The Poet's Cabin: Joaquin Miller in Washington
Kathi Morrison-Taylor

photo credit: Library of Congress

You are visiting Washington, DC. It is 1884, and you’ve been convinced to travel to the outskirts of the city, two miles beyond the nearest streetcar line to satisfy your literary curiosity. You have heard that Joaquin Miller, the Poet of the Sierras, the Byron of the West, has built himself a log cabin here and dubbed it “a little edge of God’s rest.”

You arrive in the Arlington Heights neighborhood (where Meridian Hill Park is today) and sure enough, you see a cabin under a circle of oak trees. Someone has hung elk skins and bows and arrows on the outside, which is otherwise unadorned and unpainted, the bark from the logs, peeling. As you wade through the tall grass on your way to the front door, you notice a man in the entry way, watching you approach. He stands statuesque with a bear skin over one shoulder, the same bearskin, he will later assure you, that has been handled and admired by Queen Victoria, Princess Alexandria, and the Shah of Persia (Marberry 178-80). Entering, you are intrigued, and he, though a self-professed hermit, heartily enjoys the attention and company. His wardrobe captures your imagination. (Perhaps you’d like the bearskin as a souvenir? he asks.) His voice is mesmerizing. He tells you of his life among the Modocs in California and the Indian wars, when a near-fatal arrow pierced his jaw. In the next breath, he tells you of his travels to England and introductions to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Anthony Trollope and Edward John Trelawney, his friendship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and a fantastic story of a reception in a castle with the Queen herself (Marberry 103).

* * * *

Joaquin Miller had a short residency in the nation’s capital between 1883 and 1886, moving to DC originally as part of a compromise with his second wife, Abbie. Abbie, a hotel heiress and New Yorker, loved city life, while Joaquin found urban environments sterile, barren of the Muse. Only weeks after his move, the social scene in Washington proved just as discouraging to Miller, and his marriage broke up, Abbie moving back to New York, and Miller eagerly breaking ground for his cabin. Between visits with friends, poets, and statesmen, Joaquin put together a new book, Memorie and Rime, published in 1884, a collection of verse and diary entries with titillating name-dropping from his early London trip (Marberry 182). Perhaps he was disappointed that a dream of a prestigious political appointment was not fulfilled, or perhaps, he simply grew homesick for the West, but Miller’s DC cabin was really the last stop on Joaquin’s path to his final and most harmonious home, the Hights, high in the hills above Oakland, California. There he entertained guests, celebrating Nature and literature while cultivating his storyteller’s drama until his death in 1913. It was at the Hights in 1892 that Joaquin Miller composed the poem he is most famous for today, “Columbus,” in honor of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas. “Columbus” became Joaquin Miller’s signature poem, a popular choice for childhood recitations for several decades. The poem closes:

Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,
.......And peered through darkness. Ah, that night
Of all dark nights! And then a speck—
.......A light! A light! A light! A light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
.......It grew to be Time’s burst of dawn.
He gained a world; he gave that world
.......Its grandest lesson: “On! sail on!”

The refrain throughout the poem: “Sail on, sail on, sail on, and on!” matches Joaquin Miller’s lust for travel and his literary perseverance. His fame via Columbus is nearly ironic, for creating an accurate biography of Joaquin Miller today is as difficult as presenting a sympathetic portrait of Columbus. Legend tended to overwhelm fact in both cases, making culling the truth from the fiction especially difficult and, at times, controversial.

Joaquin Miller was born Cincinnatus Hiner Miller in 1837 on a farm near Liberty, Indiana, though he often subtracted five years from his age, recording his birth as 1841 or 1842. As a young man, he changed his name to Joaquin (wah’-keen) after the famous Mexican bandit Joaquin Murietta, and at some time later in his life his middle name, Hiner, took on the spelling and pronunciation of the famous German Romantic poet’s, Heinrich Heine. As for his famously poetic declaration, “My cradle was a covered wagon, pointed West,” Miller was fourteen years old before he made that expedition over the Rockies to Oregon Territory. (No one will argue that Miller liked to bend the truth, and the charm of his fibs pleased many, though it must have aggravated more talented writers who could not profit from Miller’s king-sized dose of charisma.) In 1854, the first poems may be found in his journal (Frost 20), and soon after, bored with his family’s life in Oregon, a teenaged Miller traveled to California to seek his fortune in gold. He cooked for a mining camp for a short time and is said to have given himself scurvy by eating only his own cooking. On that same adventure, he became involved in the Indian wars in the McCloud River region of California near Mount Shasta and at points was captured and interrogated by both Indians and settlers. Then in late 1857, he returned to Eugene City, most likely at the request of his parents, to attend school at Columbia College. Although Miller inferred on more than one occasion that he had graduated, in reality he spent only two or three months at the college before it burnt to the ground (Frost 26).

