Joaquin Miller: ‘Poet of the Sierras’ or ‘Greatest Liar This Country Ever Produced’
My rickety old horse was slowly approaching a broken-down building with a crooked SALOON sign swaying in the breeze. She knew where she was going, so I dismounted, tied her up outside and entered through the swinging doors. I somehow knew this was just a dream, yet for some reason I felt an extraordinary clarity of mind. I sat at a creaky, round table and ordered a frosty pitcher of beer. I knew I would have company.
I heard him before I saw him. The ching, ching of his California spurs thumped against the wooden porch out front, causing me to look up as he made his grand entrance through the batwing saloon doors.
He was tall with scraggly chin whiskers extending down over his chest. His hair was long and unkempt, and his eyes betrayed an intensity reserved for geniuses and serial killers. His gaze was slightly unsettling. Though covered in a thin layer of dust, he was formally attired in a black, double-breasted suit and necktie, not dissimilar to formal military garb.
“The name is Cincinnatus Heine Miller, sir,” he drawled, “but you can call me Joaqin Miller, ‘Poet of the Sierras.‘ I am that very man in the flesh.”
“I’ve heard of you,” I grinned, delighted with my good fortune.
Joaquin Miller was one of those larger-than-life California characters you always hear about, but never expect to meet. Kind of a cross between Mark Twain and Buffalo Bill, Joaquin Miller spent considerable time in Northern California in the late 1800s, and made a name for himself as a poet, soldier, politician, pathological liar and accused horse thief. He was both “the greatest-hearted man I ever knew” according to novelist/poet Ambrose Bierce, yet also “the greatest liar this country ever produced” according to the same source. The fact that he had just sashayed into my life was, literally, the stuff of dreams.
“I heard you were a horse thief,” I quipped.
“BALDERDASH,” he stammered. “Whomever is spreading vile lies about me is a blithering guttersnipe, sir, without the spine to confront me face-to-face. I am a man of letters, and if I were you, sir, I would avoid trafficking in wholesale fabrication!”
“Chill out,” I replied. “It’s just something I heard. Pull up a chair and have a brew.”
“Don’t mind if I do, sir.” He downed his first beer in a protracted series of glugs, inviting me to do the same.
“So what do you consider your finest poem,” I inquired just to make conversation.
“Well let’s see,” he whispered. “I would have to go with ‘Columbus,’ my poem in honor of fellow-poets Robert Burns and Lord Byron, husband of Mary Shelly who, as you know, wrote the novel Frankenstein. You know, sir, that lines from my little rhymes are memorized by school children around the country. Several California schools are named in my honor.”
“How does ‘Columbus’ go,” I queried.
“In men whom men condemn as ill,” (he chanted)
“I find so much of goodness still.
In men whom men pronounce divine
I find so much of sin and blot
I do not dare to draw a line
Between the two, where God has not.”
“That’s pretty deep,” I observed while pouring us each another round.
“Thank you, sir. You know they turned my cabin, ‘The Hights,’ into Joaquin Miller Park over in Oakland after I died, sir. I planted most of the trees still standing there, and that’s where I built my own funeral pyre where I had them cremate me,” he chuckled. “How many folks do you know who have built their own funeral pyres?”
“That’s a hot one,” I smiled, rolling my eyes, but I don’t think he got the reference. We both finished another beer.
“Tell me about your dealings with the Natives. You’ve written about them in your novels Life Amongst the Modocs, and The Battle of Castle Crags. You’ve lived with them, and fought against them at various times.”
“Well, sir, yes, I have lived among them. Like every other race, some are good, and others not so good.”
“Weren’t you wounded by an arrow in the Battle of Castle Crags?”
“Yes, sir, I was. The bastards thought they’d got me, but I refused to die. I recuperated at what we used to call Portuguese Flat. I believe it’s now called Pollard Flat on the upper Sacramento River.”
“Didn’t you father a daughter with a Native woman? You named the girl Cali-Shasta (“Lily of the Shasta”), and later you denied she was yours?”
“Yet another beastly lie, sir! Her mother and I were platonic friends; that is all!”
“Yet when she was a teenager, you paid to have the girl educated in San Francisco.”
“Gallantry, sir, is not entirely dead, even for the daughter of a platonic friend.”
“Oh come on,” I continued. “Later you married Theresa Dyer, had three kids with her and later denied that son Henry was even yours! She later divorced you for being ‘wholly neglectful.’ Was that before or after your affair with actress Adah Menken?”
“A man, sir, often finds himself at the mercy of fate and circumstance. Women have always favored me, and who am I to deny their whims? Let the scurrilous rumors and lies cease! Let us recall, sir, I’ve also served as a Pony Express rider, a novelist and poet, a mining camp cook, a lawyer and a judge!”
“And an occasional horse thief,” I added.
“You may be buying the beer, sir, but they might still carry you out of here on a plank!”
“But you spent time in Shasta County jail in 1859 for stealing a horse. It’s part of the legal record!”
“Let my poems and novels stand as the legal record against me! I’m all the rage in England, you know. My works are read by children and adults in far oases across the world. Women are drawn to me; men want to be like me. Now you must excuse me. I have to see a horse about a man.”
“Don’t you mean you have to see a man about a horse?”
“On the contrary, my friend. And now I must bid you adieu.”
With great flourish and a deep bow before exiting the room, the infamous Joaquin Miller, poet, novelist, lawyer, judge, prospector, soldier and man about town marched right out of my dream, and my life.
Later, when I left the saloon, my horse was missing.