails and be a free man.  He often traveled with his nephew Frank McClellan. Again and again he traveled the trails from Missouri, across the United States and up and down California, leading Armies, wagon trains and explorers.
Never one to be intimidated by any man, his contemporaries were Capt John Sutter and Capt John C Fremont, Jim Bridger and U.S. Presidents. as well as simple men, He was an  individual that people were drawn to because of his strength of character

Finally with his eyesight failing and old age approaching, Joseph Walker retired to his nephews ranch called Manzinita,in Contra Costa, described as being near the Walnut Creek. It must have been closer to Martinez, because he was buried there after his death  on October 27,1876.
It was by his own request that the inscription was chiseled upon his stone.

View from Joseph R Walkers Gravesite, overlooking the Carquinez Straits
 Taken by Barbara Glenn
All in all Joseph R Walker has a Pass, a lake, a town (in Arizona) a river, a Basin, and a mining district named after him. He carried the first white child over the Continental Divide on his own horse. He risked his life to see what lay over the next ridge, and to make travel into the bountiful land of California safer for settlers.

photo circa 1860.Taken by Mathew Brady

Saturday, June 6, 2015

On The California Trail of...

Howdy Friends- if any of you are still out there!
I've been away from the Blog World for awhile, but I am going to begin again. Before I do, just a quick update~

My Grandson is now 7. He's a little man, raising stock, joining 4-H, hunting and shooting and camping with his Dad. He's growing like a weed and I'm afraid someday soon he will out grow me!

Mommy in Spurs has a full time job. her horse, Bob is 18 now, and she isn't showing him any longer, but she still rides him around the area. He's great for Jr to ride around. Mimi is in love and thinking about getting married.

I am retired from the Auction House- s o that will give me more time to ride and write and do other stuff too.

My newest creation is a series of History articles entitled " On the California Trail of..."
It will be about notorious California personalities, ( mostly Northern California) and retrace some of their stories.  I hope to be able to add photographs of the areas as they are now as well as recount  some history.

Some of the notables on my list are:

         Capt Joseph R Walker
          De Anza
         Captain John C Fremont

               John Muir  

                    Mark Twain
                  Bret Harte
                  John Steinbeck

Artists      Maynard Dixon
                  Ansel Adams
                Black Bart
               Capt Jack
               Joaquin Murietta
               Tiburcio Vasquez


                Joe Dimaggio

This list will keep me busy for quite awhile!

I hope you will join me as I work my way forward in this new adventure!