SMITH, Josephine Donna - I3523

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Josephine Donna SMITH

– a brief history by Gracia N. Jones

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Ina Coolbrith (Josephine Donna Smith), celebrated California Poet laureate, 1914-1928, was born 10 March 1841, in Nauvoo, Hancock County, Illinois. Her father, Don Carlos Smith, died of pneumonia in August 1841, when she was about six months old. Her mother, Agnes Coolbrith Smith, left a widow, with two small daughters, Agnes Charlotte, 10, and baby, Josephine, fled the beleaguered city of Nauvoo, in the fall of 1846, with the man who became her second husband, William Pickett. (Josephine had another sister, Sopronia C. Smith who died 5 years after she was born in 1838 in New Portage, Hancock, Illinois.) They settled for a time in St. Louis, Missouri, where Ina’s twin half-brothers, Don Carlos, and William Pickett Jr., were born in 1847. In 1850, Pickett took his family on west to California.

As a young girl she rode horseback over the Sierras, into California. The family settled in San Bernardino where they struggled to establish a new life, in a new land, living some of the time in Los Angeles, later in San Francisco. William Pickett, Josephine’s step-father, dreading that persecution would follow them, had insisted his wife never divulge that her first husband had been a brother of the Mormon Church founder, Joseph Smith Jr. Josephine had been named after her Uncle Joseph, but throughout her life she too kept the secret, except for a very few individuals from whom she extracted the promise not to publically divulge her identity. (Her middle name, Donna, was given to her after her father's name, Don Carlos.)

Young Josephine married Robert Carsley on 3 March 1856, about a week before her seventeenth birthday. For a time she was blissfully happy, however it did not last.
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Her husband became extremely violent toward her so that she finally moved back to the Pickett’s. She suffered much harassment by her enraged husband, and in December 1861, she obtained a divorce. Late in 1861 her poem, “In Memoriam” appeared; the only recognition to its being written by her was the single name, “INA”.

Though her poetry contains exquisite phrases with unusual depth of emotion, she revealed very little of her own deepest grief to anyone, never speaking directly of specifics of her troubled life. However, later in her life, when someone wondered about her biography, she is quoted as saying that it was not needed as “it was all in her poems.” [1] Her only child died in early infancy; it is speculated that the poignant lines of her poem, “The Mother’s Grief” may have been in reference to that tragic loss, but it is not possible to even date the year of the poem’s creation. Beyond this oblique poem, she left no personal information regarding this child, but from context in this poem, we assume it was a boy. Here is a short excerpt from this poem:

To-day no shafts of golden flame
Across the sill are lying;
To-day I call my baby’s name,
And hear no lisping replying:
To-day—ah, baby mine, to-day—
God holds thee in His keeping!
And yet I weep, as one pale ray
Breaks, with a fond endeavor,
To where the little restless hands
Are crossed in rest forever!

In a day when divorce was uncommon, Ina felt she needed to make a new start, so she decided to move to San Francisco, change her name, and find employment. Here began her most trying stage of life. She did not go alone, the Picketts, William, her mother, and her fifteen year old half-brothers decided to go along. When Mr. Pickett left the family, not to return, and her sister’s husband died, Ina took on the burden of supporting her extended family. Her sister suffered an extended illness which ended in her untimely death at the age of 37. Though Ina was sick herself from exhaustion, anxiety, and sorrow, she met all of her challenges with amazing patience and courage, raising her sisters children, comforting and caring for her aging mother, who also did all she could to comfort her grandchildren in their loss of parents. Ina maintained close association with her half-brothers both of whom died leaving no posterity.

In due time, after her move to San Francisco, she become a much respected librarian in Oakland, a position she held for many years. She worked hard to encourage and establish literary clubs and organizations, serving in many leadership capacities in these organizations. All the while, she continued to produce exquisite prose and poetry, earning needed income by selling her work to various publishing outlets, even while coping with her own failing health. She experimented with poetic styles, always seeking to improve her capacity to convey her often deep messages. She inspired, befriended, mentored and was herself mentored by many noted authors of her day such as Bret Harte, Juaquine Miller, Mark Twain, Jack London and many others.

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Ina had a very strong personality and was not shy about expressing her opinions. She made loyal and exciting friends and she also made some enemies. Even those who were annoyed at some of her opinions had to give credit to her for talent in her craft. In 1915, Ina Coolbrith was recognized by her peers as Poet Laureate of California. This was an honorary title which was finally made official when on 26 April 1919 the following resolution was filed with the California Secretary of State:
Senate concurrent resolution, no. 24—Relatives to Ina Coolbrith of San Francisco, California, being given the honorary title of the Loved laurel—Crowned Poet of California.
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WHEREAZE, Ina Coolbrith of San Francisco, California, has brought prominently to the attention of the world the glories and beauties of California’s fruits and flowers, its climate, its scenery, its wealth and possibilities, through her many brilliant poems, and has contributed to the high standing of our literature, thereby winning the admiration and gratitude of all loyal Californians, and is truly deserving of our most favorable recognition and mention, therefore be it
RESOLVED BY THE STATE, THE ASSEMBLY CONCURRING, That Ina Coolbrith be hereby recognized and given the honorary title of the loved Laurel—Crowned Poet of California.” [2]

Ina Coolbrith died 29 February 1928, ten days before her eighty-seventh birthday. She was buried beside her mother in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland. Her funeral was attended by two hundred people. Among the mourners was a cousin, J. Winter Smith, who confirmed to those who inquired whether the rumor was true that she was really related to the Mormon Prophet, Joseph Smith. J. Winter Smith had been a faithful friend and visitor of Ina. He explained that Ina told him that she had promised her mother not to let the relationship be exposed to the public; she said for her own self she would not be adverse to it being known, but because of the promise, the family secret was kept for eighty years. Ina told him, “When I am gone you may tell the world, if you care to.” [3]

Ina Coolbrith was the first woman poet laureate in the United States. Many precious manuscripts of her writings and those of her famous friends were destroyed when her home was burned during the famous San Francisco Fire. Fortunately many of her poems may be found by searching online. Reading her poetry is a both refreshing and challenging. Her poetry gave the depth that provokes our revisiting her for the deeper meaning that resides there still. Indeed, she and her poetry are worthy to be remembered and valued.


