March 17, 2012

Miller goes west: Fierce fashioner of destinies

Joaquin Miller often told the story that he was born in 1841 in a wagon train headed west just outside of Millersville, Indiana, a town named after an ancestor of his. None of this is true. In fact, he was born "Cincinnatus Hiner Miller" in 1837 near Liberty, Indiana. He was right about one point, however, even if his timing was a bit off: the Miller family headed west... eventually.

The father of the soon-to-be poet, novelist, journalist (and chronic liar) — Hulings Miller —had little money to support his wife and five children. He abandoned the idea of being a farmer, had a sojourn as a teacher, and raised sheep. When his stock of sheep were slaughtered by wolves, he blamed local Native Americans and demanded recompense from their chief. Hulings was a Justice of the Peace and had some local renown and, perhaps for that reason, the chief paid him off. It was likely this money that allowed him to purchase several acres of land in Oregon.

Finally, on St. Patrick's Day, March 17, 1852, the Miller family, including a 14-year old Joaquin/Cincinattus (certainly not a newborn) headed west. From Indiana, they went through Illinois and Missouri before joining a caravan on its way to the Oregon Territory. They finally arrived after a harrowing seven months' journey. One of his most memorable experiences was crossing the Missouri River, and that body of water inspired his poem "Missouri" (sometimes listed as "Mad Molder of the Continent"):

Where ranged thy black-maned, woolly bulls
   By millions, fat and unafraid;
Where gold, unclaimed, in cradlefuls,
   Slept 'mid the grass roots, gorge, and glade;
Where peaks companioned with the stars,
   And propt the blue with shining white,
With massive silver beams and bars,
   With copper bastions, height on height—
There wast thou born, O lord of strength!
O yellow lion, leap and length
Of arm from out an Arctic chine
To far, fair Mexic seas are thine!

What colors! Copper, clay, and gold
   In sudden sweep and fury blent,
Enwound, unwound, inrolled, unrolled,
   Mad molder of the continent.
What whirlpools and what choking cries
   From out the concave swirl and sweep,
As when some god cries out and dies
   Ten fathoms down thy tawny deep!
Yet on, right on, no time for death,
No time to gasp a second breath!
We plow a pathway through the main
To Moro's castle, Cuba's plain.

Hoar sire of hot, sweet Cuban seas,
   Gray father of the continent,
Fierce fashioner of destinies,
   Of states thou hast upreared or rent,
Thou know'st no limit: seas turn back
   Bent, broken, from the shaggy shore;
But thou. in thy resistless track,
   Art lord and master evermore.
Missouri, surge and sing and sweep!
Missouri, master of the deep,
From snow-reared Rockies to the sea
Sweep on, sweep on eternally!

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