Controversial California author Joaquin Miller defended golden bears when almost no one else did
SANTA BARBARA, California––California golden bears, emblem of the 1846 Bear Flag Revolt that brought California independence from Mexico, have been depicted on the California state flag since 1911, but––exterminated as alleged wildlife predators––were last seen in the wild in 1924.
A light-colored variant of the grizzlies found in and around Yellowstone National Park, northwestern Canada, and Alaska, California golden bears took a bad rap, according to ten scientists who recently reviewed the physical evidence and what documentation exists of their actual diet and behavior.
“More than a century ago,” summarized Science.org on January 10, 2024, “grizzly bears roaming California’s coasts and forests had gained a fearsome reputation for attacking European settlers’ livestock. In 1912, for example, a rancher in Kern County claimed a grizzly bear killed some 200 sheep in a single night,” at a time, it must be noted, when California golden bears had already more than once been declared extinct.
The ten scientists refute the California golden bear reputation as a livestock predator in a paper entitled “Coupled social and ecological change drove the historical extinction of the California grizzly bear (Ursus arctos californicus),” published on January 10, 2024 in the peer-reviewed journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
University of California at Santa Barbara environmental historian and ecologist Peter Algona and team initiated the study with an 18-month investigation of historical observations of California golden bears, collecting 330 accounts authored between 1602 and 1924.
“Of the 136 records that described [California] grizzlies foraging or eating,” said Science.org, 43% of them mentioned livestock. Only about 27% described the bears eating wild plants.”
Paleontologist Alexis Mychajliw, of Middlebury College in Vermont, meanwhile measured the teeth, skulls, and femurs of 57 California grizzlies preserved in museum collections.
The physical evidence did not seem to support the notion of California golden bears as being primarily predators.
More indicative, extensive analysis of “stable isotopes” in the bears’ bones showed that California golden bears historically ate mostly plants.
“A California grizzly diet dominated by plants is consistent with the diets of present-day brown bears in parts of the world with similar Mediterranean climates, such as southern Europe and the Middle East, as well as many other regions (e.g. interior North America, Europe, Asia) where herbaceous vegetation, fruits, berries and hard mast (nuts, acorns) are abundant,” the ten scientists wrote.
Alaskan grizzly bears eat a lot of salmon. California golden bears maybe used to, but the isotopic evidence is ambiguous.
“Robust salmon runs once occurred in the streams of California’s Central Valley, North and Central Coasts, and San Francisco Bay areas, but during the mid-nineteenth century, most were diminished by overfishing, dam construction, habitat degradation and pollution,” the ten scientists mention.
Golden bears rarely ate beached seals & whales
Neither does the isotopic evidence suggest California golden bears made much use of beached marine mammal carcasses.
“Marine mammal carcasses were once common along California beaches,” the ten scientists note, “and were likely consumed by scavengers including California condors.
“The number of beached carcasses likely waned, however, during the nineteenth century, owing to regional declines in several pinniped [seal and sea lion] and whale species.
“Our data suggest that such resources were only a very minor part of California grizzly diets, with only two bears from the pre-1542 period showing substantial marine resource use,” the ten scientists note.
Mission era introduced cattle to diet
However, “Following European contact in 1542, and especially after the onset of the Spanish Mission era in 1769, California grizzlies roughly doubled their consumption of terrestrial animal protein, including some livestock,” the ten scientists found.
Nonetheless, California golden bears “continued to derive most of their nutrition from plants.
“Grizzlies were accused of attacking people and preying on the livestock that proliferated on the open range during California’s Spanish Mission and Mexican Rancho eras (1769–1848),” the ten scientists acknowledge.
“Spanish-speaking settlers established a chain of missions from San Diego to Sonoma,” the ten scientists explain, “with cattle herds that grew from 300 head in 1778 to at least 400 000 head by 1821.
“Carcasses abandoned on the range and in outdoor abattoirs attracted grizzlies, but Spanish and Mexican ranchers largely tolerated them, only capturing grizzlies for bear and bull fights or dispatching those that presented a clear threat.”
The Gold Rush changed golden bear habitat
Continue the ten scientists, “The Gold Rush of 1849, followed by California’s admission as a U.S. state in 1850, sparked a massive influx of settlers and wildlife persecution, resulting in the loss of not just grizzlies but other larger mammals, such as wolves and wolverines.”
Even pumas and black bears, abundant today, became scarce.
“Changes in California’s vegetation, including the spread of Eurasian forbs and grasses and decline of oak woodlands, may have forced some grizzlies to switch to ungulate prey,” the ten scientists suggest.
