Joaquin Miller (his adopted pen name) was a “frontiersman poet” who lived at the time of great exploration across the American West, moving between mining towns and agricultural areas, spending time in California during the great Gold Rush period. He lived amongst the Modoc Indians for a year and, reputedly, took a Native American woman as his first wife, producing two children. When he visited England his “American wild west” looks and reputation led to his acquisition of the nicknames “Poet of the Sierras” and “Byron of the Rockies”.
He was born Cincinnatus Heine Miller in September,1837 in the town of Liberty, Indiana. Some years later though Miller changed this story to one describing being born on a wagon heading west, and four years later in 1841. He spent his early years in Oregon farming country but moved to California to seek his fortune in the gold fields when he was old enough. His life with the Modoc Indians is described in three separate accounts: Life Amongst the Modocs, An Elk Hunt and the latter, The Battle of Castle Crags, reports an arrow injury to his cheek and neck. His travels also took him to Nicaragua where he was a filibustering soldier for a while attempting to overthrow the government.
One of his poems (written around 1856) is at odds with accounts of Miller’s apparent joy of travelling. He saw himself as a bit of an outsider when far away from home and the lines below describe (with a distinct lack of punctuation) his feelings:
Miller certainly lived a life full of variety; at various times he was a cook in a mining camp, horse thief, pony express rider and, curiously, a county judge. In between all these activities he served as editor of the Confederate sympathising “Democratic Register” in Eugene, Oregon. In the same year, 1862, Miller married for a second time to a fellow poet who wrote under the name Minnie Myrtle. They had two children but the marriage only last a few years. Nothing is known about the demise of his first “marriage” so it is likely that this was of an unofficial, unrecorded nature.
At the age of 31 Miller got his first poetry collection published but Specimens sold very few copies. A second attempt, Joaquin et al, met with similar failure. Shortly after this his second wife filed for divorce due to her husband’s “neglect”. Three years later Miller tried his luck in England and his status as a “wild west oddity” established his name in British press and literary circles. He was called a “licensed libertine” and described as “charming, amiable, and harmless”. It was a relatively short visit though and Miller soon returned to America where he once more made his way to California for a relatively peaceful existence growing fruit.
In 1877 his story First Fam’lies of the Sierras was turned into a play. It had strong anti-Mormon themes and was relatively successful, being published in book form later that same year. In 1879 he married for a third time and he lived in Oakland, California for the rest of his life, apart from a couple of periods of travel in the Yukon and Alaska. The latter visit almost cost him his life, with a severe case of frostbite claiming two of his toes.
He was often criticised for his writing with some pointing out his lack of ability regarding spelling and his unorthodox attitudes to rhyme. Miller recognised his own shortcomings and was quoted thus:
Joaquin Miller died at his home “The Hights” in February1913 and he was cremated on a funeral pyre that he had, himself, built. He was 75 years old.