Ina Coolbrith: First California Poet Laureate

Ina Coolbrith was born in Nauvoo, Illinois, and christened Josephine Donna Smith on 10 March 1841. Her parents were Agnes Moulton Coolbrith and Don Carlos Smith, youngest brother to the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Joseph Smith. Unfortunately, Don Carlos died of tuberculosis four months after Josephine’s birth and her mother then married Joseph Smith. He was practicing polygamy at the time and she found her marriage to him unfulfilling.

Ina Coolbrith

Ina Coolbrith in her teens. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

On 27 June 1844, Joseph Smith was killed by an anti-Mormon mob while imprisoned in the Carthage, Illinois, jail. It was a hard time for the Latter-day Saints and important decisions had to be made about what the Saints should do and where they should go. According to Josephine, they planned to migrate westward but made no provisions for her, her siblings, or her mother to accompany them. Agnes felt abandoned and so she packed up and moved to Saint Louis, Missouri. Not wanting to be connected to the Smiths any longer and having lost faith in Mormonism, Agnes began to use her maiden name of Coolbrith and the family made a pact not to speak about their Mormon heritage.

In Missouri Agnes met and married a printer and lawyer named William Pickett. They had twin sons in 1851. Picket then decided to move his family to California. They traveled overland in a wagon train just like the slave Biddy Mason did. The Pickett’s outfit was led by the famous scout burly Jim Beckwourth, also famously known as “Bloody Arm” because of his skill as a fighter. Josephine reported that she occasionally rode with him on his horse and that during the long trip to California, she also read Shakespeare’s and Lord Byron’s works. In addition, she later recalled:

“One evening … while the entire train rested comfortably in the camp under the friendly pines, I wandered off with my two young brothers … How friendly seemed those tall Sierra evergreens. Everywhere elegant gray squirrels whisked and chatted, and all around us whirred the quail. Then I turned about to go back to the wagons, and I realized I had come a considerable way with my trusting charges. I walked rapidly, but to my amazement there was no sign of the camp. I raised my voice and ‘ho-hooed,’ but not a sound in return. My brothers began to cry. I stopped and desperately tried to quiet them, for I remembered I had been told that I should be very still in the forest or I should draw the wild animals. Finally, my brothers sobbed themselves to sleep, and I laid them down in the ferns and waited. Then it was dark. No moon, only now and then a star shining down between the branches. Then I remember how my mother had told me ‘God watched over all,’ so I must have gone to sleep with my brothers. When I awoke it was morning, and a wildly surprised but broadly smiling face was looking down into mine. It was big ‘Dick,’ the sailor, who with others of the strangely excited camp, had searched all night long for the lost babes. Brawny Dick carried all three of us back to camps where prayers of thankfulness were raised that we were saved from the fierce and desperate lions of California.”[1]

Typical pioneer caravan. Author’s collection.

The family arrived in California around 1855 and settled in Los Angeles. Pickett established a law practice and at the age of eleven Josephine, using the penname Ina, began writing poems. Her first publication, “My Ideal Home,” appeared in 1856 in a local newspaper. Other works by her were also published and appeared in the Los Angeles Star and the California Home Journal.

At the age of seventeen Josephine married Robert Bruce Carsley. He was an iron-worker and part-time actor. However, he was also an abusive husband who was pathologically jealous and prone to frequent rages and imaginations that his wife was being unfaithful. In October 1861 he returned from a trip, found that she had been staying with her parents, and called at the house. He was livid believing that she had cheated on him. He dragged her into the street, yelled that she was a “whore,” and accused her of having committed adultery. He then threatened her with a pistol, Her step-father intervened, guns were fired, and in the process Carsley’s hand was badly mutilated to the point amputation was required.

People generally believed in the mid-1800s that marriage was forever. They thought that the “more difficult it is made to dissolve the marriage relation, the greater will be the contentment and harmony enjoyed under it.”[2] Divorce was therefore not something easily obtained and in fact legalization of divorce had only been passed by the California legislature a few years earlier in 1851. Even then divorce was not easy and only allowed on grounds of fraud, extreme cruelty, desertion, neglect, sexual impotency, intemperance, or adultery.

Fortunately, a court decision had earlier been rendered that a false accusation of adultery was considered cruel. Because of Carsley’s public accusation of infidelity against Josephine, she found that divorce was a possibility and filed for one. She finally obtained it and their marriage was dissolved on 30 December 1861. After her divorce, she and her family moved to San Francisco and it was there that she began calling herself Ina Coolbrith.

In San Francisco Ina became an English teacher and met Bret Harte, an American short story writer, editor, and poet, best remembered for his short fiction featuring miners, gamblers, and other romantic figures of the California Gold Rush. She then published poems in a new literary newspapers edited by Harte and Charles Henry Webb. In 1867, her poems appeared in The Galaxy and in 1868 a poem was published in the first issue of the Overland Monthly, unofficially co-edited by Harte. Ina’s work also appeared in some Eastern magazines, such as The Century, Harper’s, or Scribner’s.

