Published in The Vacaville Reporter

Life and times of Edwin Markham

March 20, 2021

Markham, who grew up in Lagoon Valley in the years after the California Gold Rush, would often return to his memories of this area when it came to creating his poems.

Markham’s parents came west in April 1847 from Michigan, two years before the Gold Rush “with all their worldly goods loaded onto an ox-team.”

Life and times of Edwin Markham Read More

“I cannot ever be so sad

But one thing still will make me glad –

That hid spring in the Suisun Hills;

My heart keeps going back to it thru all the earthly ills.”

“The Heart’s Return,” by Edwin Markham

“California is well-neigh as familiar to me as my garden paths,” wrote poet Edwin Markham in 1914 in his prose history “California the Wonderful.”

Markham, who grew up in Lagoon Valley in the years after the California Gold Rush, would often return to his memories of this area when it came to creating his poems.

Markham’s parents came west in April 1847 from Michigan, two years before the Gold Rush “with all their worldly goods loaded onto an ox-team.”

They initially headed for Independence, Missouri, where they joined a wagon train headed to Oregon. According to Markham, his father was the wagon train captain.

“After many adventures in the wilderness, they trailed down the Columbia River in October, and found their way into the Willamette Valley,” Markham wrote 67 years later in November 1914 from his home in West New Brighton, New York.

They settled in Oregon City, not far from the Willamette Falls on which Markham later wrote “my eye has a keen memory of the white rush of the falls, and my ear has a clear memory of their eternal thunder.”

Edwin Markham was born there on April 23, 1852, the youngest of 10 children. His birth name was Charles Edward Anson Markham. He went by Charles until he was 43, when he started using Edwin.

He had an early brush with history with “an early and vivid recollection of having been lifted up in the sanctuary of a church in that city and of looking down on the dead face of the famous Dr. John McLoughlin, ‘the father of Oregon’,” Markham later wrote.

“I can never forget the hush and solemn pomp: it was my first sense of the dark mystery of death,” he wrote.

His parents divorced shortly after his birth. His mother moved to California in 1856, taking 4-year-old Edwin Markham with her to “where she made her home on a farm and cattle range in little Lagoon Valley, among the picturesque mountains not far from the great sea.”

Markham does not say why his mother picked Lagoon Valley. The only clue comes from the opening to his book.

“Why did she pitch tabernacle among the Suisun Hills?,” mused Markham. “Perhaps she was drawn hither by the rosy account of that region found on the pages of Fremont’s Report, a volume which well-neigh every Oregonian kept on his Bible shelf.”

“Here in the little valley, and the breezy summits that surround it, I spent all the days and nights of my restless boyhood,”

“I have mused with many of the old pioneers. I used to join the rodeo with Senor Pena, the cattleman, whose Spanish land grant reached afar into the surrounding hills.”

Cattle-ranching “ran almost neck and neck” with grain harvesting in central Solano County, wrote Markham who described himself as “the young vaquero of my mother’s cattle range.”

Once a year, landowners like Pena would set the date for a rodeo to brand and count the cattle, “the most exhilarating spectacle of the round year,” Markham wrote. Markham and other vaqueros would ride into the hills surrounding Lagoon Valley round up the family’s cattle.

“Seeing our whirling lassos and hearing our loud halloos, they were soon flying before us down the long canyons, crashing through the tall mustard, scattering the manzanita berries, startling the quails from their hiding places, shirting the buckeye groves and setting a thousand boughs astir,” Markham wrote.

Of the vaqueros, Markham wrote “he wore a tight-fitting buckskin jacket, long side-laced pantaloons, or else short breeches ending in high leather boots and Chilean spurs with rowels two inches long.”

“A gay kerchief was tied loosely around his neck; while a crimson sash enzoned the waist, its long ends floating in the morning breeze,” Markham wrote.

Markham attended school in a redwood schoolhouse where he got his love of poetry from teacher and poetry lover Harry G. Hill, according to authors Ronald Limbaugh and Walter Payne. Of his school days, he wrote in one poem,

“I see the school with its stark room,

Scribbled with weather stains,

Where a captive bee with a ceaseless boom

Pounded on the window panes”

His mother didn’t think much of schooling. She vehemently opposed his interest in literature, refused to buy books or finance his education.

Only running away from home for two months got her grudging agreement to allow him to attend Pacific Methodist College in Vacaville, earning a teacher’s certificate in 1870. He continued his education at San Jose Normal school and then Christian College in Santa Rosa, paid for with money he raised through teaching.

While working as an educator in Placer County, Markham frequently visited James Marshall in his cabin above Colma, near the millrace where Marshall discovered the gold  in 1848 “that stirred the imagination of the world” and set off the California Gold Rush.

“His story is one of the ironies of fate,” Markham wrote. “The man who touched the spring that filled the coffers of the world got little or nothing for himself.”

Marshall, by the time Markham met him, “dingy hut, some twelve feet square, made of logs and picked-up lumber; and it was typical of thousands of miners’ cabins scattered through the hills in the early days.”

“Marshall spent his last years in the little scoop in the hills where he discovered gold,” Markham wrote. “He had a large bony frame, stooped shoulders, a broad bearded face. His clothes dingy and brown, hung loosely on his body.”

On one visit, Marshall presented Markham “a queer manuscript from his pen, which purported to be a communication from the spirits.”

Of many other ‘49ers, “I met many of these men in their grim mountain cabins, which seemed like wasp-nests clinging to the cliffs and ridges; and I have also seen these men, companioned only by memory and hope, gouging out holes in the gulches and sinking shafts into the slopes of the hills.”

“They kept on and on until till death came knocking at the door; lets us hope that they have gone on to a better El Dorado beyond the Last Divide,’ Markham wrote.

As a youth, Markham wrote that he was a pupil of Samuel D. Woods, later a member of Congress, and of then-Solano County District Attorney Joseph McKenna.

“Frequently, in my boyhood, I saw Joseph McKenna, then my townsman, but now champion of the people in the Supreme Court of the United States – saw him walking with buoyant and rhythmic steps from Suisun out to the County Courthouse.

Markham became a teacher and taught literature in El Dorado County. In 1879, he rose to become education superintendent there. He became principal of the Tompkins Observation School in 1890 in Oakland where he met other poets and writers such as Joaquin Miller and Ambrose Bierce.

His most famous poem, “The Man With the Hoe”, an homage to laborers’ hardships and exploitation, was presented in a poetry reading at a New Years Eve party in 1898.

William Randolph Hearst, who was at the party, was impressed enough to publish it in the San Francisco Examiner two weeks later, according to It was an instant success and led the way to a host of lectures, not only literary ones, but also at labor and radical gatherings.

“There is a majestic sweep to the argument; some of the lines pierce like arrows,” William Jennings Bryan wrote of it.

Ambrose Bierce’s friendship with Markham didn’t get in the way of his criticism, writing “as a literary conception, it has not the vitality of a dead fish. It will not carry a poem of whatever excellence otherwise through two generations.”

In 1922, his poem, “Lincoln, Man of the People,” was picked from 250 entries to be presented at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial.

“Edwin Markham’s “Lincoln” is the greatest poem ever written on the immortal martyr, and the greatest that ever will be written,” English Literature Professor Dr. Henry Van Dyke of Princeton wrote.

Markham passed away in Staten Island, New York in March 1940 at 87.

Edwin Markham Elementary School in Vacaville is one of six schools in the state named after him, as well as at least four others in Oregon, Pennsylvania, New York and Washington. He also had a Liberty Ship, the Edwin Markham named after him that was launched in 1942 from Terminal Island, Calif.