Fremont Monument: Who was Joaquin Miller?


There are some contradictory facts about the Fremont monument, a square stone structure off the theater parking lot. 

  • It was built to mark the spot that an adventurer first saw a sunset over the bay, but it's now surrounded by trees on all sides, so the best view is really of a nearby picnic table.
  • It was built by a meditative poet who guided the country's gaze inwards, but it's really one of the best places in Oakland for a new kind of self-reflection, the selfie.
  • It was built by a white man who sympathized with native people, to honor a general who partook in their genocide. Huh?


This is one of the core controversies about Joaquin Miller that 
Liam O’Donoghue explored in his well-researched and wonderfully listenable 100th episode of East Bay Yesterday, “Who Was Joaquin Miller?” There are many others, such as whether or not Miller deserves his acclaim (he does), whether or not he was a bad husband and parent (he was and wasn't), and whether or not he was a big fat liar or a playful storyteller (mostly the latter). Liam wove these threads together artfully into a fascinating reveal of this Oakland icon, in conversation with me, Sogora Te' founder Corrinna Gold, mayor Sheng Thao, and historian Alan Rosenus, an expert on Miller's literature. 

Listen now via AppleSoundCloudSpotify, or wherever you get podcasts. 

As for the Fremont conundrum, I believe the monument was erected more to mark a great view than it was to honor a person. John C. Fremont himself was even more controversial a figure than Miller, and one with far more power. He was an abolitionist who worked with Lincoln and fought for the end of slavery, but seems to have been a hot mess as a human being and leader. After from eleven years of topographical service in the Midwest, he built a rebel army in Missouri to drive out the Confederate army, and eventually was named leader of the Union Army. 


A likely story is that Miller, as a young man and aspiring explorer himself, raised under the mandate of Manifest Destiny and the pioneer culture of Westward Expansion, devoured Fremont's accounts of his time as "Pathfinder of the West." Imagine Miller's thrill at recognizing a place he'd read about, recalling Fremont's account of witnessing his first sunset over the San Francisco Bay. This feeling of "having arrived" must have been a personal triumph for Miller, a blessing from God, with whom he communed regularly, a sign that he had arrived. I see this stone structure as a fanciful monument to a fanciful moment by a fanciful figure who was is own sovereign pathfinder.


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