Joaquin Miller — Poet of the Sierras
By Gary VanDeWalker
Photo by Taryn Burkleo
As Interstate 5 brings travelers through the mountains of Northern California, they pass through history. The same route drew men on horseback – men such as Joaquin Miller. Born in Indiana in 1837, Miller’s parents moved to Oregon, taking him closer to his destiny. The lure of the Gold Rush and the adventures of a new frontier shaped the young man into a writer nicknamed “Poet of the Sierras.”
Drivers cruising down the Siskiyou Summit are introduced to the expanse of the Shasta Valley. To the south, Mt. Shasta rises and dominates, as the town of Yreka rests to the north. Miller followed this trail, finding the Gold Rush town of Yreka a chaotic, frenzied adventure. Hooking up with a miner, “Mountain Joe,” the two begin a search for gold at what is now the Soda Springs offramp.
Mining occupied Miller for a year, when with 29 other men, he confronted a group of Native Americans just a few miles north at Castle Crags. The battle changed Miller’s life. Moving from behind a tree, he was struck by an arrow, which pierced his face and stuck out back through his neck. His wounds were tended to at Portuguese Flat, considered one of the roughest mining camps in the state. Miller wore a beard to cover his scars. Today, the mining camp is a restaurant and gas station, Pollard Flat. Perhaps it is here he learned the truth he wrote, that a “man who lives for self alone, lives for the meanest mortal known.”
The young miner recovered, taking his journey over the ridge, now traversed by Highway 89 to McCloud. He settled among the Wintus, taking a Native American wife. Offering to help the tribe with supplies, he stole a mule for transportation, only to be arrested for the crime in Shasta City, near Redding. He staged a jailbreak, leaving behind a sarcastic letter to the sheriff, defending his departure by using scripture verses to justify his actions.
Miller’s restlessness returned him north to Yreka as a cook for the miners. When no pay was forthcoming, he acquired the camp’s horses to reimburse his time, selling them and returning the profit to the owner, after deducting his own pay. As he fled from the sheriff, Miller shot and injured the man, causing the future writer to seek exile in Oregon. His life in Oregon ranged from Pony Express rider to serving as a judge. The allure of California recaptured him and he returned, this time as a writer.
He settled in San Francisco, writing for the same newspaper as Mark Twain. He sought a publisher for a book of poems, Song of the Sierras, and Life Among the Modocs. Both writings were birthed from his experiences in Siskiyou and Shasta counties. He traveled to England, where he finally found success, presenting himself in a sombrero and declaring his visage as that of a true American cowboy, as his books disappeared into the hands of customers.
In his later years, he settled in Oakland on property that is now Joaquin Miller Park. He reflected on the days of his youth and showed remorse for his attitude toward Native Americans. He wrote of the lack of environmental consciousness as the miners destroyed the salmon of the Sacramento River by their practices. His works embellished his past, captured the beauty of California, and showed a vision for the future.
For those moving up and down the I-5 corridor in Northern California, they pass his history each day, now marked by offramps. His career as a miner, a cook, a horse thief and a writer are embodied in the small towns and patches of land where he walked. His life and successes are still debated, and the fame his name has captured. In this conversation he still walks in the woods of California. He wrote, “Fame lulls the fever of the soul, and makes us feel that we have grasped an immortality.”