Joaquin Miller The poet of the gold rush

The California Gold Rush: Joaquin's Inspiration

Beginning with the surprise discovery of gold by James Marshall in January of 1848, The United States of America would never be the same. Ordinary people flocked from all over the world to California as the news began to spread of an incredible overnight opportunity to gain wealth: gold mining. A resource so plentiful and intriguing, the opportunity had too much potential to pass up. Not only were unemployed people jumping on this opportunity, but farmers from all regions of America began to sell their farms and move west to capitalize on the potential. By December of 1849, an influx of approximately 80,000 people had made the trek to California. The crazed rush for gold boosted American economy greatly and brought riches beyond belief: an estimated $400 million dollars between 1848 and 1855.

As miners flocked to California, communities of gold miners or now, forty-niners, emerged throughout the West. An unparalleled culture of swagger and chaos was carried in these "camps" that had never before occurred in America.

"Each one of these camps is a world of itself. History, romance, tragedy, poetry, in every one of them." -Joaquin Miller, 1890

Many different cultures from the East and Europe came together and suffered through un-ideal conditions for the same goal. The camps were pre-dominantly male and it was said that the appearances of all the miners were rough and similar: consisting of untrimmed facial hair, an unwashed flannel shirt, and old trousers. While there were certainly better conditions in famous mining cities like Placerville, most miners camped out and lived in unsanitary, crowded conditions away from normal civilization.

Placerville, California in 1853: a rare example of good living circumstances for gold miners.

The climate and prospect of riches was so unique and special that it not only drew people from all over the world to search for money, but inspired writers to capitalize on the crazy trend. Due to the overwhelming natural supply, gold mining continued as a consistent money making opportunity in California throughout the late 1880's and early 1900s. While many notable writers were influenced by this incredible rush, a young man from Indiana, Joaquin Miller, sparked an entire career off his experiences on the mines.

Migrating West: Joaquin Miller Jumps On the Bandwagon

Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, formerly known as Joaquin Miller, was born in 1839 and over the course of his life, migrated from Indiana to Oregon to California. At age 17, Miller set out to California with his family as along with everyone else, they jumped at the potential for money in gold mining. He went on to spend a significant part of his life in the west, and his exposure to the mines influenced and inspired him to write western poetry. While many hit big from working on the mines, Joaquin's successes came from writing about them.

A portrait of Joaquin Miller in 1906

Over the course of his 74 year life, Miller wrote five volumes of western poetry: Joaquin, et al. (1869), Songs of the Sierras (1871), Fallen Leaves (1873), By the SunDown Seas (1873), and Shadows of Shasta (1881). His work would later be comprised in 1923 after his death into The Poetical Works of Joaquin Miller. While at the time his poetry didn't resonate with fellow western-Americans, it was received very highly overseas, one English critic even considering him an American genius with a new poetic voice similar to Walt Whitman.

Beginning with Songs of the Sierras in 1871, Miller began to focus his poetry on specific life on the mines and the craze surrounding gold. He brought the chaos and amazement of the gold rush to life like no other. While the theme of gold appears approximately 200 times in The Poetical Works of Joaquin Miller, perhaps his most vivid description of the primary rush occurs in Part I of Songs of the Sierras:

"And then the ruin in the land,

The death, dismay, the lawlessness!

Men gathered gold on every hand,--

Heaped gold: and why should I do less?

"The cry for gold was in the air,--

For Creole gold, for precious things;

The sword kept prodding here and there,

Through bolts and sacred fastenings.

"'Get gold! get gold!' This was the cry.

And I loved gold. What else could I say or you, or any earnest one, born in this getting age, have done?"

A Scene from Life at the Mines during the California Gold Rush (1848-1855)

Joaquin places his surroundings into words and shares how he, just like everyone else, couldn't get enough of the prospect of gold. There was "free gold for all who deemed it, fit to stoop, take up and husband it" (Miller 70). While this poem was published in 1871 and reflects a more positive tone, Joaquin's writing slowly begins to shift as the circumstances change in California.

The Later Years: The Effect of Gold Mining on California and Joaquin

While gold mining certainly brought incredible wealth and joy to people, it wasn't as kind to the environment. As placer mining was exhausted, miners shifted their gold search from the surface to rivers, and invented new techniques for gold mining: hydraulic and underground. Severely damaging natural resources and the environment, the natural beauty of California and other western sites began to deteriorate. The demand for gold increased and miners would do anything to get it. In the late 1800's, Joaquin feels for Mother Nature and his writing begins to take a contrasting opinion on the effect of gold:

"Look intently down among the black and rolling hills, forty miles away to the west, and here and there you will see a haze of cloud or smoke hung up above the trees... These are mining camps. Men are there, down in these dreadful cañons, out of sight of the sun, swallowed up, buried in the impenetrable gloom of the forest, toiling for GOLD."

Mount Shasta, California 1890: The "Rolling Hills" Joaquin describes

Not only does he observe the change in atmosphere, but the increasingly gold hungry attitude of his fellow miners. Without a care for anything else except how much gold they have lining their pockets, Miller outlines the growing cruelty in forty-niners in part VII of Song of the Sierras:

"Oh, I have seen men tall and fair,

Stoop down their manhood with


Stoop down God's image to the dust,

To get a load of gold to bear"

As personalities changed, the hostility of the camps did as well and life became more difficult for miners. Joaquin felt not only for the environment, but also developed compassion for the Native Americans. Originally admitting to hating these "gentle savages" , Miller began to feel sympathy as gold miners recklessly destroyed everything in their path for gold.

In the 1880s, Miller had enough of the hostility and relocated several times across the country. Eventually settling down in Oakland, California in 1898, he continued writing reflections of the west, but shifted his poetry to other diverse topics. Miller, who died of natural causes on February 17, 1913, was a huge influence in visualizing the gold rush for what it truly was, and gave historians a glimpse at the superficial craze that took down anything in its path, regardless the consequence.

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