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Literature of Mount Shasta

Joaquin Miller

Segment from Chapter XVII in
History of Siskiyou County, California

By Harry Wells, 1881

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One of the characters of Siskiyou county was the celebrated "poet of the Sierra." His true name is Cincinnatus Heine Miller, and he was born near Cincinnati, Ohio, November 10, 1842. Ten years later the family crossed the plains, and settled in Lane county, Oregon. Young Miller enjoyed the privileges of a school but six months in his boyhood. In 1856, being but fourteen years of age, he ran away from home and came to California, and being unable to earn a living among the rough miners, drifted into an Indian rancheria on McLeod river, where the lazy, dreamy life of the savage seems to have filled the ideal of his poetic imagination. He enjoyed a proud distinction of being what is termed a "squaw man" for some time. The free and careless life of the savage seemed to satisfy the cravings of his soul, and he found the society of these children of nature, and the faithful ministrations of the daughter of the forest, more congenial to his tastes than the noise, greed and turmoil of a mining camp.

The massacre of Harry Lockhart and his companions at the Pit river ferry, in the spring of 1857, came near being fatal to the young poet. Sam. Lockhart, Harry's twin brother, captured him, and took him to Yreka, where he was placed in charge of A. M. Rosborough, while Sam. was investigating the affair. He became satisfied that Miller was not connected with this affair, and let him depart; but had it been otherwise, the poet's days in the land of the living would have been few. After that event the budding poet occupied the distinguished position of cook at a mining claim on McAdam's creek. Even there he considered himself a poet, as does many a deluded young man, and was transferring his burning thoughts, products of his fevered imagination and his adventures, upon paper, for future use.

He dressed in a buckskin suit, complete even to the gloves, and wore his long yellow hair hanging down to his shoulders. Hiner Miller was the name he was known by, for the name of the Mexican bandit, Joaquin, was not adopted until his poetic effusions began to tickle the fancy of an admiring world. The Long-haired Oregonian, the un-poetic miners called him. They could not appreciate the beauties of a nature flexible enough to vibrate between poetry and bacon; they misunderstood the man whose soul soared in the clouds of imagery while his hand dextrously stirred a pot of beans. 'Tis our misfortune in this world to be misunderstood. On Sundays, when the affairs of the cuisine had been fully attended to, it was his custom to walk up to Deadwood, arrayed in his buckskin suit, gloves and all, and sit all day in the bar-room reading the papers. When the warning finger of the clock spoke eloquently to him of bacon, beans and plum-duff, he would hie to his poetical retreat in the kitchen down by the creek.

One day Bill Hurst, arrayed in a capacious pair of gloves, seated himself before Miller and began to imitate the poet's manner of reading, much to the amusement of the crowd. The object of ridicule paid no attention to this maneuver, but when the time of day and beans associated themselves together in his mind, he went out, remarking, "I'll have to kill some one in this town yet." After this incident some time, Miller was employed by this same Hurst to cook for him, and one day the time came for "grub," and the cook was gone. His soul had rebelled; he had stirred poetry and mush together as long as his sensitive nature would permit, and he had departed, Hurst's derrick-horse disappearing simultaneously, as it were. Disposing of this valuable animal he appeared at the tow of Millville, in Shasta county, where there was being held a political meeting. Helping himself to a horse belonging to John Bass, the fleeing poet sped into the mountains and once more took up his abode among the guileless natives of the beautiful McLeod. For a short time did he roam among the murmuring pines and linger beside the swiftly rushing stream, whispering words of love to the Dark Lily of the Brook or the Wild Rose of the Forest with not a cloud to dim his dream of happiness and love, and then came the awakening. One night the cruel officers of the law appeared at the door of his wigwam, tore him from the clinging embrace of the Wild Rose, and bore him away into captivity. See how he describes it in The Tale of Tall Alcalde: -

They bore me abound for many a day
Through fen and wild, by foaming flood,
From my dear mountains far away,
Where an adobe prison stood
Beside a sultry, sullen town,
With iron eyes and stony frown;
And in a dark and narrow cell,
So hot it almost took my breath,
And seem'd but an outpost of hell,
They thrust me - as if I had been
A monster - in a monster's den.

He languished for some time in the Shasta jail. Let him describe it: -

I cried aloud, I courted death,
I called unto a strip of sky,
The only thing beyond my cell
That I could see; but no reply
Came but the echo of my breath.
I paced - how long I cannot tell -
My reason failed, I knew no more,
And swooning fell upon the floor.
Then months went on, till deep one night,
When long, thin bars of lunar light
Lay shimmering along the floor,
My senses came to me once more.

Finally he made his escape. How different the reality from the romantic description given in the poem. Listen: -

At last, one midnight, I was free;
* * * * * * *
Short time for shouting or delay, -
The cock is shrill, the east is gray,
Pursuit is made, I must away.
* * * * * * *
I dash the iron in his side,
Swift as the shooting stars I ride;
I turn, I see, to my dismay,
A silent rider, red as they;
I glance again - it is my bride,
My love, my life, rides at my side.

