Ina Coolbrith
photo from Wikimedia Commons
Ina Donna Coolbrith (March 10, 1841–February 29, 1928) was born Josephine Donna Smith, the niece of Mormon founder Joseph Smith. Her family came to California and was led over the Sierra Nevada by African American mountain manJim Beckwourth, with Ina riding on Beckwourth’s horse. Her mother started using her maiden name to avoid association with Joseph Smith and Mormonism, and Ina followed suit, also shortening Josephine to just Ina.

Ina is probably best known as a poet, and as the first California Poet Laureate. But she was also the first librarian of the Oakland Free Library (the 2nd public library in California; Eureka’s was first), and befriended and mentored 10-year-old Jack London (he called her his “literary mother”), and also mentored a young Isadora Duncan. Alas, the affections of Isadora’s father for Ina may have led to the breakup of his marriage.

In 1919, Coolbrith began hosting a group of kindred literary spirits. "I want the Circle to live and be ever widening...to perpetually keep the history and literature…of California alive..." The Ina Coolbrith Circle is still active. Ina was also an honorary member of the Bohemian Club, had her portrait taken in later years by a young Ansel Adams, and was friends with Joaquin Miller (and helped him gain global fame). Her circle of poet and writer friends also included Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce. Coolbrith was an honorary member of the Ebell Society.

In March, 2015, a new book about Coolbrith was published, Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate by Aleta George.

Ina Donna Coolbrith (1871) 1

Death, Burial and Legacy

Ina is buried in Mountain View Cemetery in plot 11. Her grave was unmarked until 1986 when the Ina Coolbrith Circle placed the headstone. They also placed a plaque in the Main Library in 1991. The Ina Coolbrith Society is still active.

California's First Poet Laureate
photo CC SA-BY Our Oakland
plaque at main library
photo CC SA-BY Our Oakland

Links and References

  1. Ina Donna Coolbrith Encyclopedia Britannica Kids