During the frenzy to reach the Klondike during the summer of 1897, large established newspaper chains sent correspondents to Dawson City to chronicle the gold rush. One of these was Joaquin (pronounced Wah-keen) Miller, the well-know “Poet of the Sierras.” There are countless accounts generated by the gold rush, and I was unfamiliar with Miller, but my curiosity was fired up recently. My wife Kathy acquired an article written by Miller in an obscure journal titled “Land of Sunshine Magazine.” I did a scan of the San Francisco newspaper, The Examiner, for the years 1897 and 1898 to learn more.
He was born Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, in Indiana in 1837. By the time he came to the Klondike, he was sixty years old, and had experienced enough adventure to fill a couple of lifetimes. He was said to have been wounded in the neck and cheek by an arrow during a battle with native Americans. He wrote various magazine articles and more than two dozen books. One of these, “Songs of the Sierras,” inspired the nickname he carried for the rest of his life.
He was tall and wore a lengthy set of chin whiskers that made him look a little like Santa Claus, and perhaps older that his chronological age. Not the image of the typical Klondike stampeder. He was hired by the Hearst chain of newspapers as a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner and the New York Journal.
Miller left Seattle on July 25th, aboard the ship, City of Mexico, in the company of another journalist, E.J. Livernash, and photographer Charles Kreling. They were eager to be the first to report on events from the Klondike, and appear to have traveled light. By August 8, he and his party were on a barge (The Examiner) at the north end of Lake LaBerge, headed to Dawson. They arrived on August 14, having made the trip from tidewater in just two weeks.
Miller and Livernash were quick to interview Klondike kings like Alex McDonald and Pat Galvin. Even at this early date, Miller was dismissing the threat of a winter famine. “No,” he wrote, “there will be no starvation. The man who doubts that supplies will get here where gold is waiting by the ton miscalculates American energy.” Meanwhile, the trading companies in Dawson were closing their doors to hundreds of unfilled orders.
By the middle of September, the Examiner party had rented a Dawson log cabin and were settling in for the winter. They had a banner painted which they stretched across the front of the cabin that read: “Klondike News Bureau.” Their cabin was situated in close proximity to other cabins, also occupied by journalists representing Harper’s Weekly, Frank Leslie’s Monthly, the New York Times, the New York Herald and the Chicago Tribune. At this time, there was no local newspaper in circulation.
Miller, meanwhile, was preparing to leave Dawson by going downriver on September 20, with plans to be in San Francisco within a month. He only got as far as Circle, Alaska. He stayed there for a month while winter settled in and the Yukon River froze solid. With no prospects of reaching San Francisco until the spring he returned to Dawson, setting out on October 27 with a man named Canovan, and arriving back in the Klondike capital on December 4th, having battled cold weather and storms. Reports in a competing San Francisco newspaper stated that he had lost an ear and two toes due to frostbite, but on February 6, the San Francisco Examiner proclaimed these reports to be false: “When the writer reached Dawson, he was in good condition and minus no member with which he left Circle.”
Tappan Adney commented in an article for Harper’s Weekly magazine, in which he said that Miller was saved from freezing to death when others stopped to lend a hand. He reported that Miller and Canovan had very little food left to sustain them for the remainder of the 250 kilometres to Dawson. “Miller is advising people about this country, using his prestige as a writer of fiction and poetry,” stated Adney, a seasoned outdoorsman. “ He is not fitted to advise who came into this ill-provided country without an outfit, and who has been from the start, and is now, dependent wholly on the bounty and foresight of others. Poetry is out of place here in winter, unless the dreams of the dreamer can thaw the frozen mercury or satisfy the demands of a Yukon appetite.”
Miller must have been unaware of Adney’s opinion of him, for Miller apparently entertained Adney and other newspaper men in his cabin on New Year’s Eve. “We talked about art and literature, and drank good tea. “ he later wrote. “Our wildest dissipation was pipes; and that was all; yet I don’t know that I ever spent a pleasanter New Year’s Eve.”
Miller explained the life of the Outsiders in their tiny cabin in the Klondike. They took turns cooking the meals for example: “The first thing our cook does in the dark … is to hop out of bed in his sleeping boots of moose skin, light a candle and kindle a fire. He then breaks the ice in the water bucket, sets on the coffee pot and wash basin of water, then back to bed till the roaring stove gets hot; then he is out, washes, dresses and gets breakfast.” Miller spoke positively about Kreling’s cooking skills.
When summer arrived, both Livernash and Miller departed Dawson for the outside (Miller left downriver on the steamer C.H. Hamilton). They were replaced by another Examiner correspondent, Robert C. Kirk, whose book, “Twelve Months in the Klondike,” published in 1899, has become a standard reference gold rush account. Adney’s book, “The Klondike Stampede,” published in 1900, is considered by many, me included, to be the best first-hand account of the gold rush ever written. As for the prolific Miller? You are out of luck. In 1910, he published a book on the California Gold Rush, but I saw no evidence that he wrote one about his experiences in the northern gold rush. If you want to read the account of his year in the Klondike, you will have to refer to his dispatches in the San Francisco Examiner. His narrative is a little more rambling than those of Kirk and Adney, but they certainly make interesting reading, if you have the time. I, for one, plan to read more.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. He is the author of six books on Yukon history. His latest, “Dublin Gulch: A History of the Eagle Gold Mine,” received the Axiom Business Book Award silver medal for corporate history. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.