Honey Tracks Down Ina Coolbrith’s One True Love

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May 1, 2014 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 



By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)

The life of a forgotten poet reveals a pageant of changes in California consciousness, about the place of women in society, about forbidden love, about the emergence of California literature, and about the transition from the Mexican era in Los Angeles.  

Ben Tarnoff’s The Bohemians: Mark Twain and the San Francisco Writers Who Reinvented American Literature (2014) describes the contributions of four iconoclastic writers set against the background of bohemian San Francisco, an era that began with their work for the Golden Era in the last years of the American Civil War, and which continued with their creation of the Overland Monthly.

Nigey Lennon in The Sagebrush Bohemian (1990) conjectures there was a romantic relationship between Twain and Coolbrith and Harte and Coolbrith. If there had been such a three-way relationship, gossip about it would have knocked San Francisco society off its heels.

Brett Harte, one of the four, referred to Ina in 1870 as a “dark-eyed Sapphic divinity.”  Coolbrith’s good friend John Muir attempted to introduce her to eligible men.  The circle of writers, poets and artists she influenced called her the Virgin Poetess.

Coolbrith’s poetry suggests she had one lover: her husband Robert Carsley, and that she remained faithful from the time they married when she was seventeen until her death, moneyless and cared for in Berkeley by her niece in 1928.  Most people didn’t know that she was a divorced woman.  She didn’t talk about her marriage except through her poetry.

Her life in California spanned her arrival on a covered wagon through Beckwourth Pass when she was eleven, the last years of culturally Mexican Los Angeles from eleven to twenty, the literary meetings at her home at 1604 Taylor Street on Russian Hill, her years as California’s first public librarian in Oakland in middle age, her home built after the 1906 earthquake at 1067 Broadway above Chinatown, her award as California’s first poet laureate in San Francisco when she was sixty-five, and her death in a time with telephones, airplanes and automobiles and female suffrage.  The house she had built near Chinatown is still there, as is the house on Wheeler in Berkeley where she died.

Scripps College Professor Cheryl Walker’s stunning The Nightingale’s Burden: Women Poets and American Culture before 1900 (1982) and

Walker’s American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (1995) both rather uneasily claim Ina as a nightingale poet.

In Nightingale’s Burden, Walker identifies several categories of nineteenth century women poets’ themes: martyrdom and self-pity, renunciation, duty, the poet as captive, madness and torment, an appreciation of nature that verges on the hysterical, and the home or room as sanctuary.  These themes reflect the internalization of 19th century realities of marriage, women’s economic/legal/political fragility, and death and illness.

Ina Coolbrith was not a nightingale.  True, she often wrote in what Kevin Starr calls the Lo! Hark! School. Sometimes her writing is s self-pitying and too often melancholy, the rhythms rather stale, but her imagery is direct and clear — anticipating H.D.’s (1886-1961) Imagist poetry of the early twentieth century. She earned her living and supported and raised three children.   Coolbrith’s palette, moreover, was Californian.

The idea of women poets as nightingales grew from John Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819).  Keats’ poem draws on a minor figure in Greek mythology, Philomela or Philomel, whose brother-in-law cut out her tongue. In Ovid’s version of the myth, Philomel becomes a swallow, which has no song, and her sister became a nightingale.  In Keats’ variation, Philomel becomes a nightingale.

East coast nineteenth century American women’s poetry was often melodramatic:  but the economic and cultural experiences of women, even privileged white women, confined them.

Massachusetts’ family law was an example of America’s east coast inheritance from England’s legal system:

“At the turn of the nineteenth century, coverture laws significantly impeded the ability of married women to own and manage property in the United States. Unless a married woman obtained the protection of equity under the terms of an ante-nuptial agreement or a specifically tailored trust instrument, the common law entitled her husband to manage and control her land, to take for himself the profits derived from her real estate, and to own virtually all her personal property.” (See, Chaused, supra)

Prior to the mid-1800s, most states accepted wife beating as a valid exercise of a husband’s authority over his wife.  One exception, however, was the 1641 Body of Liberties of the Massachusetts Bay Colonists, which declared that a married woman should be “free from bodilie correction or stripes by her husband.”  In 1850, Tennessee became the first state in the United States to explicitly outlaw wife beating.  In 1871, Alabama rescinded the legal right of men to beat their wives.  In 1945, the California legislature passed a law making wife-beating illegal but that law was declared unconstitutional.  In 1962, New York transferred criminal charges against husbands to family court, which meant that men no longer faced penalties for violence against women in the criminal courts.  That is, a New York man who beat up, raped or killed a stranger would face criminal charges but not a man who beat up, raped or killed his wife.  Police policies changed radically as a result of O. J. Simpson murder of his Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1994.

