Now and Then

Now & Then: How Important is Separating Facts, Fiction, and Myths?

Oreodelphia

By Loretta (Stevens) Bailey

Now:  I was going through subject files looking for a file that would make an interesting blog. I thought I had found that file and was sure it would be an impressive one to write about. Living here most of my life and hearing an assortment of stories, I had surprisingly never heard this one. I was looking forward to doing the research and writing.

I quickly scanned the article and was astounded to read that a man named Joaquin Miller wanted to call our town “Oreodelphia.” I consulted with the staff and we read the file together thoroughly.  It was decided this was historical misinformation. That set me to wondering, where did the reporter get ahold of this story?   

Then:

Cañon City Daily Record

June 8, 1988

…Do you remember the story of our town where a mass meeting was held in the early part of 1860? It appeared that the purpose of the meeting was to name our town. Anyway, a philosopher, poet and adventurer named Joaquin Miller rose to the occasion by suggesting the name “Oreodelphia.”

History records that a burly miner asked “How do you spell it?”

There was something in the miner’s voice that prompted Miller to sit down. After that outburst, the group decided on the name “Cañon City” and, we assume, adjourned to Bill Murry’s saloon to properly recognize the historic occasion.

We were not satisfied with this brief mention of Miller. The mention that he was a “poet and philosopher” warmed our heart, most people following the newspaper trade are poets and philosophers. But Miller’s trail was hard to follow. After considerable research, we found him in California and he appeared to have received more respect there.

It took our entire staff, my wife and granddaughter…to locate a photograph of Miller. Imagine our surprise when we discovered his true name was “Cincinnatus H. Miller.”  In addition, he claimed he was a press agent – not a poet, philosopher and adventurer…

…In addition, Miller was a frequent visitor to the “drawing rooms of England, Indiana and Oregon.”

 He dressed in flowing capes, quoted Shakespeare in almost all his answers and, somehow, escaped a severe beating in mining camps. Upon reflecting we understand why he changed his name from Cincinnatus to Joaquin – it was as hard to spell as Oreodelphia.                                                                                                       

300 Block Main Street Cañon City (arrow denotes Murray’s Saloon), ca. 1878. Object ID: 1986.043.060; Copyright Roya Gorge Regional Museum & History Center.

Now:  In the family file of Joaquin Miller were two letters regarding this story. One was from a researcher making a request of Cara Fisher of the Local History Center on April 12, 1989. 

…My current book is on famous Coloradoans.  It has come to my attention that the poet Joaquin Miller (Cincinnatus Hiner, or Heine) was at one time the mayor of Cañon City.  I had never realized that this man, who is mostly identified with California, was a Cañon City man.  I have no idea how long he was there…

Ms. Fisher wrote back with the following:

It is very embarrassing to have to tell you, especially you – that I/we have not been able to document the Joaquin Miller quote.  We haven’t been able to find it, though some time ago, when I worked at the Municipal Museum and did the filing over there. I saw a newspaper article telling of the ‘event,’ but perhaps I am wrong…rather hazy…

In 2014, this subject came up once again and another researcher contacted Cara to inform her Miller was active in Canyon City, Oregon, rather than Cañon City, Colorado. He noted the earliest reference he found with the misinformation was Colorado: A Guide to the Highest State, published by the Work Projects Administration’s (WPA) Colorado Writer’s Project in 1941. He also adds that Encyclopedia Britannica also has entries placing Miller in Cañon City and Oregon, but the entry on Oregon more accurately aligns with the facts.

After some digging, we found the book in the museum’s reference library. 

Canon City, 38.4 m. (5,333 alt., 5,938 pop.), is divided into three municipalities – North, South, and East Canon – each having its own government.  North Canon is the seat of Fremont County… 

…The town flourished with the influx of gold seekers in 1859-60.  Joaquin Miller, the poet, served as judge, mayor, and minister in early days.  He once attempted change the name of the town to Oreodelphia, but was overruled by the miners, who protested they could neither write nor pronounce the word, stoutly insisting “the place is a canyon, and it’s goin’ to be called Canon City…

Workers of the Writers’ Program of the Work Projects Administration, Colorado: A Guide to the Highest State (New York: Hastings House, 1948), 308.

I got a good lesson in researching. Unraveling historical misinformation is important in today’s world because if we can understand what things are just myths and what things are true sourced materials, we have a better chance of preventing more historical inaccuracies. Information can be easily spread on the internet and we’re losing our ability to differentiate between legitimate sources and unreferenced material.

The conclusion we came to is Joaquin Miller never was in Cañon City, Colorado.  No records at RGRM&HC were found to support he was. However, there is a Canyon City, Oregon where he spent some time. His presence in that city is well documented.

Then: His name appears in an article in the Aspen Democrat out of Aspen, Colorado on May 11, 1905. He was to be honored at the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Oregon, the city in which his first volumes of poetry were published.

Brady, Matthew and Levin Handy, Joaquin Miller, 1870-1880, United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division. Accessed December 30, 2020 from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joaquin_Miller_-_Brady-Handy.jpg

I found Joaquin Miller a very fascinating man of the past but a search on Ancestry.com revealed no presence of him in Cañon City, Colorado. Some of his work can be found online with a search of his name. Below is part of his obituary.

San Francisco, Cal., February 17, 1913 – Joaquin Miller, “the poet of the Sierras,” died today in his one-room cabin, which he built with his own hands in the Piedmont hills many years ago… 

…The end came at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, with warm sunshine flooding the room where lay the author of “Songs of the Sunland…”

Salt Lake Herald, February 18, 1913

Now: The research that the RGRM&HC staff and I have done, still has a long way yet to go. I will end this blog with a question. Where did Colorado: A Guide to the Highest State, get their information?

I do have one clue to follow upon.  In Ms. Cara Fisher’s letter there is mention of a place the author of the first letter might check out.

Enclosed information might lead to something if you could get Mr. Pearl’s research notes…maybe at Colorado College Library? He was no fly by night and accurate, so maybe he found something which led to include the anecdote.  Very sorry, for the writing. I will be always on the look-out for the story. 

A question for all of you reading this blog. Do you remember playing the game “Telephone”? For those that don’t, several kids sat in a circle and one was selected to whisper something into the ear of the next kid. Each whispered what they thought they heard. The last kid then said out loud what they heard.  Laughter always erupted when the first kid said out loud what they really said – most of the time it was not even close. Some things just seem to never change.

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