“Ungulate prey” would have included mule deer and tule elk, but tule elk were also hunted by humans to the verge of extinction in the post-Gold Rush era.
“Our results suggest that California grizzlies adapted to the changing environmental conditions of the state by using food subsidies such as livestock, and that it was the specific socioecological context of California that led to the subspecies’ extinction,” the ten scientists conclude.
The ten scientists estimate, based on the physical evidence, that California golden bears may have grown to weights comparable to those of Yellowstone and Alaska grizzly bears today, substantially less than common 19th and early 20th century claims.
Many of these claims appear to have been influenced by observations of a California golden bear named Monarch, “captured north of Los Angeles in 1889 as part of a publicity stunt by publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst,” the ten scientists recount.
“He was then moved to San Francisco where he lived,” in a cage in Golden Gate Park as the main attraction in the original city zoo [the zoo was not moved to the present site until 1929], until he was euthanized in 1911. Zookeepers, believing that grizzlies required a rich, meat-heavy diet, fed him ‘raw beef, apples, biscuits and other articles,’” the ten scientists detail.
“When he finally died, after 22 years in captivity, Monarch weighed more than twice the size of the average California grizzly in our sample,” and suffered osteoarthritic pathologies caused by chronic obesity, the 10 scientists recount.
True Bear Stories
The paper “Coupled social and ecological change drove the historical extinction of the California grizzly bear (Ursus arctos californicus)” sent ANIMALS 24-7 running to our book shelves to grab and quickly re-read True Bear Stories, a 255-page volume by Joaquin Miller, with an introduction by ichthyologist and then-Stanford University president David Starr Jordan, published in 1900.
Jordan, considered one of the leading scientific minds of his time, is recently in disrepute for his advocacy of eugenics, but his racial attitudes, typical of the era, can scarcely be attributed to Joaquin Miller, who spent much of his life among the Native Americans of northern California, often taking up their cause.
Both Jordan and Joaquin Miller were staunch bear defenders and advocates, and personal acquaintances of Monarch, who is featured in True Bear Stories with high praise of his good character and appreciation of a young lady who routinely brought him apples.
“Had not begun to eat mutton”
Joaquin Miller, in True Bear Stories, remarks that as of 1889, California golden bears “had not begun to eat mutton.”
Joaquin Miller attributed most predation on sheep at that time to pumas, and estimated the livestock consumption of even the biggest golden bears at about two steers a week.
The ANIMALS 24-7 copy of True Bear Stories originally belonged to the small library at the one-room Coleman Valley School near Occidental, California, a vicinity at times visited by Joaquin Miller himself during his later years as an itinerant lecturer.
The Coleman Valley School, opened in 1864, closed with the formation of the Harmony Valley school district and construction of a new school about 90 years later.
The Coleman Valley School library, about a closet’s worth of books, none newer than about 1930, was then transferred to Potter School, a two-room schoolhouse in nearby Bodega, California, a community also visited by Joaquin Miller on lecture tours.
Potter School, The Birds, & Joaquin Miller
My father taught the first through fourth grades from 1959 to 1962 at Potter School, built in 1868.
There I discovered True Bear Stories and read it first at age 8, within a week of appearing as an extra in the Alfred Hitchcock film The Birds, which was made there.
Schoolroom scenes were filmed in the former fifth-to-eighth grade classroom; other interior scenes were filmed, at least partially, in sets constructed in the former lecture hall upstairs, where Joaquin Miller almost certainly spoke.
As Potter School had closed, with classes transferred to the Bodega firehouse and my father promoted to principal, I was allowed to keep True Bear Stories, and read it to tatters, many more times over the years.
Joaquin Miller knew his bears
Joaquin Miller was at various times a horsethief, fornicator, poet, lawyer, and newspaper editor, all of which might tend to impeach his credibility.
But, especially in light of “Coupled social and ecological change drove the historical extinction of the California grizzly bear (Ursus arctos californicus),” Joaquin Miller seems to have known his bears, and coyotes too, whom he called “brush wolves” and had good words for, even when nobody else except Mark Twain did.
In a 2011 biographical sketch entitled “Joaquin Miller: Poet of the Sierras,” author and California historian Jack Adler begins, “Cincinnatus Heine Miller alias Joaquin Miller was inventive about every aspect of his life including his name, age, and where he was born. Twenty-five years after his death, his secret ‘California Diary’ was unearthed, revealing that many of his unusual experiences,” including some of his encounters with bears, “were products of his lively imagination.”