Life expectancy reached 48 years in 1900.  Women’s poetry reflected, consequently, frequent episodes of grief.  Helen Hunt Jackson took up activism for Indian rights and writing as a way to assuage her grief when her first husband and her two sons died.  Ina Coolbrith’s “A Mother’s Grief” is about the loss of her infant son in 1861 in Los Angeles when she was nineteen.  Her brother-in-law and her sister died young, and Ina raised their children.

During the American Civil War, the northern states lost ten percent of its young men.   The Southern states lost thirty percent.  The war brought an end to the National Women’s Rights Convention, although white women and women of color served as spies and nurses.  The fifteenth amendment to the United States Constitution did not grant women suffrage.  California female voting came earlier, but the United States was not to grant women the right to vote until 1920.

Women did, however, go to university after the Civil War, and for the most part they went to coeducational colleges. All U.S. colleges refused to admit women until Oberlin College in Ohio finally opened its doors for a special program in 1833. California state colleges admitted women in 1870, but schools of medicine and law kept them out longer. Stanford University opened as a co-educational institution, but later limited the number of women students.   In the United States by 1870 only .7% of the female population went to college. This percentage rose slowly, by 1900 the rate was 2.8% and it was only 7.6% by 1920.  Ina Coolbrith was largely self-educated.

Late in the 19th century, women’s poetry became quite successful.  Walker cites Fred Lewis Pattee:

“Their volumes, bound in creamy vellum and daintily tinted cloth, began more and more to fill the book tables, until reviewers no longer could give separate notice to them, but must consider the poets of a month in groups of ten or twelve.  The quality of the feminine product was high enough to find place in the most exclusive monthlies, and the quantity published was surprising.  The Atlantic Monthly, for instance, during the decade from 1870 published 108 poems by Longfellow, Whittier, Homes, Lowell, Aldrich and 450 other poems, and of the latter 201 were by women.”

Professor Walker writes that in 1900 several writers had “given this perplexing female condition a piercing look.  In that year Kate Chopin was recovering from the abusive criticism she had received in the review of The Awakening, a novel about a woman who refuses to answer ‘yes’ to the question: ‘Must too bold desires be quieted?’  Edna Pontellier, the novel’s heroine, follows the ignis fatuous of self-realization, ‘the light which, showing the way, forbids it’ and ends up a suicide.  Having tried to imitate the free bird, she must acknowledge her impotence against the constituted powers of patriarchal authority.  ‘A bird with a broken wing was beating the air above, reeling, fluttering, circling disabled down, down to the water.’  The only freedom left to her comes through death.” (Ignis fatus means a phosphorescent light that hovers over swampy ground at night.  A secondary meaning is “something that misleads or deludes; an illusion.”)

Women’s fiction and poetry remained intensely personal in the twentieth century.  Edna St. Vincent Millay inherited the personal going-mad-from-it- all nightingale legacy.  Sylvia Plath’s writing has the greater simplicity and vivid beauty of twentieth-century outrage.   Plath’s only novel The Bell Jar (1963) uses the bell jar as the primary metaphor for feelings of confinement and entrapment. The main character feels that she’s stuck in her own head, spinning around the same thoughts of self-doubt and despair. Plath also, however, uses the bell jar as a metaphor for society at large, for the way that people can be trapped inside social conventions and expectations.  Maya Angelou autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) employs the caged bird metaphor for a black girl’s experiences in a racist and male-dominated society.  The cultural expectations for women, which women internalized, may be one of the reasons Ina did not talk about either her divorce or about her birth family’s polygamous past.

