Joaquin Miller: Oakland’s first hipster?

Joaquin Miller: Oakland’s first hipster?

Over the past year, I’ve overheard Oakland natives complaining about the influx of hipsters moving to Oakland. However, this trend is as old as the city itself. Poseurs have been coming to the East Bay since the pioneer days. Today we honor one of these famous poseurs, Joaquin Miller, on his 175th birthday.

Joaquin Miller was known as the “Poet of the Sierras,” and lived in a white cottage he called “The Abbey” in the Oakland hills from 1886 to his death in 1913. He earned his fame as an eccentric poet who told tall tales, and as a fashion icon. His house and hillside monuments now make up Joaquin Miller Park. Looking closer at this early Oakland fashionista, let’s examine his portrait from the early 1900s.

Although the West was won decades earlier, Joaquin Miller still chose to dress like a gun-toting, flamboyant cowboy. In this photo, he’s standing on a box of Winchester bullets, with a revolver and decorated rifle. To top if off, he’s in a leather fringe jacket and leather fringe pants.

And if his outfit wasn’t enough for turn-of-the-century Oakland, to further accentuate his false claim that his “cradle was a covered wagon pointing west,” he brought a miner’s pick to the Duchess of Devonshire’s reception in London.

On top of all his fashion antics, he was a prolific writer, producing countless news articles, some memorable poetry, and a memoir of his experience among Native American tribes in Northern California called Life Amongst the Modocs, which would make even James Frey blush. Miller’s memoir is now classified by scholars as fiction.

Here are Joaquin Miller’s hipster qualifications:

  • Facial hair ✓
  • Born in the Midwest and moved to West Coast ✓
  • Obsessed with Robert Browning ✓
  • Obsessed with obscure subjects, reading things others aren’t reading ✓
  • Hang out with artistic innovators, even though not a great artist himself ✓
  • Take on a funny name ✓
  • Ride a fixed-gear bike *
    (*Inconclusive. It’s possible Miller rode a penny farthing, although no photo evidence remains.)
  • Wear vintage clothing that’s anachronistic to current fashion ✓
  • Bohemian look (dress more rugged or poor than you actually are) ✓
  • Pioneer the latest cultural trends ✓
  • Environmentalist ✓
  • Listen to obscure music ✓
  • Write sonnets ✓
  • Constantly write about where you are and who you’re with ✓

Never one for an understatement, Miller called himself the “Byron of the Rockies,” and crafted a public persona of one-upmanship, which would meet (if not surpass) today’s standards of hipsterdom. He was a complex figure, having documented native American massacres and planted tens of thousands of trees in the Oakland Hills, and a literary pioneer, predating John Muir in his writing about California’s natural beauty.

Miller was also a Confederate sympathizer, and scholars are still trying to separate fact from fiction. No matter what you think of him: his personal life, politics, and writing — he was undeniably an Oakland fashion pioneer by paradoxically bringing fashion back fifty years to the Gold Rush era. I hold up a Pabst Blue Ribbon in honor of this Oakland fashion icon’s 175th birthday.

All of these photos were provided courtesy of the splendid Oakland History Room. View more images of Joaquin Miller here.

Matt Werner is the author of Oakland in Popular Memory. Email him at editor[at]thoughtpublishing.org.