Joaquin Miller spent ten more adventurous years on his beloved west coast before he ventured east. For a short time he returned to California and was said to have married an Indian woman there and had two children. (One child, Cali-Shasta, was sought out by Miller 14 years later, after her mother’s death, and raised by Ina Coolbrith in San Francisco [Frost, Chapt. 1 notes].) Later, he worked as a surveyor, returned to his family’s Oregon home, studied law, taught school, and for a short time practice law in Oro Fino, Idaho before giving that up for the excitement of riding with the Pony Express. He was a partner in the business when it was bought by Wells Fargo in 1862, and with his earnings he returned to Eugene City, bought his parents a home and invested the rest of his money in The Eugene City Democratic Register, becoming an editor (Frost 29). Amid all the excitement, Miller fell in love with and married a young poet named Minnie Myrtle, also known as Theresa Dyer, and they had three children. Also in the 1860’s, he began to practice law again and was eventually elected Judge of Grant County, Oregon, serving from 1866 to 1869 (Frost 11).

In 1869, as Miller was giving stump speeches arguing that he should become a Supreme Court Justice, his marriage fell apart. This new turn of events combined with his literary dreams to lead him first to San Francisco, where he gained valuable encouragement and a theatrical fashion sense, and then on to London, where his reputation as an American writer and eccentric was confirmed.

People in London were fascinated by the frontiersman poet, the Byron of the Rockies, the Wild West poet. According to Marberry’s biography of Miller, Miss Lily Langtry exhibited the curiosity common among Londoners as she related her understanding of Joaquin: “He had lived a life adventuresome….He ran away from school to mine for gold, he had been adopted by the Indians, imprisoned for some imaginary offence, had escaped from jail by the aid of an Indian girl, swam a river with her to freedom, and married her—all before twenty.” He loved an audience, and good whiskey. He dressed the part, complete with spurs and sombrero, when the mood struck him, and of course, his famous bear skin. And while in London, Joaquin Miller managed to publish several volumes of his own poetry, one, Songs of the Sierras, to critical acclaim.

Some American writers who joined Joaquin in London found his habits pompous and unnerving. Even some London critics refused to yield to the intrigue of his posing. However, Miller seemed to weather most criticism, as tenaciously as Columbus in his poem. He did not give up hope. He sailed on! Miller clearly enjoyed the voyage, despite its perils. Others’ disdain for his self-promotion was not sufficient to tip his boat. Songs of the Sierras sold very well in England.

Even writers who were generally friendly with Miller could not overlook his unconventional habits and unlikely fame, however. Mark Twain wrote of Miller’s behavior in London:

He was affecting the picturesque and untamed costume of the wild Sierras at the time, to the charmed astonishment of conventional London. He and Trollope talked all the time, and both at the same time. Trollope pouring forth a smooth and limpid and sparkling stream of faultless English, and Joaquin discharging into it his muddy and tumultuous mountain torrent—well there was never anything just like it except the Whirlpool Rapids under Niagara Falls (Marberry 135).