Josephine Anna Smith — called Ina by her family — was born in Nauvoo, Illinois in 1841.  Her mother Agnes Coolbrith had converted to Mormonism in Boston.  Her father Don Carlos Smith, a printer, was the brother of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, Jr.  Don Carlos died when Josephine was four months old of malarial fever, and Agnes married Joseph Smith, becoming his seventh or eighth wife.

When Josephine was three, an anti-Mormon anti-polygamy mob murdered Joseph and her uncle Hyrum.  Agnes and three other Smith widows moved to St. Louis, where Agnes married alcoholic lawyer and lexicographer William E. Pickett. Recent Mormon research indicates Pickett had also converted to Mormonism, and that he had a second wife he left behind when he and Agnes decided to move to California.

In 1852, Josephine Donna Smith, age eleven, crossed the plains with her family in a covered wagon.  She had never been in a school but Pickett carried with him a well-worn copy of Byron’s poetry, a set of Shakespeare, and the Bible.  When she walked alongside her family’s wagon on that long journey, she made up poetry in her head.

James P. Beckwourth, mountain man and explorer, guided the caravan.  Beckwourth was born a slave in Virginia.  His father – and owner – had freed him.  Pioneers used the Beckwourth Trail heavily until about 1855 after the Panama Railroad was built.  He called Ina “Little Princess.”  Somewhere in the Nevada sands she buried her doll after it took a tumble and split its head. All the children of the wagon train attended the funeral as the doll was lowered into its grave.

Jim Beckwourth rode bareback.  As the wagon train entered the pass, he put Ina and her older sister on the back of his horse and rode with them as they crossed into California and looked down at it.  “Here, little girls, is your kingdom.”  She was the younger child, so she may have sat in front of her sister and entered California a moment before her sister.

Coolbrith’s “A Summer Wind” begins with a passage that describes what she saw when he she was eleven years old, slowly riding down the side of the Sierras into the Sacramento River Valley:

“Balmily, balmily, summer wind,/
Sigh through the mountain-passes,/ Over the sleep of the beautiful deep, /
Over the woods’ green masses; /
Ripple the grain of the valley and plain,/
And the reeds and the river grasses!”

The Pickett family lived in San Francisco for a short time when the city was still wild and dangerous and much of the city was still comprised of sandy undeveloped hills.

“In olden days, a child, I trod thy sands/ Thy sands unbuilded, rank with brush and briar/ And blossom—chased the sea-foam on thy strands/ Young city of my love and desire.”

Her family moved to San Bernardino – when it was still largely Mormon and part of Los Angeles County – and then to the pueblo of Los Angeles during the years Los Angeles was shared equally by former Mexican citizens and Americans.

The houses were flat adobes with courtyards planted with pepper trees.  Vineyards, peach and pomegranate orchards grew along the then unconfined, broader and meandering Los Angeles River around El Aliso, the hundreds of years old giant sycamore close to the plaza where the Tongva people had gathered and later the pobladores who had founded the pueblo seventy years earlier.  (El Aliso stood around where the County jail called “Twin Towers” is now.)

From Coolbrith’s  “A Hope”:

“It befell me on a day-
/Long ago; ah, long ago! /
When my life was in its May,
In the May-month of the year./
All the orchards were like snow/
With pink-flushes here and there;/
And a bird sang building near/
And a bird sang far away,/
Where the early twilight lay.”

She played the guitar and sang American and Spanish songs. She danced the fandango – an exuberant Spanish courtship dance of Moorish origin.  The dance begins slowly with the rhythm marked by castanets, clapping of hands.  Pio Pico – governor of California, of Spanish, African and Native American ancestry who looked, from his photographs, African but his brother looked Indian — introduced her to society at one of his many balls on his enormous rancho.

Mexican women did not wear hoops and corsets until later; when they also adopted Americans’ confining fashions, and they worked as nurses and informal doctors, although both sexes depended on involuntary Indian labor.

