CANYON CITY —
Cincinnatus Hiner “Joaquin” Miller was an Oregon Trail emigrant, a cook, a college valedictorian, a schoolteacher, a gold and silver miner, a pony express rider, a newspaper editor, a rancher, an orchardist, a lawyer and an unquestionable scalawag — all before he was elected judge of Grant County at the age of 29.
The flamboyant Miller, later known as “The Poet of the Sierras,” eventually settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was a literary contemporary of Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce and a young Jack London. And, of course, he had a great many adventures along the way.
Although Miller lived no more than 15 of his 75 years in Oregon, he is recognized in the names of a state park (near Florence), a cavern at the Oregon Caves, trails, campgrounds and a handful of businesses. But it is in this tiny community of 700 people near John Day that Miller’s Oregon fame is best recalled. In fact, U.S. Highway 395 sweeps past his front door.
The Joaquin Miller Cabin, where the writer lived during his residence in Canyon City, is an integral part of the Grant County Historical Museum. It is furnished as nearly as possible as it might have been between 1864 and 1870, when Miller shared the house with his much-suffering wife, Theresa “Minnie Myrtle” Dyer, and their three young children. And it is where he was said to have commented, on a return visit in 1907: “If that is my cabin, I did a good job of putting on the shingles!”
By the time of Miller’s reappearance, he was an internationally famed if eccentric writer of 69. He had charmed Europe with his white beard, buckskin clothing and Mexican sombrero. He had returned to the United States to build a cabin in Washington, D.C., then settled in the Oakland hills overlooking San Francisco Bay.
His literary output, initially considered mediocre and amateurish by American publishers, had found a ready market in the British Isles, where he was viewed as a rough-edged but enchanting Western frontiersman. And he was able to parlay that into success back home. “I am not a liar,” he insisted. “I simply exaggerate the truth.”
19th century travels
With the help of Dave Driscoll, a Canyon City web publisher and bookstore owner, and Jayne Primrose, curator of the Grant County Historical Museum, I found myself revisiting Joaquin Miller’s unlikely saga.
Born in a small town on the Indiana-Ohio border, Miller came west with his Quaker family in 1852. His father, a schoolteacher, settled in the Willamette Valley near Eugene with his wife and three sons. But his oldest boy, then known as “Natty,” didn’t stay long.
At the age of 15, he found work as a camp cook at a gold-mining camp near Yreka, California. He escaped from jail after being arrested for stealing a horse, and found safe haven among the Pit River Indians southeast of Mount Shasta. He spent several years with the tribe, fathering one and possibly two children with the chief’s daughter. But this life wasn’t for young Natty, who returned to Oregon, stopping off in the Rogue Valley to protect settlers against raids by Native American.
By the time he was 20, Miller was back in Eugene, graduating as class valedictorian from Columbia College (on what is now called College Hill). He settled down for a year of teaching school near Fort Vancouver, but by 1859, Oregon gained statehood, he was off again — this time for the Idaho Territory. He did some silver mining and partnered in a pony express business, riding a route between Walla Walla and the Panhandle mining district.
In 1862, he returned to Eugene and started a newspaper. The Democratic Register was an ancestor to today’s Eugene Register-Guard. But Miller lasted only about six months. His editorials, as a peace-loving Quaker calling for the end of Civil War violence, were construed as pro-Confederacy, which the anti-slavery Eugene community didn’t tolerate.
His brief newspaper career did lead to romance. Natty was enchanted by the poetry of “Minnie Myrtle,” “the Sweet Singer of the Coquille,” who lived with her parents at isolated Cape Blanco and mailed her work to the Democratic Register. They corresponded through the summer of 1862 until Miller traveled to Port Orford to meet her. He arrived on a Thursday and married the former Theresa Dyer the following Sunday. They spent their honeymoon on horseback, riding through the Coast Range back to Eugene.
Life in Grant County
They left Eugene for good in June 1864 and headed for Canyon City. Gold had been discovered two years earlier in Canyon Creek, which flows into the John Day River at the foot of the Strawberry Mountains. Within two years, Canyon City had grown into a town of more than 2,500 and was named the seat of Grant County. By the time the gold ran out in 1880, more than $26 million had been taken from the district.
When the Miller family — Natty’s brother James, a baby daughter and another child on the way — arrived with a small herd of livestock, the town was rife with shops, saloons, a red-light district and a Chinese neighborhood. They built their cabin two blocks from its present location and planted a fruit orchard; Cincinnatus H. Miller hung out a shingle as a lawyer and, inspired by his wife, began to write poetry. He adopted the literary name “Joaquin” as homage to Joaquin Murrieta (1829-53), a Zorro-like outlaw of the California Gold Rush.
