Tombstone Arizona had the Earp brothers, Deadwood South Dakota had Wild Bill Hickok and Canyon City Oregon had Joaquin Miller. I think Canyon City got the best of it.
Joaquin Miller, born Cincinatus Hiner Miller, is one of the most unclassifiable characters I have ever encountered. He was a successful poet, playwright and author in his time but I have not found a single biography of him in print today. On the web, you can easily find a number of short biographical sketches about Miller. Typically of the man, almost all of them disagree.
His neighbors were certainly not awed by him. An ancestor of mine who lived in Canyon City at the same time as Miller, offered this appraisal:
When I knew him first, he was a devout admirer of Byron. He tried to imitate Byron in every way even to limping like Byron. I was his unwilling victim. He was constantly writing poetry and coming into my office to read it to me. He was a picturesque character for he wore his hair long and wore high boots, tucking the trousers into one boot and letting the other trouser leg cover the boot. He was really a pretty able lawyer and very gentle man, but I wasn't very crazy about his poetry.... later he adopted the name of Joaquin Miller and when he went to England, his picturesque attire and his western manner made a big hit. His wife, Myrtle Miller, to my mind was a better poet than her husband but her verse has never been published except in newspaper form.
The best history of Grant County I know of is Herman Oliver's GOLD AND CATTLE COUNTRY. Oliver devotes three full pages to Miller in his book and it's the best short sketch of Miller I know of. Oliver's book is hard to find these days but it is worth seeking out for anyone who is really interested in the history of Grant County. At one point Oliver says of Miller 'He might be a sort of genius, but certainly he was kind of a show-off..' which is about as good a summary of the attitude of the writer's neighbors and acquaintances as we are likely to find.
When I started to do this Gazette issue about Joaquin Miller, all I knew about him was the bits and pieces I had picked up in passing about a nineteenth-century author who was unread today. I thought he was not so much an artist but a typical huckster, a recognizable figure from nineteenth-century America in the mold of P.T. Barnum and Buffalo Bill Cody. Now I know he was considerably more complicated and considerably more interesting than that.
I'm not going to try to tell anyone the truth about Joaquin (Cincinatus Hiner) Miller because I have no idea what that might be. He was an amazing mixture of contradictory qualities. An aesthete in a log cabin, a chronic liar whose wildest stories were true, dreamy poet who calculated the marketing aspects of everything he did. His greatest strength as an artist was that he was an outsider in every setting, no more and no less at home in mining camp saloons than in London drawing rooms
He was very popular in the nineteenth century. One of his poems was officially part of the California school curriculum. He wrote one of the most popular plays of the era and he left a sizeable estate at his death in 1913. He was apparently even more popular in England. One source claimed that he was popular in France as well and there is a French translation of selected works. Curiously, Germany never seems to have discovered him although I would have thought that Miller's effusive description of Indian life and natural splendors would have made him especially attractive to German audiences.
Almost all writers go in and out of fashion and Miller is definitely out of fashion now. His memory lives on as an almost completely unread historical curiosity. Some of this obscurity is due to his being primarily a poet since poetry gets very little notice in contemporary America. His play THE DANITES which was widely produced during his lifetime is an anti-Mormon tract which means it probably won't be revived any time soon.
I have not read a great deal of his work but what I have read makes me think that his reputation would have benefited greatly from a good editor. Like the man, it is a chaotic mixture of brilliant and banal. I can recommend his book UNWRITTEN HISTORY - LIFE AMONG THE MODOCS. It is a compound of reportage, fantasy, astute observation and preposterous lies. The remarkable thing about it is that it is a passionate defense of the rights of the American Indians. This is not so unusual today but, at the time of its publication in 1873 it was courageous and very much counter to the temper of the times.
I like the fact that while Canyon City had its share of desperados and gun-slingers, it's most famous citizen was an artist and advocate for the rights of the dispossessed. And unlike most of the shootists and card sharps of other gold-rush boom towns, he died in bed, old, rich and renowned.
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