Kevin Starr, in Americans and the California Dream (1850-1915) published in 1973,  wrote about the time just before California joined the United States:

“At balls and festivals Californian showed American that work was not everything.  From twilight, when guitars, violins, and castanets began to play, until dawn of the next day; kept going by the juice of jimsonweed or fired by draughts of brandy – the Californian danced.  Shouting encouragement to those who moved rhythmically in the stately contradanza, the joyous fandango, the sensual jota, or the intricate jarabe, the Californian celebrated a wedding, a harvest, a national or religious holiday, or perhaps just life itself.  To many Americans California life seemed a perpetual round of feasting, dancing, love-making, and visiting back and forth.  They condemned such unproductive carnival, but there were also times of quiet envy.”

Before 1850, Americans married into Mexican and into Indian families, and acquired land.  After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Americans gradually subsumed the Mexican culture.   Mexican and Anglo lawyers became the greatest beneficiaries, acquiring Mexican land in exchange for representation in court contests.  Pickett was one of those lawyers.

The arrival of Americans who did not marry into the gente de razon abruptly changed life in the pueblo.  In a one-year period starting in September of 1850, 31 people were murdered in Los Angeles. Out of a population of only 2,500, this is by far the highest homicide rate in American history. This does not include the murder of Indians, Blacks, Asians and Mexicans, which were not considered crimes.  The homicide rate between 1847 and 1870 averaged 158 per 100,000 (13 murders per year), which was10 to 20 times the annual murder rates for New York City during the same period.

With one remarkable exception, California adopted the Mexican family law system.

Caroline Berneo Newcombe wrote:

“When a California wife scared hogs out of her mud kitchen in 1832, she had some things in common with a Visigothic wife living in fifth century Spain. Both women worked “shoulder to shoulder” with their husbands to survive in harsh conditions. Both women enjoyed a community property system which regarded the relationship between husband and wife as an economic partnership…”

Newcombe contrasts the inherited Spanish legal system from the common law system inherited from English law.  Under the common law, the husband and wife were “one person in law.”  The legal female existence merged with the husband’s, which meant in practice that the woman had no separate legal identity.  In the Spanish system, the wife managed her separate property.  This idea continues into California law.  In the English system, she did not – which explains why many women elected to be spinsters in the eastern and the southern states because the eastern and southern states — except for Louisiana, which inherited the Code Napoleon — relied on the common law.

California also passed legislation that allowed women the right to divorce (1851).

This was the confusing, violent ambit the Pickett family entered when they moved to Los Angeles.

When she was fourteen, Josephine Donna Smith went to school for the first time in Los Angeles’s first public school on Spring Street and Second.  The Los Angeles Star/Estrella published her first poem when she was fifteen.

Close to her death in 1925, she wrote:  “Retrospect,” which recalls her days in Los Angeles when she was a young girl:

“A breath of balm—of orange bloom!
By what strange fancy wafted me,
Through the lone starlight of the room?
And suddenly I seem to see


“The long, low vale, with tawny edge
Of hills, within the sunset glow;
Cool vine-rows through the cactus hedge,
And fluttering gleams of orchard snow.

“Far off, the slender line of white
Against the blue of ocean’s crest;
The slow sun sinking into night,
A quivering opal in the west.

“Somewhere a stream sings, far away;
Somewhere from out the hidden groves,
And dreamy as the dying day,
Comes the soft coo of mourning doves.

“One moment all the world is peace!
The years like clouds are rolled away,
And I am on those sunny leas,
A child, amid the flowers at play.”


She married at seventeen, and the Los Angeles Star/Estrella printed a few words about her wedding in 1858 to Robert Carsley in the home of Dr. D. F. Hall near the San Gabriel Mission.  Los Angeles society’s acceptance of this marriage showcases the contradiction between the Mexican law’s acceptance of inter-racial marriage and the American’s prohibition of it.

Carsley was born in 1833 in New Bedford, Massachusetts.  In 1830, the white population of New Bedford grew by 57.2 percent but the black population increased by 86.6 percent.  Eighty-two percent of black people living in Massachusetts lived in New Bedford.  A number of black men served on whaling ships.

From 1851-1853, Carsley worked as a blacksmith on a whaling ship Eliza Adams out of New Bedford sailed to the Falklands, Chile, Hawaii, Mexico, through the Bering straits into the Arctic Ocean and back.  The New Bedford Whaling Museum indicates he was a dark-skinned seventeen-year old in 1851.  The information did not include race.