Who exactly was Joaquin Miller?
There are many versions of most of the episodes in Joaquin Miller’s life, chiefly originating from his own writings, but the Adler version appears to be as accurate as any, and more accurate than most.
The mythologizing of Joaquin Miller’s life and times also tends to shed indirect light on why he might have come to favor both California golden bears and coyotes, who were also controversial, much fictionalized, though not to their benefit, and much maligned.
Recounts Adler, “Claiming to be born in ‘a covered wagon pointed west,’ Miller was actually born near Liberty, Indiana in September 1837.”
However, “Miller’s father, Hulings, kept the family going west as he took turns not supporting it as a teacher, farmer and merchant,” reaching Oregon in 1852.
Two years later, Cincinnatus Heine Miller “ran away to the California gold fields and stayed for several years. At the mine camps, Miller worked as a cook,” according to Adler, then “became a ‘squaw man,’ siring a daughter with his Indian paramour, Paquita.”
Nearly half a century later, Joaquin Miller dedicated True Bear Stories to the daughter.
Returning to Oregon, Cincinnatus Heine Miller, the future Joaquin Miller, “became a college graduate in a record time, three months,” Adler says, “taking classes at newly-founded Columbia College in Eugene. He managed to become his class valedictorian before the school burned down. Because the records were destroyed, no one is quite sure what Miller studied.
“Returning to California with his degree, Miller rejoined his Indian friends in Shasta County. One of his fondest claims was that he was instrumental in trying to foment an independent, Indian utopia to be called the Shasta Republic. But what appears to have happened,” again according to Adler, “is that first, he was accused of being a renegade and fighting alongside and not against the Indians.”
Then “he made off with a horse or two, after he wasn’t paid for his work as a cowhand.”
Cincinnatus Heine Miller later “claimed that Paquita died heroically in saving him, but she, perhaps not understanding what it took to be a poet, lived for another fifty years,” Adler says.
“Regardless,” Adler continues, “Miller returned again to Oregon where his lack of legal education and official status as a fugitive didn’t stop him becoming a lawyer. When his law practice didn’t flourish, he taught school and then became a Pony Express rider.”
In September 1862 Cincinnatus Heine Miller eloped with fellow poet Minnie Myrtle, whose real name was Theresa Dyer. He became a partner in the pro-Confederate Eugene City Democratic Register weekly newspaper, which folded after 29 issues, failed to find literary work in San Francisco, then returned to Oregon, “practiced law again, and got elected judge,” according to Adler.
“Tiring of his antics, Minnie left him,” says Dyer. “Minnie claimed they had three children, while Miller only acknowledged two.”
Why Miller took the name of a bandit
Trying his luck in San Francisco again in 1870, Cincinnatus Heine Miller befriended librarian and poet Ina Coolbrith (1841-1928), a niece of Church of Latterday Saints (Mormons) founder Joseph Smith. After her father died, Ina Coolbrith’s mother became Smith’s seventh wife, but later left him and the Mormon church.
Ina Coolbirth, the first poet laureate of California, was later instrumental in advancing the early career of Jack London (1876-1916), among many other authors, and also promoted the career of dancer Isadora Duncan.
Coolbirth influenced Cincinnatus Heine Miller to rename and reinvent himself as Joaquin Miller, taking the first name Joaquin in honor of Joaquin Murietta, a bandit to Anglos but a hero to much of the California Spanish-speaking and Native American population.
From that relationship, Joaquin Miller bounced to England while Coolbrith looked after his Native American daughter, returned again to San Francisco, moved to New York City, and, again according to Adler, “began a 30-year affair with Mrs. Frank Leslie, wife of a publisher of weekly magazines, who was also known as Mrs. Bluebeard for her various husbands and lovers.”
While that was going on, Adler says, Joaquin Miller “married a young heiress, naively lost money in the stock market, and wrote a muckraking novel before muckrakers received their name. Early in 1886, seeking the source of his early inspiration, he returned west as associate editor of Golden Era in San Francisco. When the magazine folded he went on lecture tours,” and ventured to the Yukon region of Canada to report about the Klondike gold rush of 1896-1899.
Jack London, not yet an Ina Coolbrith protégé, was there too, but whether Miller and London crossed paths in the Yukon is not documented.
Back in San Francisco, Joaquin Miller produced True Bear Stories, then finished his life, according to Adler, as “An ardent conservationist,” who “served as an official delegate from California to the National Forestry Councils,” and “recommended seedlings to be planted at the Presidio in San Francisco and on Goat Island,” as Yerba Buena island was then called.