Bret Harte in 1872. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ina Coolbrith’s writing and poetry resulted in her meeting famous people that included the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, naturalist John Muir, and Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who wrote under the name of Mark Twain. In addition, she, Harte, and Charles Warren Stoddard, an author and editor best known for his travel books about Polynesian life, became known as the “Golden Gate Trinity.” That was because they were considered the arbiters of literary taste, just like George Bryan “Beau” Brummell had been considered the arbiter of fashion in Regency England. Moreover, Ina proved to be an anomaly and she served in the emerging western literary sphere alongside men like Harte, Twain, and other male writers of the 1860s and 1870s.

Charles Warren Stoddard. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ina also met and befriended the eccentric Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, an American poet and frontiersman nicknamed the “Poet of the Sierras.“ She quickly discovered that he was interested in Joaquin Murrieta, who was called the Robin Hood of the West and was a figure of disputed historicity associated with John Rollin Ridge’s novel The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Muriet: The Celebrated California Bandit. Because of Miller’s interest in Murrieta, Ina suggested he take the pen name Joaquin Miller and dress the part.

Cincinnatus Hiner Miller (Joaquin Miller). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Miller took Ina’s advice and soon traveled to New York under the name Joaquin Miller. After printing cards that stated, “Joaquin Miller, Byron of the Rockies,” he left for England. When he arrived there in 1870 some people touted him as the “California Byron.” He went to England to lay a wreath on Byron’s tomb, but the English clergy could not see any connection between the famous poet Byron and the long haired frontiersman who was “donning such outfits as a sombrero, a bright red shirt, a blue polka dot bandanna, and high-heeled boots.”[3]

Ina Coolbrith would have liked to have gone abroad with Miller to Europe, but Pickett had abandoned her mother and the family in 1870. Ina therefore needed to be home to care for her mother and seriously ill sister, Agnes. In addition, Ina had been handling the household duties since her family had moved to San Francisco. It was also not surprising that with her selfless attitude when Miller asked her to serve as a caregiver to a teenaged Native American girl in 1871 Ina willingly complied.

Ina Coolbrith

Ina Coolbrith about 1871. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Ina’s sister Agnes died in 1874 and that same year Ina obtained employment as a librarian at the Oakland Library Association to help support her household. She earned less than a man making $80.00 a month and worked 6 days a week 12 hours a day. Her arduous work scheduled, household responsibilities, and caregiving for her mother (which ended when her mother died in 1876) left Ina little time for writing poetry. She therefore only sporadically published her work over the next nineteen years.

Ina Coolbrith

Ina Coolbrith in 1875. Courtesy of the California State Library.

Ina Coolbrith was a reliable employee at the library, so it was a shock when in September 1892, without warning she was told to clean out her desk. She was being replaced as librarian by her nephew Henry Frank Peterson. Apparently, she had angered the library board because she had giving an impromptu interview about the library’s dilapidated state and its need for repairs. Ina’s literary friends were outraged over her undeserved dismissal and they published an opinion piece reflecting their views in the San Francisco Examiner that in part read:

“Without opportunity to say a word in her own behalf, Ina D. Coolbrith, the poet, was this evening deprived of the position she has held for eighteen years … Without a word of explanation, from the Trustees of the reason … without debate or roll-call, the poet was dismissed.

Miss Ina Coolbrith, dignified and smiling, sat in the main room of the library while her fate was decided in a little corner room full of smoke from the cigars of the Trustees. Miss Coolbrith had kept her promise. When the Trustees asked for her resignation, without stating the reason, to take effect in two days, Miss Coolbrith went to see them to learn the reason … She obtained no satisfactory reason, but the Trustees agreed to postpone for three months the time for taking effect of the resignation if she would promise to present the document they asked. Miss Coolbrith, of course, had an alternative. She might decline to present her resignation. The also would have an alternative. It might declare Miss Coolbrith’s position vacant. The lady took the less unpleasant course and agreed to present her resignation. This resignation was offered this evening … [and] in three months Ina Coolbrith’s term of service in the library will have ended.”[4]

The following year Ina was commissioned to write a poem for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The poem “Isabella of Spain” was dedicated to Harriet Hosmer’s sculpture of Queen Isabella that was placed in front of the Pampas Plume Palace within the California Pavilion. Moreover, Charlotte Perkins Stetson, her friend from the Pacific Coast Woman’s Press Association wrote to May Wright Sewall and noted that Ina could benefit from introductions to Chicago’s best writers. This created concern among Ina’s friends that she might move away and “become an alien” to California.