FindAGrave.com indicates that from 1858-1861 he was married to Josephine Donna Smith, who was later known as Ina Donna Coolbrith.

Harris Newmark, in his Sixty Years in Southern California (1916) briefly mentions her husband Robert Carsley:

“Minstrels and circuses were occasionally presented, a minstrel performance taking place sometime in the fifties, in an empty store on Aliso Street, near Los Angeles. About the only feature of this event that is now clear in my memory is that Bob Carsley, played the bones (“The bones” were a folk music instrument made of two bones played in each hand.); he remained in Los Angeles and married, later taking charge of the foundry which Stearns established when he built his Arcadia Block (Abel Stearns built a 2 story commercial building and named it after his wife Arcadia Bandini in 1858) on Los Angeles Street.”

The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, consisted of variety acts, dancing and music performed by white people in blackface. The black performers used the show as a way of solidifying black identity; and the white performers who smeared burned corks on their faces acted like black people to make fun of black people.

Robert Carsley was a partner in the Salamander Ironworks, which built jails, iron doors, and balconies. He came from Massachusetts, which had been the first slave state, but a judicial decision ended slavery in 1783.  An African man named William Kerley (Carlsey) arrived in the ship “Confidence” in 1638 and was a freeman in 1666.  He owned land and was a selectman and representative.

The legislature declared slavery illegal in the 1849 state constitution and there was no provision for enumerating slaves on the census forms. The census merely states there were 962 Negroes – 1 percent of the population in the state at that time. 

In 1776, seven out of the Thirteen Colonies that declared their independence enforced laws against interracial marriage. Although slavery was gradually abolished in the North after independence, this at first had little impact on the enforcement of anti-miscegenation laws. An exception was Pennsylvania, which repealed its anti-miscegenation law in 1780, together with some of the other restrictions placed on free blacks, when it enacted a bill for the gradual abolition of slavery in the state. Later, in 1843, Massachusetts repealed its anti-miscegenation law after abolitionists protested against it. As the US expanded, all the new slave states as well as many new free states such as Illinois and California enacted such laws.

The primary impetus to the anti-miscegenation laws was the hope of preventing racial blurring.  If “races” were not kept distinct, disparate treatment of people became more difficult.  The economic and political consequences of mixed marriages are obvious: one group of people could not be kept subordinate in one group could freely intermarry with another.  The secondary impetus, however, was aimed at women: to reduce their freedom of choice in the most intimate aspects of their lives; that is, to maintain their “purity.”  Women were not to be perceived as sexual beings.

Interracial sex between white men and black women occurred often – Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States – had a long-standing sexual relationship with Sally Hemings — one of his slaves.  Sally Hemings’s father was allegedly her mother’s owner, John Wayles, a white lawyer and slave trader of English descent. As Wayles was also the father of Martha Wayles (Skelton) Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s wife, Hemings and Martha Jefferson are believed to have been half-sisters.

Although California adopted Mexico’s community property law, its 1850 statute contrasted with Mexican law on marriage, a labyrinth of Spanish law – essentially late Roman law — and folk custom, Indian traditions and West African traditions.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which ceded California to the United States, established that former Mexican citizens in California would be treated as “white,” in spite of their mixed ethnic origins, at least, with respect to marriage.   Until the 1948 California Supreme Court decision in Perez v. Sharp 32 Cal.2d 711, the 1850 statute codified in Civil Code Section 60 in 1872, prohibited the marriage of a white woman of Mexican descent, classified as “white” according to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with a Negro, although Andrea Perez was a Mestizo. The California Supreme Court held the ban against interracial marriage unconstitutional.    This decision marked the first time since Reconstruction that an anti-miscegenation law had been invalidated.

If Bob Carsley was a black man, his marriage to Ina in Mexican society –Los Angeles in 1858 was legally American but culturally still Mexican – would have been unremarkable among the gente de razon.

Carlsey and his young wife Ina lived behind the iron works.   (The Arcadia block was destroyed to make way for the 101 Freeway.  Arcadia Street now runs along the freeway not far from the courthouse.)

