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Sunday, September 02, 2001

Humble beginnings for Vaca poet

Sabine Goerke-Shrode

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Edwin Markham’s mother didn’t support his ambitions

Few people born in Vacaville or who at least lived here for some time during the 19th century have become as widely known and revered as poet Edwin Markham.

Charles Edwin Anson Markham was born in Oregon City, in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, on April 23, 1852, as the last child of Samuel and Elizabeth Markham. Edwin had a number of older siblings, many of whom he never knew, as they died within a year or two of their birth. By the time of Edwin’s birth, his parent’s marriage was already troubled and shortly afterwards, they got divorced.

Elizabeth Markham was an unusual woman. In later years, her sister described her as having a jealous disposition and a violent temper. But Elizabeth was also known as a poet in her own right, for years writing poetry for several Oregon papers.

For five years, Elizabeth Markham ran a store and a tree nursery in Oregon City. In 1856, she decided to move to California. She took her three youngest children, a 10-year-old daughter, Louise, a 9-year-old son, Columbia (who was deaf-mute due to having contracted scarlet fever shortly after his birth) and 4-year-old Charlie (he took the name Edwin much later) and sailed to San Francisco.

From there, she came to Suisun City and purchased a sheep and cattle ranch in Lagoon Valley. While Louise and Columbia had some contact in later years with their father and older siblings back in Oregon City, Edwin Markham apparently never saw his father again, though some his older siblings seem to have visited their mother from time to time.

The family’s early home was a weather-beaten, unpainted house. It had a fig tree and a large walnut tree in front, which Markham remembered throughout his life.

Farm life and hard manual labor played a large part in Markham’s childhood years. One of his early memories was the backbreaking task of hoeing and weeding from dawn to dust, with nothing to look forward to but more of the same work the next day.

Other memories were more pleasant. One of his main jobs, once he was older, was to herd his mother’s sheep and cattle in the nearby hills, even spending the nights there. Often, he would become so absorbed in his reading that, when he finally looked up again, his herd had vanished. In later years, his love of nature and his memories showed in his poetry. In one, “The Heart’s Return,” he wrote:

“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.”

His mother was a dominant figure throughout his life, a stern and silent woman who never showed him affection, as he and others remembered. Two other marriages ended in failure and she seemed to have decided that nothing and nobody would take her youngest son from her.

In his early years, she furthered his education. Edwin started school at age 4, learning to read and write in a small school setting. Once living in Lagoon Valley, he visited the Black School, an elementary school located five miles from the ranch. At that time, his mother began to put obstacles in his way, actively hindering him in attending the school. She punished him severely for small misdemeanors, both by beating him and by forbidding him to attend school.

According to his mother, he was needed on the farm, to keep an eye on the sheep running on the hills and help with other tasks. Fortunately for the boy, two people took a special interest in him and greatly influenced his life.

One was an early teacher, Harry G. Hill, who recognized the boy’s hunger to learn and shared his own love of poetry with him. Many years later, Markham wrote a poem about him, which he titled, “The Enchanter.”

Samuel Wood, future lawyer and congressman, but at the time only a few years older than Edwin Markham, also recognized the special talents of this young boy. He took it upon himself to instruct him in the subjects not covered by the small country school, and he encouraged young Edwin to persevere with his education.

Books were scarce to come by. Around age 10, Edwin stumbled on some forgotten books left by his older brother, Henry, after one visit. Lord Byron’s poems, Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad, Sir Walter Scott’s Tales of a Grandfather, Bullion’s grammar and Ray’s arithmetic as well as the Bible became his constant companions.

His mother did not support his ambitions. When, at age 16, Edwin Markham decided that he needed to have more books, he had to plough a neighbor’s stony 20-acre field after school, in addition to his own work at home, to earn $20.

His mother then bought poetry by Thomas Moore, Tennyson and William Cullen Bryant and a Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary in a Suisun City bookstore for him.

It was around this time that Edwin Markham began to write poetry himself. His reading of Byron inspired his first long poem, “A Dream of Chaos.”

He knew that he needed to go to college to further his studies, but his mother refused to support him and pay the school fees, arguing that she had no money and needed him on the farm instead.

Finally, Edwin decided to run away and join his father and elder brothers in Oregon. His adventures were hair-raising. On the way, he met another runaway on a stolen horse. They crossed dangerous rivers and nearly lost their lives, worked on ranches to earn some much needed food and money, met notorious highwayman Black Bart, stayed on an Indian reservation and finally got chased by constables as horse thieves.

Only Edwin was caught (while his companion disappeared for good), but could prove that he was innocent and his horse belonged to him.

A short time later, Elizabeth Markham caught up with her son and brought him back to Vacaville with the promise that he could attend Vacaville’s California College.

Edwin Markham’s story will continue in my next column in two weeks.