Something about this region – perhaps the looming presence of Mount Shasta itself, often shrouded in both mystery and lenticular clouds – seems to either attract or cultivate all manner of contrarians and curmudgeons, free-thinkers and the fiercely independent.
This is, after all, secessionist territory, the so-called State of Jefferson, whose inhabitants periodically (like, well, right now) make a push to kick California to the curb and go it alone.
Little surprise, then, that the Mount Shasta Sisson Museum is in the midst of a three-year tribute to a larger-than-life figure who so embodies the wild contradictions that seem inherent in these parts. In paying homage to the late 19th century writer Joaquin Miller with an extensive exhibit and periodic events throughout Siskiyou County, folks here are honoring a man who ... well, we really should put it in a list format to fully appreciate the scope of his life. He was, at various times and in evolving incarnations:
All this, yes, in one man: Scoundrel and scholar, a sincere opportunist, an accused “liar” (so sayeth Ambrose Bierce, a friend) who always sought a higher truth.
You might think it would take a museum the size of the Smithsonian to synthesize such a dichotomous life. But the Sisson’s “A Man and the Mountain: Joaquin Miller’s Shasta Years” exhibit not only thoroughly covers the writer’s formative years (the 1850s) in the Shasta region but also shows how Miller’s writing was influenced by his early experience and how it retains relevancy today.
Miller’s mark evident
Locals here believe Miller, warts and all, should be as inextricably linked to Shasta as Muir is to the Sierra, Twain to the Mississippi and Thoreau and Emerson to rural New England. Tourists and day-trippers who visit the geologic splendor of Castle Crags Wilderness Area, or picnic near the McCloud River, or explore the lost mines of Humbug Creek, or even take off on a hike from Shasta’s Bunny Flats Trailhead, all will be touched, whether they know it or not, by history first recorded by Miller’s pen.
That makes a trip to the Sisson and the Miller exhibit worth the trip. And, to its credit, the Sisson exhibit does not gloss over the less-savory elements of Miller’s story. Executive director Jean Nels, curator Bill Miesse and Chris DeHart, coordinator of last month’s three-day Miller conference, have tried to go beyond labels and put his actions in historical context. What emerges is a nuanced portrait of a true Gold Rush original during a period when colorful characters came to our state in droves. And what endures, Miesse added, is a detailed body of writing about Shasta itself, both geographically and culturally.
“He captures the feel of the mountain that’s pretty remarkable,” said Miesse, a local historian who has written books about Mount Shasta as a subject for artists. “It’s very dramatic imagery.”
Miesse recalls his first reading of Millers’ seminal “Life Amongst The Modocs: Unwritten History,” a novelistic retelling of his time among the tribes of the region who clashed against white settlers. It didn’t take him beyond the first paragraph, in which Miller described Shasta as “lone as God, and white as a winter moon,” to get hooked. It doesn’t take long for the book to switch its point of view from reverence of nature to naturalistic realism.
“When I read on and it said, ‘I looked upon the mountain in whose shadows so many tragedies were to be enacted,’ I thought, ‘Tragedies?’” Miesse said. “It’s like a whole different feeling. When you consider his writing more carefully, it’s all about conflict. They started destroying whole tribes of people. You think, ‘Holy smokes, I’ve never read anything so graphic in terms of what really happened.’ The reasons Miller could write it that well wasn’t that he could describe things, but because he had seen it and been involved in the massacres, the skirmishes and shooting and killing. You can’t say that about a lot of the other writers at the time.”
Far from being apologists, the historians and curators and the just-curious who gathered recently in Shasta City for the Miller conference not only accept but embrace the writer’s many contradictions and what may or may have been embellishments in the narrative of his 76 years.
They accept that most serious literary critics consider Miller a minor figure of the period, a self-promoter whose prose was embroidered with fanciful fictions and whose poetry was a poor man’s Whitman made interesting only by its subject matter. They accept, too, with a collective shake of the head, that he named his best-seller “Life Amongst the Modocs” when he really lived among the Wintu. The Reason? The Modocs were better known and in the news.
They also acknowledge that Miller is a mostly forgotten figure today, not taught in college or high school courses. They can even come to terms with his serious character flaws – abandoning wife and children thrice, switching sides several times in the Indian conflict, decrying in editorials about abolishing slavery – because, in later years, given the fullness of time and tranquility in which to reconstruct his actions and motives, Miller came down firmly on the side of Indian sovereignty and smart environmental stewardship in regards to deforestation and the erosion of streams due to mining.
Plus, people here sort of cottoned to Miller’s bravado and swagger. They like his self-invention and reinvention, chuckle that he left behind his given name, Cincinnatus Hiner, in favor of Joaquin, after the celebrated Mexican “bandit” Joaquin Murrieta. They even are OK with his fashion choices – the long, curly locks, his outfit like a “Spanish vaquero with sombrero and red silken sash, ... beaded moccasins and high-top boots,” according to biographer O.W. Frost.
Some can even accept that, in 1863 while the editor of Eugene (Ore.) City Review, he wrote an anti-government screed touting “freedom of the white man before the negro” because he resisted a call to draft Oregonians to aid the North in the Civil War.