Returning from a minstrel show in San Francisco, Carsley became obsessed with the idea that his wife had been unfaithful to him.  Coolbriith’s biographers don’t tell us why.   There may have been an Iago on the ship carrying him back to Los Angeles.

Ina was staying with her mother and stepfather William E. Pickett in their adobe when Carsley arrived back in the pueblo and attempted to murder her and her mother.  He screamed repeatedly – in that very tiny quiet pueblo – that Ina was a whore.   Pickett gathered up his rifle and shot his hand off, which calmed down Carsley and he later apologized over and over.  Desdemona died at Othello’s hand.  Ina filed for and got an uncontested divorce within three months.

Carsley moved to Brooklyn, but also in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he patented burners for illuminating gas and gas heaters that used little fuel and a lathe that turned spherical shapes.  He and his much younger third wife had a son in 1890, soon after they married, soon after he divorced his second wife for desertion.    He was one of the directors of a gas-heating business and married twice more before his death in 1905 from kidney failure.

After the divorce, Ina elected to move to San Francisco.  Although divorce was legal, her former friends crossed the street to avoid meeting her.  Most of her family came with her on the ship to San Francisco (No trains, yet, terrible roads).  They moved to Russian Hill.  She worked at first teaching school.  Pickett gave up the practice of law and got a job as a printer.

Ina helped launch the Overland Monthly along with Bret Harte and Charles Stoddard (Mark Twain’s homosexual drinking companion) and she became assistant editor to Brett Harte at the Overland Monthly. Harte was the Monthly’s first editor, and he published the “Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868), which placed him at the forefront of American writers.  “Luck” was a bastard infant whose mother died – “She was a coarse, and it is to be feared, a very sinful woman” — and miners took care of him until the baby also died.  Harte pushed the limits of Victorian sentimentality mixed with terrible outcomes for women who had sex without marriage, and the public ate it up.

After Harte’s death (in 1902), Ina wrote:

….”I see him often, with the brown hair half
Tossed from the leaning brow, the soft yet keen
Gray eyes uplifted with a tear or laugh
From the pen-pictured scene.

“And hear the voice that read to me his dear
World-children-and I listen till I seem
Back in the olden days; they are the near
And these are but a dream.”

The Monthly published short stories written by the 28-year old Mark Twain. Henry James once asked Mark Twain if he was acquainted with Brett Harte.  “Yes,” Twain replied.  “I know the son of a bitch.”   They had a falling out over money.  Twain refused to loan any to Harte.  Neither Harte nor Twain ever wrote or said he had any relationship with Ina, other than the relationship of a good friend.

Ina was still a beautiful woman in her twenties and thirties. Although she looks like a brunette in the two early photographs of her, she had fair hair and gray eyes.  Isadora Duncan later wrote that her father was in love with Ina.

She lived with her mother, stepfather and stepbrothers in Russian Hill, where she met with Harte, Twain, Stoddard, Joaquin Miller and other Bohemians to talk about a new way of writing – writing that was different from East Coast writing.   Archival photographs of Russian Hill in 1865 show the steep hill with only a few houses, the windows of which looked down to the plaza, the wharf, the Golden Gate and beyond to the Marin highlands.

In “From Russian Hill,” Ina mixes in memories of Los Angeles with images of her view from her house of the Golden Gate long before the bridge.  The lover she mentions is probably Robert Carsley.  In this poem, her young lover sits with her in her imagination when she is old.  Ina’s references are old-fashioned, so I write explanations in parentheses.

“Night and the hill to me!/ Silence no sound that jars;/ above, of stars a sea;
below, a sea of stars!

“Tranced in slumber’s sway/ the city at its feet./a tang of salty spray
Blends with the odors sweet/From garden-close and wall,/ Where the madrona stood,/ and tangled chaparral,/ in the old solitude.

Here, from the Long Ago,/ Rezanov’s (Nikolai Petrovich Rezanov, Russian nobleman who promoted Russian colonization of California.  He fell in love with Concepción Argüello, daughter of the Spanish governor of Alta California and Presidio Commandante.  She was thirteen. He was forty-one.  Nikolai returned to Russia to ask for permission from the tsar to marry her.  On the journey, he fell from his horse in Siberia and died.  A year later, the girl learned of his death and became a nun.  The deliberate juxtiposition of the Presidio, which she sees from her window, and the old romantic story of a young girl who loses the man she loves and vows celibacy, with Ina’s reference later in the poem to the man who loved her suggests that Ina kept secret the fact that she loved the husband she divorced all of her life and remained celibate.) sailors sleep; There, the Presidio;/ beyond, the plumed steep (Mt. Tamaulipas in Marin across the bay).

