July 26, 2011

Miller: not fitted to advise

After gold was discovered in Alaska, the "Byron of Oregon" Joaquin Miller announced he was immediately headed north. Several newspapers wooed Miller to serve as a correspondent; he struck a deal with William Randolph Hearst and, on July 26, 1897, he took the steamer to Juneau. The correspondence and the trip both proved disastrous.

Known for his flamboyance and his ability to tell tales (often with very little truth in them), Miller aimed to impress his readers. He began writing his first dispatch before even reaching Alaska. The picture he painted was of an idyllic Eden, only a trifle cold, where anyone could live easily and comfortably with just a little money. Most, he suggested, would eventually strike it rich and earn millions. During his travels, he said, he carried with him a bouquet of newly-picked violets, fresh from the Alaska soil.

Miller himself traveled throughout Alaska, never once finding gold (all while writing back that gold was so plentiful that people stumbled over nuggets whenever they went out). When he heard about a treacherous trail through the Klondike, he set out on the 230-mile journey, fighting temperatures sometimes forty degrees below zero. He had a reputation as an adventurous frontiersman to uphold, after all. At 60 years old, Miller nearly died; luckily, he lost only two toes to frostbite. Of course, Miller never suggested he might have been wrong in his assessment of the Alaska as an easy-going paradise.

A critic of Miller allegedly confronted him for causing "the death of many fine men and the ruin of thousands." One journalist noted that Miller was taking advantage of his reputation as a famous writer but stressed that he "is not fitted to advise" gold-seekers. Miller considered suing for libel (but never did).

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