Brett Harte, who first met Joaquin Miler as a young writer in San Francisco, tended to be jealous and disparaging, and even Walt Whitman championed and defended by Miller and a kind friend to Joaquin throughout his life, was said to have admitted in 1881, “Miller never did quite the work I expected him to do” (Marberry 145).

photo credit: Library of Congress

Critics in America rejected Songs of the Sierras but the public still loved Joaquin Miller, so when his welcome wore thin in England, he moved back to the states, though he visited England a number of times in the 1870’s. In New York, he tried his hand at drama and prose and he met his new love, Abbie Leland. They married in 1879 and had one child, Juanita. But within three years of his nuptials, the poet’s urge to “sail on” set in again. Joaquin tried to convince his wife that they needed to leave the city in favor of a lyric wilderness, in the name of preserving his creative energy. Dead set against moving her family to the West to raise her child ”in a dirty lean-to” (Marberry 177), Abbie did finally acquiesce, agreeing to try a shorter move, a move to Washington, DC, where although their attempts to cohabitate failed, Miller Cabin was born.

* * * *

When Joaquin Miller left DC, most sources agree that he gave his cabin to a friend, who in turn gave it to the Sierra Club. Then in 1913 the cabin was carefully disassembled at the urging of the California State Association and moved to its current location in Rock Creek Park, near the intersection of Beach Drive and Military Road, where it is now the property of the National Park Service. By and by, another Miller found inspiration in the cabin. From 1931 through the 1950’s, Pherne Miller, Joaquin’s niece, leased the cabin from the Parks Department, and there she gave art classes and sold soft drinks and candy.

Today Joaquin Miller’s Washington Cabin is tightly sealed and in need of some repair. Nonetheless, Tuesday evenings in June and July at 7:30 PM, it is the site of a long-lived poetry reading series. The Joaquin Miller Cabin Reading Series begins its 33rd year this summer. Poetry by the cabin lives on! Gathered at picnic tables and in camp chairs beside the cabin, audiences gather to listen to local and nationally-known poets read their word. The reading series—developed and sustained by the literary non-profit, The Word Works, and nurtured especially by The Word Works president, Karren Alenier and its beloved host, the late Jacklyn Potter—is a fitting tribute to the man whose imagination championed exploration and whose legendary tales and exploits brought the West to the East. I like to imagine him standing in the doorway, listening, proud of the good fortune his handy-work has brought the nation’s capital, and perhaps hatching a plan to crash the reception and sell another authentic bearskin rug.



Ah! there be souls none understand;
Like clouds, they cannot touch the land.
Unanchored ships, they blow and blow,
Sail to and fro, and then go down
In unknown seas that none shall know,
Without one ripple of renown.

Call these not fools, the test of worth
Is not the hold you have of earth.
Ay, there be gentlest souls sea-blown
That know not any harbor known.
Now it may be the reason is,
They touch on fairer shores than this.



Works Cited
Frost, O.W., Joaquin Miller, Twayne’s United States Authors Series, College and University Press, 1967.
Marberry, M.M., Splendid Poseur, Joaquin Miller—American Poet, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1953.

Selected Bibliography
Specimens, Carter Hines, 1868
Joaquin et al , S.J. McCormick, 1869
Pacific Poems, Whittingham and Wilkins, 1871
Songs of the Sierras, Longman, Green, Reader and Dyer, London; Roberts Bros., Boston, 1871
Life Amongst the Modocs: Unwritten History, London, 1873; Heyday Books/Urion Press, Berkeley, 1996
(Miller's autobiographical novel of mining and living with Indians behind Mt. Shasta)
Memorie and Rime, Funk & Wagnals, 1884
True Bear Stories, Rand McNally & Co., 1900
Overland in a Covered Wagon: An Autobiography, ed. Sidney G. Firman, D. Appleton, 1930
A Royal Highway of the World, Metropolitan Press, 1932 (Miller's 1864 diary of Canyon City, edited by
.......Oregon's great bookman Alfred Powers)
Joaquin Miller: His California Diary, ed. John S. Richards, Dogwood Press, 1936
Selected Writings of Joaquin Miller, Urion Press, 1977

Central California Poetry Journal:
Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission:

Joaquin Miller: A Chronology:
Cowboy Poetry:
The Word Works, Inc.:

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Kathi Morrison-Taylor is Co-Director of the Joaquin Miller Cabin Reading Series in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Seattle Review, Stand, Calyx, and New York Quarterly. Her first book of poems, By the Nest, will be published by The Word Works in the Fall.


Published in Volume 9, Number 3, Summer 2008.


To read more by this author:
Kathi Morrison-Taylor: DC Places Issue
Kathi Morrison-Taylor