California's First Poet Laureate

Ina Coolbrith

Ina Donna Coolbrith, originally Josephine Donna Smith, was born March 10 of 1841 to Agnes Moulton Coolbrith and Don Carlos Smith in Nauvoo, Illinois. To escape her and her mother’s past as Mormon’s she changed her name and moved to Los Angeles California. She began writing poetry at the age of 11 and her poem, “My Ideal Home,” was published four years later in 1856 to a local newspaper. After marrying and experiencing the loss of her infant son, she divorced her abusive husband and moved with her family to San Francisco. While there she published a myriad of poems in The Galaxy, Overland Monthly, and was praised in The New York Times, all while meeting and befriending a large number of influential writers. She moved to Oakland to establish a larger home for her mother, sister, and her sister’s children because both her mother and her sister were incredibly ill. While in Oakland she took a position as the librarian of Oakland Free Library in order to support her family. Her sister passed away in 1874 and her mother passed away in 1876. She lost her position as librarian and continued to publish poetry, but struggled financially for the rest of her life. Her friends would rally together to raise money to support her, but she was never able to fully amend her financial situation. In 1919 she was confirmed as California’s First Poet Laureate. In 1942, Mills College gave her an honorary Master of Arts Degree and she continued to publish works until she passed away on February 29, 1928.

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Yesenia Checa, “California's First Poet Laureate,” Street Stories: Oakland, accessed October 22, 2018,

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