“He was politically incorrect all of his life,” said Margaret Guilford-Kardell, at age 92 the author of an extensive online bibliography of Miller’s works and editor of a Miller newsletter. “People today will label people as a communist or socialist, what have you. But he kept changing. He was basically a journalist. People don’t understand that. He could write and report on both sides of the fence. Was he an opportunist? No, but he wasn’t stupid, either. He knew what made a good story.”
Master of self-reinvention
How’s this for a portrait of the artist as a young man?
At 16, in 1854, Miller left his father’s farm in Oregon to try his luck at mining in the Shasta area. He hooked up with an older miner named Mountain Joe – later featured in many of Miller’s books – in Lower Soda Springs, south of Shasta.
The next year, Miller and Mountain Joe became embroiled in the Battle of Castle Crags. Miller and Joe, plus 29 white men and a few “friendly” Indians, cornered a large group of Indians in what is now a popular wilderness area and rock climbing park southwest of Shasta. The posse’s leader, Judge Rueben Gibson, instructed the teenage Miller to hide behind a tree while the rest fought the Indians. But when Gibson yelled “attack,” Miller did just that. As Miller wrote decades later of the battle, “An arrow ... struck the left side of my face, knocked out two teeth ... and forced its point through the back of my neck.” Miller, of course, survived with a ghastly scar to show for it – later covered by a thick beard.
Shortly thereafter, Miller apparently tired of mining and went to live with Wintu Indians on the McCloud River on Shasta’s east side. After the onset of the Pit River skirmishes in 1857, Miller apparently feared he would be blamed for organizing the Indian uprising, even though he was living 60 miles away from the battle site. When Miller went to Yreka to tell what he knew (or didn’t know) of the uprising, he claimed he was “forced” to join two companies of men that marched to Pit River and massacred scores of Indians. He later wrote that he escaped the white posse and returned to the Indians, feeling regretful for his part in the killings.
His next brush on both sides of the law came in 1859, when Miller was living with a dwindling band of Wintu near Shasta. When the tribe needed gunpowder, Miller stole a mule and rode to Shasta City, where he was arrested. Newspaper reports said Miller and another staged a jail break by sawing through the bars. The Shasta Courier reported that Miller “left a rather saucy letter to the sheriff, which contained sundry quotations from the Scriptures in justification.”
Here’s where Miller, writing later in “Life Amongst the Modocs,” starts embroidering, according to biographers. He wrote that his Indian squaw, Paquita, broke him out of jail but was fatally shot by the law while crossing a river with him.
In truth, Miller and Paquita lived together after that and had a child, Cali-Shasta, before Miller abandoned the two of them late in 1859 to switch sides again and become a cook for mining operation in Deadwood, near Yreka. Going weeks without pay, Miller got revenge on the mining chief by stealing the operation’s draft horses and selling them. Miller pocketed his earnings, gave the owner the rest of the money and lit out north as fast as he could. The sheriff caught up with him, a gunbattle ensued, and he shot the sheriff, not fatally, in the left side. A bench warrant for “assault with intent to commit murder” was issued by the Siskiyou County Court of Sessions, but Miller had fled to Oregon by then.
So what does a fugitive from justice do? First, he became a Pony Express rider in Oregon and Idaho. Then he bought a newspaper and advocated seceding from the Union, then married an Oregon woman while still technically hitched to Paquita, then got elected as a judge in Grant County, Ore., then decided to become a poet and abandoned his wife and two children, then went to San Francisco to write for the same paper as Mark Twain and Bret Harte, then sashayed to London and New York City to pose as a friend of The Noble Savage and find a publisher for “Song of the Sierras,” a book of poems, and “Life Amongst the Modocs,” which would make him famous for a time.
Now a man of letters, having married and abandoned a third wife, he repaired to the foothills of Oakland to start a bohemian writers community, leaving the verdant grounds (now Joaquin Miller Park in Oakland) occasionally for adventures, such as reporting on the Klondike gold rush in Alaska for Hearst newspapers.
Confronting the past
Throughout his life, though, Miller was a miner, not of gold but of his experiences, for literary fodder. His later works also served as mea culpas.
In 1881’s “Shadows of Shasta,” Miller excoriated whites for their treatment of Indians, not just in the Shasta region but nationwide, a stance that drew scorn from the political and literary establishment, writing, “We are making dreadful history, dreadfully fast. How terrible it will all read when the writer and reader of these lines are long since forgotten! Ages may roll by. We may build a city over every dead tribe’s bones. We may bury the last Indian deep as the eternal gulf. But these records will remain, and will rise up in testimony against us to the last day of our race.”
His most personal work was “Memorie and Rime” in 1884, where he attempted to justify his misspent youth and solidify his evolving beliefs as an environmentalist deploring mining practices and an Indian rights advocate. One famous passage about his involvement in the Pit River massacre, which is featured prominently in the Sisson exhibit, reads: “by my energy, recklessness and knowledge of the country and Indians’ customs, I , and only I, made the bloody expedition a success. I tell this in sorrow.”
Whether Miller was sincere in his remorse – and Miller scholars believe he was – there is no doubting that his imprint remains strong in the shadows of Shasta, just he predicted in “Life Amongst the Modocs”: “There loomed Mount Shasta, with which my name, if remembered at all, will be remembered.”
A MAN AND THE MOUNTAIN: JOAQUIN MILLER’S SHASTA YEARS
Mount Shasta Sission Museum