Such is the web of fancy. What is the reality? A noted thief named Jack Marshall is responsible for the release of Miller and his mysterious flight from the jail. For a time thereafter he lived on the island in Scott valley with a band of notorious characters, among whom were Jack Marshall, Nels Scott, Dave English, and Frank Tompkins.

Time passed on. One day in 1859, a stranger appeared in one of the saloons of Deadwood and gave the usual whole-souled invitation of "Everybody come up and take something." The cordial invitation was not allowed to grow cold upon his lips before there was a general rush for the bar, and a clinking of glasses followed. John Hendricks was sitting there, and some on asked who the stranger could be. "Why, don't you know him?" was the reply. "That's Hiner Miller." And so it was. The fugitive poet, divested of his buckskin suit and his waving yellow locks, had returned. When he heard his name spoken, the stranger raised his filled glass high in the air, and brought it down upon the counter with a low that shivered it to atoms and made the glasses on the counter dance like manikins. "Yes," said he, "I'm Hiner Miller. Is there any one here wants anything of Hiner Miller?" Laying his hand on his pistol, he slowly backed out of the room and was gone.

Let us see what the "Tall Alcalde" has to say about it: -

"'Tis he!" hissed the crafty advocate.
He sprang to his feet, and hot with haste
He reached his hands, and he called aloud,
"'Tis the renegade of the red McCloud!"
Then slow the Alcalde rose and spoke,
And the lightning flashed from a cloud of hair,
"Hand me, touch me, him who dare!"
And his heavy glass on the board of oak
He smote with such savage and mighty stroke,
It ground to dust in his bony hand,
And heavy bottles did clink and tip
As if an earthquake were in the land.
He towered us, and in his ire
Seemed taller than any church's spire.
He gazed a moment - and then the while
An icy cold and defiant smile
Did curve his thin and his livid lip,
He turned on his heel and strode through the hall
Grand as a god, so grandly tall,
And white and cold as a chisel'd stone.
He passed him out the adobe door
Into the night, and he passed alone,
And never was known of heard of more.

There is a little discrepancy here, for he was heard of more. Bill Hurst procured a warrant from Justice Quivey and with Constable Bradley went to the cabin on the creek, whither Miller had gone to collect some money due him from his old employer, Willis Thompkins. This was at daylight. Miller saw them coming and ran up a hill back of the cabin, followed by Bradley and Hurst on horseback. He fired several times at Hurst who was in the rear, and then, being closely pressed by Bradley fired upon and wounded him, then making his escape up the hill. Several persons trailed him for some distance and lost his track. That night C. H. Pyle, John Hendricks, Wesley Morse, Philip Pencil, and Bill Hurst went to an Indian rancheria a number of miles distant, surrounded it and made a search, without finding the fugitive, who had gone to the Warren place in the valley, where Tompkins paid him two hundred dollars, as they had agreed that day.

Miller then joined Walker's Nicaragua expedition, and filibustered with the "gray-eyed man of destiny" until the collapse of that scheme. He then seems to have made a reformation, for he returned to Oregon, read law, ran an express line in the Idaho mines, became a county judge in Oregon, and finally blossomed out as Joaquin Miller, the long-haired poet of the Sierra," to live for a time the pet of cultured Boston and staid and dignified London, and then to fall ingloriously from his high pedestal into the rank and file of ordinary literary toilers, where he now remains.

No one expects a poet to tell the truth, even when he makes a pretense of doing so, and when Miller wrote a book entitled Unwritten History, or Life Among the Modocs, no one acquainted with the facts was disappointed in finding it a bundle of false-hood and misrepresentation. He claims to have built the "lost cabin," when people where hunting it while he was wearing short pants in Ohio. He claims to have married the daughter of a Modoc chief, when he never lived within a hundred miles of the Modocs. The claim was made, and the above title given to his book just to take advantage of the notoriety of the Modocs in order to find a sale for his book; a piece of unjustifiable literary charlatanism. He lived with a McLeod River squaw, who still gains a precarious livelihood in the cabin of another "squaw-man," who seems to have stuck to it longer than the poet. A few years ago he took his half-breed daughter from the mountain wilds to San Francisco to be educated, an act for which he deserves great credit, contrasted, as it is, with the course pursued by many prominent men, some of military fame, who have families of uncared-for children in the mountains. In this respect Miller stands head and shoulders above them. In general it may be said of the above book, that he has taken all the leading events of Northern California, most of which happened long before he appeared there, made himself the central figure, distorted the facts, and given them to the world as a truthful account of the dealings of the white men with the Indians.

In regard to the above account of Miller's early career, every statement can be substantiated by twenty reliable citizens, and the old indictment for stealing Bass' horse is still on file in the court-house at Shasta. Due credit must be given him for rising form the low position to which he had fallen. His perseverance and study, aided by an inordinate vanity and desire to be a lion in the eyes of the people, made him succeed where thousands have failed. Would that the same vanity could be infused into the souls of many who till bask in the smiles of, and beat with a club, some Dark Rose or Mountain Blossom.

 

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