(1841-1928) and the California Frontier
by Janice Albert
arrived at the border of California as a ten-year-old, her family's
wagon train had been traveling for months in the long trek from
Missouri. It was August, and the Pickett family was haunted by
stories of the Donner party fiasco five years before. Coolbrith's
biographer, Josephine DeWitt Rhodehamel, gives this account of
the crossing: Jim Beckwourth, noted Black mountaineer "rode slowly
ahead of the column of seventeen worn and creaking schooners. When
near the pass he asked Mrs. Pickett if her younger daughter would
like to ride with him. She would then be the first white child
to do so."
At the pass, Beckwourth
dismounted and helped the girl off the horse. An autumn wind
had come up, stinging their faces, whipping their clothes. Storm
gathering, darkening all the landscape except the valley lying
to the west below them. The sun lighted it as if on purpose for
Jim pointed to the glowing valley lying against a range of blue. "There,
little girl," he said, "there is California! There is your kingdom!"
Josephine D. Smith, as Ina
Coolbrith was then called, was being brought to California by her mother,
who in 1851 was running away (with her second husband) from the polygamy
of the Mormon church. The family went to Los Angeles, and there Josephine
published her first poems and married Robert Carsley in 1858. A tumultuous
period followed, during which her marriage failed (it was dissolved
in 1861) and her infant son died. In 1862, following a deep depression,
she moved to the area which is associated with her name, now calling
herself Ina Donna Coolbrith.
Coolbrith's life can be divided
into several stages, each memorable for what it tells us about frontier
and post-frontier life for women of talent.
The San Francisco
of 1862 was seven years away from the completion of the transcontinental
railroad, which would mark the end of the frontier period. Coolbrith
arrived in San Francisco with a reputation as a poet, and it was natural
that she would make friends with the writers of her day: Samuel Clemens, Bret
Harte (shortened from Francis Brett Harte), Charles Warren Stoddard
and Joaquin Miller.
are remembered today for giving these men their start, the Overland
Monthly, which Harte edited for the majority of its seven-and-a-half
years, and the Territorial Enterprise, published in Virginia
City, Nevada, the site of the Comstock mine. Franklin Walker writes
in San Francisco's Literary Frontier, "Most of the men on the
Comstock were burrowing in the ground that they might live on Nob Hill,
overlooking the Golden Gate. When Mark Twain, as he lay awake imagining
himself a millionaire, told his bedfellow that the first thing he was
going to do with his money was to build a castle in San Francisco,
he was expressing succinctly the close relationship between Washoe
and the metropolis of the West."
It was while
writing for the Territorial Enterprise that Clemens first used
the name Mark Twain, and it was while editing the Overland Monthly that
Harte wrote the stories for which he is primarily remembered, such
stories as The Outcasts of Poker Flat, and Tennessee's Partner.
Coolbrith was a friend of both men during this phase of San Francisco
of the railroad in 1869 provoked Twain, Harte and Joaquin Miller to
go East to capitalize on their budding reputations. Such a move might
have made Coolbrith's fortune, as well--she was recognized as a talent
with a steady stream of publication--but she chose to stay behind.
Ida Rae Egli, editor of No Rooms of Their Own: Women Writers of
Early California, writes, "Ina believed she was obligated to stay
in the Bay Area and support a rather large family: her mother, a niece
and nephew left orphaned by the death of her sister, and a young half-Indian
girl named Calle Shasta--Joaquin Miller's daughter, left on Ina's doorstep
one night as Miller left town."
a true friend to Miller. Rhodehamel tells us that it was her suggestion
that Miller, whose given name was Cincinnatus Hiner, exchange this
burdensome set of syllables for the name of his hero, Joaquin Murrietta,
and that he adopt a garb to go with the new name: boots, a wide-brimmed
hat, long hair in the fashion of the old Indian scouts. She helped
him prepare for his trip East by making a wreath to lay at the tomb
of Byron from laurel leaves they picked together in Sausalito. At ages
29 and 32, they had their portraits done to send to a friend before
Miller's departure for England.
says of this period, "Near the end of its frontier days, the West,
having passed from naivete to satire, reached the stage in which its
early days became romantic. With the passing of two decades had come
the perspective necessary for setting up a heroic tradition. Significantly,
Bret Harte's The Luck of Roaring Camp and Other Sketches, Mark
Twain's Roughing It, and Joaquin Miller's Songs of the Sierras all
appeared within three years of the completion of the railroad." Coolbrith's
poem about the day spent at Sausalito in service to Miller and Byron's
memory was published, unsigned, in the September issue of the soon-to-be-defunct Overland
The third act
of Ina's life began in September 1873 when she was named librarian
of the Oakland Free Library with a salary of $80 a month. During the
next nearly twenty years, she exercised her influence on Oakland's
young people, and this is the period during which she befriended a
young, impoverished, impressionable Jack
London. Her own writing suffered, and was dealt an irretrievable
blow in 1906 when her apart ment at 1604 Taylor, together with all
her notes, burned in the great fire. Coolbrith abandoned hopes of writing
her autobiography, which would have been a singular record of a precious
time. She was afraid of telling the truth, for fear of shocking, and
afraid of holding back for fear of boring the reader. Instead, she
devoted herself to organizing and conducting salons. Like that of many
women, her legacy was to be felt in her influence on others.
In 1915, she was named poet
laureate of California.
park, at Taylor and Vallejo, is high on the eastern slope of Russian
Hill. A broad stairway ascends to the boulder which bears her plaque.
Her grave site, within sight of Frank Norris' monument at Mountain
View Cemetery, Oakland, went unmarked until September 1986 when the
Ina Coolbrith Circle placed a headstone there. Five years later, in
1991, this same group sponsored a plaque in the lobby of the Main Branch
of the Oakland Public Library Beckwourth Pass, a gentle depression
in the high desert that joins Nevada with California, is clearly marked
on U.S.Highway 70.
View Cemetery, designed by Frederic Law Olmstead, in Oakland
is the burial place of Frank Norris and Ina Coolbrith.
grave was unmarked until very recently
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