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Ina Coolbrith (1841-1928) and the California Frontier
by Janice Albert

When she 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 clouds were gathering, darkening all the landscape except the valley lying to the west below them. The sun lighted it as if on purpose for this moment. 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.

Two publications 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 history.

The completion 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."

Coolbrith was 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.

Franklin Walker 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 Monthly.

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.

Ina Coolbrith 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.

Mountain View Cemetery, designed by Frederic Law Olmstead, in Oakland is the burial place of Frank Norris and Ina Coolbrith.

Coolbrith's grave was unmarked until very recently

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