“The waters, mile on mile/ foam-fringed with feathery white;/
The beaconed fortress isle, (Alcatraz) and Yerba Buena’s (Yerba Buena is both the old name for San Francisco and an island in the San Francisco Bay) light.


Ring out thy solemn tone, O far-off Mission bell! /I keep the tryst alone with one who loved me well./A voice I may not hear! /Face that I may not see, yet know a presence near/to watch the hour with me. . .

How stately and serene/the moon moves up the sky!
How silvery between/the shores her footprints lie! (“Her footprints” refers to the moon’s path on the water. Ina’s spoke Spanish.  “La luna” is female)

“Peace that no shadow mars! Night and the hill to me!  Below, a sea of stars!
Above, of stars a sea!”

After her sister died, Ina supported her sister’s children with work at the first “free” library in California as its first librarian. Pickett vanished at about that time, and she became the sole support of her mother and her niece and nephew and Joaquin Miller’s illegitimate Indian daughter. Ina’s mother died in 1876.    One Internet Mormon history source indicates Pickett died in 1893, age then about 75 in a mining dispute in Julian, California (San Diego County).

During the 18 years she was a librarian, Ina worked 12-hour days six days a week.  She introduced the little boy Jack London to literature, and he considered her his “literary mother.”  She also mentored the child Isadora Duncan and the young woman Mary Austin.  From “In the Library”:

“Who say these walls are lonely-these-/they may not see the motley throng

that people it, as thick as bees/the scented clover beds among.

“They may no hear, when footfalls cease? And living voices, for awhile,
the speech in many tongues and keys/ adorn each shadowy aisle. (When Ina worked in the library, it was gas-lit, and the gas jets threw shadows down the aisles.)

“Here are the friends that ne’er betray;/ companionship that never tires; /
here voices call from voiceless clay, /and ashes dead renew their fires.

After she lost her job, the Bohemians helped her financially.  In 1906, she lost her home in the Great Earthquake and lived in a tent.  She lost all of the materials she had compiled to write a book on California literature.

On June 29, 1915, Ina’s good friend Jo McCracken traveled from Santa Cruz, where she had moved after the fire, to attend Ina Coolbrith Day at the Panama–Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. She watched from the overflowing audience as Coolbrith was named the first California Poet Laureate. After several more speeches were made in her honor, and bouquets brought in abundance to the podium, Coolbrith addressed the crowd: “There is one woman here with whom I want to share these honors: Josephine Clifford McCracken. We are linked together, the last two living members of Bret Harte’s staff of Overland writers.”  McCracken was then ushered up from her seat in the audience to join Coolbrith on stage. .

Ina’s life in California spanned the pioneer American occupation, the end of the Gold Rush, the end of the Rancho Era in Southern California, the arrival of the intercontinental train, and the first renaissance of the 19th century feminist movement.  The American Civil War played no evident part in her consciousness but her life and her writing revealed acceptance of everyone from all classes and all races.  Everyone whose life she touched wrote about her kindness.   She wrote by hand, a hand painfully crippled by arthritis after she moved to the wetter climate of San Francisco.   Her handwriting was crabbed as a result — full of strikeouts.  She earned her own living and supported three children and her mother.

Ansel Adams’ photographic portrait of Ina Coolbrith at a party in her honor held just before her death in 1928 reveals an old woman with a ruined face wearing a large white lace Spanish mantilla covering her thinning hair.  One reporter described her as having “clear, luminous eyes, very sensitive and expressive hands, and a young voice, quick, animated, and fluent.”

A Los Angeles Californio bride would have worn the white lace mantilla elevated above her head by an elaborate comb.  She might have held a starched white fan.  Ina wore her mantilla simply like a confirmation girl; nonetheless, the mantilla was evocative of her marriage in a tiny pueblo when she was seventeen.



