Nestled in the hills above Oakland, there stands an unassuming cottage. It sits in a 500-acre city park and is preserved as a memorial to someone who is largely forgotten today. It is “The Abbey” and it was the home of Joaquin Miller, the “Poet of The Sierras”. Miller purchased 75 acres of land, now part of the park, which bears his name in 1886, built the cottage and planted the surrounding trees, and lived there until his death in 1913.
Joaquin Miller was born in Indiana, in 1839 to Hulings and Margret Miller. He was their second son and was given the name Cincinnatus Hiner Miller. His parents, like many of that time, were bitten by “Oregon Fever” and moved to the Willamette Valley in 1852. There, he helped build the family home near present-day Coburg. In 1854, “Nat”, as he was then called, ran off to California and was a miner and a cook near Yreka. It was at this time that Miller took part in the Battle of Castle Craigs and was wounded in the face. He recovered in the mining camp of Portuguese Flat, about thirty-five miles north of Redding.
Miller considered joining William Walker’s “filibustering” expedition to Nicaragua and then spent the rest of 1855 and 1856 working and mining in the Yreka area. He spent the winter of 1856-1857 with the Wintu people on the McCloud River. In the summer of 1857, he, according to his autobiographical novel, “Life Among the Modocs”, married the daughter of a Wintu Chieftain, who would later bear him a child. Later in the year, Miller took part in the Pit River Massacre, siding with the Natives. By 1858, he was attending Columbia College in Eugene, Oregon, leaving after two months and teaching school in Vancouver Washington. He would attend Columbia College again for a brief time in 1859.
During the period between 1859 and the start of the Civil War, Miller moved between northern California and southern Oregon working various odd jobs, teaching school, becoming a partner in a pony express company. He was also arrested for stealing a mule and a bench warrant was issued in Siskiyou County for “assault with the intent to commit murder”. Miller was in Oregon by this time and by 1862, he purchased a house in Eugene, Oregon, and married his first, allegedly second, wife Minnie. He and a partner founded the Democratic Register in Eugene, which took a pro-southern stance and was banned from the mails by 1862. He and his partner then founded the Eugene City Review, which was less pro-southern than the Democratic Register. In 1863, some of Miller’s poetry was published in the Golden Era Review, a literary magazine founded and edited by Bret Harte. His poetry receives some warm reviews.
In 1863, Miller and his wife moved to San Francisco, where Miller wrote for the Golden Era Review. When the magazine is unable to pay him, Miller moved to Canyon City, Oregon where he practiced law, and his wife and newborn daughter join him. In 1866, Miller was elected a judge for Grant County and he treated the citizens to poetry readings. He served as a judge for three years. During his tenure on the bench, he is described as “a little cracked”. In 1868, he moved to Port Orford where he self-published his first collection of poetry entitled, “Specimens”. In 1869, he moved to Portland where his first well-known book “Joaquin et. al.” is published. His son is born then and soon after he is divorced from his first wife on the grounds of mutual infidelity.
In 1870, Miller traveled to San Francisco on his way to London and met, among others, Ina Coolbrith, later Poet Laureate of California, groundbreaking librarian and mentor to a young Jack London. She tells him to change his name from Cincinnatus to Joaquin, after Joaquin Murrieta, whom he wrote about. He then left for London and arrived in October. While in Europe, he visited the battlefields of the Franco-Prussian War and in 1871, his books Pacific Poems and Songs of the Sierras are published and Miller becomes the toast of the London literary scene. In 1872, he was invited to the court of Emperor Dom Pedro. During the rest of the 1870s and ’80s, Joaquin Miller continues to travel, write, and publish poetry and plays which earn him fame and a modest fortune. In 1879, Miller married hotel heiress Abigail Leland and they had a daughter, Juanita in 1880. In 1883, Joaquin moved the family to Washington DC and built a log cabin in which to live. Abigail left him soon after.
In 1886, Miller invested $90,000 in Jay Gould’s Vandalia Railroad and lost all of his investment. He returned to California and in 1887 purchased 75 acres in the hills near Oakland which he named “The Hights” and built his final home there. In the 1880s through the early 1900s, Miller wrote for the San Francisco Examiner and was sent by William Randolph Hearst to cover the Klondike Gold Rush and the Boxer Rebellion. His home becomes a stop for the likes of Mark Twain and Lilly Langtry. In 1905 he was honored at the Pan Pacific Exposition with a “Joaquin Miller Day” and in 1913, he passed away, peacefully, at his home near Oakland.
In 1915, his daughter sold the house and surrounding land to the city of Oakland and it became the nucleus of the park which now bears his name. In the aftermath of the First World War, the heroic style of his poetry fell out of favor and Joaquin Miller, once a famous poet celebrated in London, Paris, Brazil, and the United States is now largely forgotten.
GETTING THERE: From 414 Mason Street take Interstate 80 East to Interstate 580 East. Take exit 19B onto CA-24 East. From Ca-24 East, take exit 5 onto CA 13 East; then take exit 2 toward Joaquin Miller Drive. Turn left onto Joaquin Miller Drive. The house at 3801 Joaquin Miller Drive, will be on your left.