In 1866, Miller ran for the office of county judge. Despite a reputation for skulduggery that had followed him around the Northwest, he was elected and served four years. He later wrote that he worked hard day and night, although Minnie saw him differently. She said he was stingy, neglectful and selfishly ambitious (at one point, he aspired to be an Oregon Supreme Court justice) and was more likely to be found in a saloon than at home with his family, which had grown to three children.
In 1869, Minnie took the kids and left town, filing for divorce. The following year, a fire destroyed much of the town, including the first courthouse. And Cincinnatus “Joaquin” Miller left as well, heading for California and permanently abandoning his legal career to pursue poetry.
With the exception of the Miller cabin itself, no buildings apparently survive from the writer’s time in Canyon City. But the 1872 Sels Brewery — owned by F.C. Sels, who succeeded Miller as county judge — still stands, despite having twice been destroyed by fire in the 19th century. So does the St. Thomas Episcopal Church, built in 1876. The Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, built around 1870 in John Day to serve the prolific Chinese mining community, is open for daily tours from May through October.
The heart of Canyon City today is a delightful urban park that occupies the site of the community’s erstwhile Elkhorn Hotel. On walls north and south of this family-friendly park are two large murals. One, recreated from a circa-1910 photograph, depicts a Fourth of July parade. It’s easy to imagine Joaquin Miller as one of the townspeople in this scene. The other mural, on the south side of the park, shows an early mining scene and the Elkhorn Hotel itself.
The Grant County Historical Museum is a considerably finer museum than one might expect in a town of 700. The collection is as eclectic as it is authentic.
As befits a museum in a historical mining town, there are gold-bearing rocks and other minerals, along with mining equipment used here in the 1860s and ’70s. There are Native American petroglyphs and arrowheads. There are household items, vintage clothing, children’s toys, memorabilia from Canyon City’s first school and from early doctors’ offices. There are numerous guns and artifacts from the ranching and logging industries. An 1889 Columbia Grafonola still plays wax records at the turn of a handle.
A 1906 Orient buckboard car, relics from the Sels Brewery and items from a Civilian Conservation Corps camp of the 1930s help to fill out the collection, which doesn’t avoid the macabre — the skulls of the first two men hanged in Canyon City. According to museum curator Primrose, Barry Way killed a man while robbing a pack train; William Cain shot and killed an employer who paid him in paper money instead of gold.
Outside, next door to the Miller cabin, is a two-cell jail that was stolen from Greenhorn, a ghost town about 50 miles northeast of here. During a night of drinking sometime in the early 1960s, Primrose said, several Canyon City citizens drove to the isolated hamlet and loaded the jail into the back of a pickup truck. It’s been sitting on the museum grounds ever since.
Joaquin Miller might well have applauded them. His simple cabin displays living and dining areas, a bedroom and a bath. Between antiques of the day — a stove, a washboard, a small organ, dolls and more — are portraits of Miller and “Minnie,” along with examples of his verse.
Back in the museum office is a collection of books, both by and about Joaquin Miller. There’s “Paquita, the Indian Heroine,” based in part upon his teenage escapades; “True Bear Stories,” directed toward children; and “Songs of the Sierras,” which built his reputation. “The Complete Poetical Works of Joaquin Miller” contains his most famous verse, including “Columbia.”
Meanwhile, Driscoll, in his tiny shop, “D.G. Driscoll’s Books,” located just behind the Miller cabin, is glad to share more of his prodigious knowledge of the “Poet of the Sierra.”
Miller’s first two efforts as a writer, “Specimens” (1868) and “Joaquin et al.” (1869), were not well received. After he left Canyon City, however, he was encouraged by the San Francisco writers’ salon to take his work to England — where “Songs of the Sierras” (1871) was well received. In 1877, he adapted “First Fam’lies of the Sierras” into “The Danites,” an anti-Mormon play that rivaled “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in popularity in New York.
Never tiring of adventure, he traveled both to Nicaragua and the Alaskan Klondike during his years in New York. Minnie, whom he had not seen since Canyon City, tracked him down there in 1883 as she was dying, and reunited him with his daughter, Maud, who by then was a young woman in convent school in Canada. He took Maud and his brother, James, with him to Oakland, California, in 1886. There he built a home that he christened “The Hights” and lived there until his death in February 1913. His ashes were burned on a funeral pyre that he himself built.
The city of Oakland bought the house in 1919, and it is today a state historical landmark, contained within Joaquin Miller Park — a heavily wooded, 500-acre hillside park with an open-air amphitheater. There is also a rustic, circa-1880s Joaquin Miller Cabin preserved in Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C.
For Oregon visitors, John Day, 2 miles north of Canyon City on U.S. Highway 26, has a handful of motel choices for overnight lodging. The best place to dine is The Snaffle Bit Dinner House, on Highway 395 halfway between John Day and Canyon City. Steaks are moderately priced, but reservations are often essential. For breakfast and lunch, the Outpost has a good, budget-priced selection.
— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at email@example.com.