Woodrow Borah and Sherburne F. Cook, “Marriage and Legitimacy In Mexican Culture: Mexico and California,” California Law Review, Volume 54, Issue 2.  May 1966.

Richard H. Chused, “Married Women’s Property and Inheritance by Widows in Massachusetts” A Study of Wills Probated between 1800 and 1850.” Berkeley Journal of Gender, Law & Justice, Volume 2, Issue 1, September 2013.

Jerry Caramillo Dunn, San Francisco

Richard Griswold del Castillo, The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990) 

R. A. Lenhardt, “Beyond Analogy: Perez v Sharp, Antimiscegenation Law, and the Fight for Same Sex Marriage,” California Law Review, Volume 96, Issue 4, August 2008

Eric Monkkonen, “Western Homicide: The Case of Los Angeles, 1830—1870”,” Pacific Historical Review, 74 (Nov. 2005), 609. 

Caroline Bermeo Newcombe, “The Origin and Civil Law Foundation of the Community Property System, Why California Adopted It and Why Community Property Principles Benefit Women,” University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Gender and Class, Volume 11, Issue 1, 5-22-2013,

Fred Lewis Pattee, A History of American Literature Since 1870 (New York Century Company 1915), p 335.

Josephine D. Rhodehamel, Raymond F. Wood Ina Coolbrith: Librarian and Laureate of California, (1986).  Ancestory.com lists one Josephine D. Rhodehemal, a retired librarian born in 1901, who died in 2000.  If this is the same Josephine D. Rhodehamal, she and James F. Wood wrote the biography of Ina Coolbrith when Rhodehamal was in her eighties.

Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream (1973)

Cheryl Walker, editor, American Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (1995)

All of Coolbrith’s poetry can be read for free on-line.  http://www.poemhunter.com/ina-d-coolbrith/.





https://archive.org/stream/adventuresoflife00beckrich#page/n9/mode/2up.  Free on-line life story of James P. Beckwourth.  (Book published first in France in 1860).





Pio Pico State Historic Park.  6003 Pioneer Blvd.

Whittier, CA 90606
(562) 695-1217  Email: parkinfo@piopico.org.  The park holds a fiesta in June,

Pío used his political influence to build a vast land empire, and was one of the few California dons to hold onto his land after the American take-over. Pico and his fellow dons entertained often and in grand style. Weddings and religious festivals were some of the opportunities to invite family and friends for weeklong celebrations.  By 1855 he and his brother Andres Pico held 532,000 acres, making Pico one of the richest men in California. The adobe was always filled with people. Many members of Pico’s extended family lived there at various times. Vaqueros tended the rancho’s large herds of cattle and horses. Pico also invited his friends for company, card playing and gambling on horse races.

Pio accompanied Ina to a ball when she was a young woman.  The ball may have been held at his adobe.

He didn’t build the Pio Pico House at the edge of the plaza near Union Station in Los Angeles until 1869.  By then, Ina and most of her family – except for Agnes and her family.  They remained in their small adobe, which was on Broadway, until Agnes’s husband died, and she became seriously ill.

The Avila Adobe (1818) in the California State Historic Park is the oldest standing residence in Los Angeles.   The structure suggests  how Ina and her sister lived in their Los Angeles days.

Autry National Center.   4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA 90027  (323) 667-2000.  The Autry’s exhibits change.  It contains western art, Native American exhibits, 19th century dresses, western movies, and a great deal of background – including a background tape of what the creators of the tape imagine as the city noises in the 19th century (horses, dogs, a blacksmith) – that give a sense of what life was like around the time Ina lived in Los Angeles.

Mount Ina Coolbrith is visible from Beckwourth Pass through which Ina and her sister entered California. Beckwourth Pass is located at the eastern edge of Sierra Valley at Chilcoot-Vinton, California in Plumas County, 20 miles (32 km) east of Portola, California and 25 miles (40 km) northwest of Reno, Nevada

Ina Coolbrith Park at Taylor and Vallejo Street in San Francisco.  The park is located near both of her Russian Hill homes.

Mountain View Cemetery, 5000 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, where Ina is buried.


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