John Muir had long been in the habit of writing to Ina and occasionally sent her delicious homegrown and handpicked fruit from his trees on his Martinez estate. He sent such a gift in 1894 along with a note suggesting what he thought might keep her in California. He advised her to fill the recently vacated position of San Francisco’s librarian that had been held by John Vance Cheney. Although Ina thanked Muir for the fruit and the advice, she noted in her postscript:

“No, I cannot have Mr. Cheney’s place. I am disqualified by sex [because San Francisco requires a male librarian].”[5]

John Muir in 1875. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Eventually Ina’s connections resulted in her obtaining a librarian job at San Francisco’s Mercantile Library Association in 1897. She then transferred in 1899 to the Bohemian Club Library and remained there until 1906. She was earning less than she had in Oakland receiving only $50.00 a month. However, her duties were not as demanding as they had been in Oakland and so she found she had plenty of time to devote to writing.

Ina Coolbrith

Ina Coolbrith in the 1890s. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Around 1898 Ina Coolbrith purchased a home in the Russian Hill neighborhood. While living there English Professor Stephen J. Mexal reported:

“Coolbrith would frequently walk from her home on Russian Hill to the office and enter to wait for Harte, only to find ‘frequently Charlie [Stoddard] already there.’ Coolbrith also often invited Harte to dinner … ‘he helped shell peas and set the table,’ seeming ‘more at ease and more natural than he ever did behind the editor’s desk or, for that matter, at home with his wife.’ Although Coolbrith occasionally remarked that Harte was ‘exceptionally fine-looking,’ she did take pains to emphasize that he was ‘a family man,’ proud of, and devotedly attached to, his children.’ Nevertheless, there was some speculation about Coolbrith’s relationship with Harte as well as with other men. Raine Bennett, editor of the short-lived San Francisco literary magazine, Bohemia, claimed that he visited Coolbrith in 1927 and viewed love letters from Twain (whom he says Coolbrith called ‘little Sammy Clemens’), along with competing love notes from Harte and a lock of Harte’s hair.”[6]

At her Russian Hill home Ina Coolbrith began to concentrate on the history of California literature. In addition, she held a literary salon. It resembled the type of salons that the French socialite Madame Récamier and her friend Madame de Staël held in the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake hit, a fire consumed Ina’s home, her salon stopped, and most her work was burned:

“[S]he [therefore] abandoned her plan to write a history of frontier letters. Perhaps because of her reticence about her early life among the Mormons and in Los Angeles, she never succeeded in writing her long-planned memoirs [either].”[7]

After the fire, Coolbrith’s friends rallied around her and worked to raise money to help build her a new home in the Russian Hill neighborhood. Mark Twain also assisted by providing autographed photographs of himself that were sold, and an “Ina Coolbrith Day” was established by the San Jose Women’s Club to raise more money. Eventually, the proceeds received from these activities and others allowed for a new house to be built for her at 1067 Broadway, where she afterwards resumed her salons.

Samuel Clemens in 1871. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Over the next few years, Ina Coolbrith received a trust fund from Atherton and a grant from her Bohemian Club friends. In addition, she spent a great deal of time writing and over four winters produced more poetry than she had done in the preceding twenty-five years. Other accolades and impressive positions followed. For instance, she was named President of the Congress of Authors and Journalists in preparation for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. In addition, on 30 June 1915, she received wide recognition when she was named California’s first poet laureate, also making her the first poet laureate of any U.S. state.

Despite Ina’s impressive skills and tremendous talent, in May 1923 she was found decrepit and practically penniless living at the Hotel Latham in New York City. With the help of friends, Edwin Markham and Lotta Crabtree, the crippled and arthritic poet was relocated to California. There she settled in at Berkeley and was cared for by a niece.

Ina Coolbrith

Ina Coolbrith in 1924 photographed by Ansel Adams. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Five years later, on Leap Day, 29 February 1928, Ina died. She was buried in Mountain View Cemetery in an unmarked grave. Fortunately, in 1986, a literary society, known as The Ina Coolbrith Circle, placed a headstone on her gravesite. Other recognition for her came from the City of Berkeley, the Berkeley Historical Society, the Berkeley Historical Plaque Project, and the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association. Through their combined efforts the name of a stairway and bypath were changed to the Ina Coolbrith Path and a plaque was installed to commemorate her life.

Ina Coolbrith headstone

Ina Coolbrith’s headstone. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

References:

  • [1] Oakland Tribune, “Lost and Found,” June 3, 1956, p. 77.
  • [2] California Legislature, Journals of the Legislature of the State of California (Sacramento: Assembly of the State of California, 1857), p. 39.
  • [3] H. Bloom, ed., George Gordon, Lord Byron (New York: Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2009), p. 36.
  • [4] San Francisco Examiner, “Without Any Hearing,” October 5, 1892, p. 4.
  • [5] I. Coolbrith, “Letter from Ina Coolbrith to John Muir, November 19, 1894: Collection of letters to John Muir,” Online Archive of California, accessed June 30, 2020.
  • [6] S. J. Mexal, The Overland Monthly and the Writing of the Modern American West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), p. 109.
  • [7] E. T. James, J. W. James and P. S. Boyer, eds., Notable American Women: A Biographic Dictionary, 3 vols. 1 (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 380.

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