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Joaquin Miller School

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About the School

Who Was Joaquin Miller?

Joaquin MillerJoaquin Miller was a colorful figure who was well known in California literary and social circles. He spent his last years in Oakland, in a home on the road that is now Joaquin Miller Road. But his real name — the name he was given at birth on Sept. 8, 1837 — was Cincinnatus Hiner. The name "Joaquin" was adapted later from the legendary California bandit, Joaquin Murietta.

Joaquin Miller's parents were Quakers. Miller's father was a magistrate in Indiana. In 1852, his parents relocated their family to Oregon, traveling with two heavily laden wagons, eight oxen yoked to each, a carriage and two horses. The three thousand mile trip took seven months and five days. The family settled in the Williamette Valley in Oregon where they established a home and farm.

Miller, while still a boy, headed to California with another boy during the early Gold Rush. He worked in a number of mining camps. He reported that he was severely wounded in a battle between the settlers near Mt. Shasta and the Modoc Indian Tribe when an arrow pierced his face and exited the back of his neck. The arrow passed close to the base of his brain. Although he eventually recovered from the wound, he suffered both physical and mental effects of the injury for at least a year. He later had little recollection of that period of time. He survived other battles with Northern California Indian groups, and had several altercations with the law over matters relating to the ownership of livestock and gun play.

Miller left Northern California and traveled to San Francisco. From there he claimed that he travelled to Nicaragua by ship, and then returned to Oregon. But it turned out the trip to Nicaragua was a fabrication. In Oregon, Miller attended college briefly, taught school, studied law, and was admitted to the bar. The lure of gold in Idaho was more than he could resist. He again headed for the gold fields.

Miller returned to Oregon again at the beginning of the Civil War with enough gold to build a new home and purchase a newspaper. In his newspaper, The Eugene City Democratic Register Miller pleaded for an end to the Civil War, adopting the Quaker creed of his father. He was eventually elected to the position of Judge in a Southern Oregon community.

In 1868, Miller's first book of poetry "Specimens" was published by William D. Carter in Portland. The first book and Miller's second, "Joaquin et Al," were both ignored by American critics, even the "Bards of San Francisco Bay" to whom Miller dedicated the second volume.

Chagrined, as well as discouraged, Miller went to England, the mother country of the poets. But the English publishers of 1870 were unimpressed and Miller was forced to print 100 copies of his "Pacific Poems" at his own expense. Success was immediate and staggering. The London literate lionized the painstakingly crude frontiersman with the delicate writing touch. Miller captured entire drawing rooms of British intelligentsia, dazzling them with his velvet coat, hip boots and the bear rug he threw on the floor to comfort him as he spouted his own writings.

His first book, Song of The Sierras was published in 1871. Miller also published his second book, Life Among The Modocs, in Europe. It was a success in Paris.

Joaquin Miller returned from Europe 1883, and settled in Oakland. The patchy chaparral and brown grasslands of the Oakland Hills did not suit his idea of nature, so he constructed a 75-acre forest watered by distant springs. This garden, known as the Hights, became a place of pilgrimage for travellers who craved a few hours in the presence of his ersatz 49er persona. To this place also came the literary figures of his day, including Ambrose Bierce, George Sterling, Ina Coolbrith, Charles Warren Stoddard, Lillie Langtry, and Yone Noguichi, the Japanese poet and father of sculptor Isao Noguichi.

Joaquin Miller visited the Klondike during the Alaskan Gold Rush. He returned to The Hights after six months, exhausted from his Alaskan adventures, with thousands of dollars of gold dust, and $6,000 from W. R. Hurst for his Alaskan letters.

In his later years Joaquin Miller became known as "The Poet of The Sierras." Six volumes of his collected poems and other writing were published in 1909. Selected Writings of Joaquin Miller, and Unwritten History, or My Life Among The Modocs were published by Urion Press in the 1970's. His best known works are "Crossing the Plains" and "The Yukon."

He died in Oakland, February 17, 1913.


Excerpted heavily, with permission, from the External LinkCentral California Poetry Journal and the External LinkCalifornia Reader