Remember Them: Champions for Humanity

Niece of Joseph Smith Jr. Honored on Monument in California

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Oakland CA: Sculptor Mario Chiodo selected Ina Coolbrith as one of several local heroes he honored as part of his massive, inspirational monument called “Remember Them: Champions for Humanity” in the Oakland downtown Henry J. Kaiser Park on May 31.
“I have chosen these humanitarians because, regardless of their individual backgrounds or missions, they share the common threads of courage, perseverance, education, sacrifice, and a sincere desire to strive for a better life for all,” said Chiodo.
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Josephine Donna Smith, nicknamed Ina, was born in Nauvoo, Illinois in March 1841. She was named Josephine after her uncle, the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. and Donna after her father, Don Carlos Smith, Joseph’s youngest brother who died in August that same year. Ina’s mother, Agnes Coolbrith Smith, stayed close to the extended Smith family until 1846 when the main body of the Saints fled from their persecutors and headed west. Agnes moved to St. Louis, Missouri, with her two daughters, Agnes Charlotte and Josephine, and her future husband, William Pickett. Because of fear of further violence and persecution, Agnes made her daughters promise to never reveal their roots.

“That was a common reaction by many Smith family members,” said Michael Kennedy, a direct descendant of Joseph Smith Jr. and Emma. “Most of Hyrum’s descendants moved west, but the Joseph Jr. family who stayed behind lived in fear and distanced themselves from polygamy and the “Utah” Mormons.”

Ina was ten years old in 1851 when the Pickett family moved to California and lived for a time in the Mormon community of San Bernardino. Using the pen name Ina Coolbrith, Josephine soon began publishing poetry. Before she was 17 Ina had moved with her family to Los Angeles, was honored at a grand ball by Governor Pio Pico and married Robert Carsley. By the age of 21 she had lost an infant son, ended her disastrous marriage and moved to San Francisco with her parents and her twin stepbrothers.

Beautiful and cultivated, Coolbrith hosted literary meetings in her home and was called the “Poetess of the Golden Gate.” She knew many great writers of her day and regularly contributed to magazines. She had the distinction of becoming an honorary member of the Bohemian Club, rare in the history of that exclusive all-male San Francisco organization. In 1874 she became the librarian at the new Oakland free public library where, while working 12-hour days and six days a week, she mentored young writers like Jack London. Although she lived in poverty, she cared for her mother and, after her sister died, she raised her niece and nephew.

Her friends organized the Ina Coolbrith Circle, which still meets monthly today, 94 years later, and sponsors two poetry contests a year. She was proclaimed California’s First Poet Laureate in 1915. When she
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died in 1928 the California State Legislature named Mount Ina Coolbrith in her honor, but no one knew her real name or that she was a Mormon. Four direct descendants of Joseph Jr. and Emma Smith and one of Hyrum and Jerusha Smith’s came to honor Ina Coolbrith at the dedication of the monument in Oakland. They spent the day visiting her grave and getting to know each other, invited and hosted by Michael Kennedy, president of The Joseph Smith Jr. and Emma Hale Smith Historical Society. In 1972 President Gordon B. Hinckley had called Brother Kennedy to create opportunities for the posterity of Joseph Smith to be receptive to the teachings of the gospel.

“Before his martyrdom in 1844, the prophet Joseph Smith baptized his son, Joseph Smith III. Joseph’s granddaughter, Alice Smith, was baptized in 1915 but soon left the church due to many of the prejudices,” stated Kennedy. “Joseph’s great-great-granddaughter, Gracia Jones, was baptized in 1956 and began gathering the family.”

All of the prophet Joseph’s descendants were cautioned, “you don’t tell anyone you are related to Joseph Smith. If you do bad things will happen.” Threads of that fear still exist. Genealogical records of Joseph and Emma’s living descendants are blocked to all but authenticated family members. Amazingly, a common theme of calamity also runs through the family. Some wary descendants have decided to either not get married or at least to not have children. One direct descendant was an adopted child. Because she was experiencing unusual hardships she decided to find her birth father. Eventually she found him, but he didn’t want to talk to her. Through her birth aunt she discovered her relationship to Joseph Smith Jr. She then visited Salt Lake City and learned more about the Smith family.

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Almost a third of Joseph and Emma’s progenies live in Australia, all descended from Ina Inez Smith, Joseph and Emma’s granddaughter through their son, Alexander Hale Smith. Ina Inez married Sidney Wright, the son of an Australian boat builder. They had twelve children and became successful farmers in the Nabiac area, which is five hours north of Sydney. “We were instructed to be polite to Mormon missionaries but to not invite them in as some historical family documents had mysteriously gone missing,” recalled Richard Fethers, who has lived in San Francisco over the past seven years. “Joseph Jr. is my family, which is much more important to me than the church he founded. While talking to my cousins after the monument dedication I learned a lot that I didn't know. It helped connect some dots that had puzzled me over the years.”

Of the nine children born to or adopted by Joseph and Emma, only three have living descendants. It has taken time and effort but gradually the cousins are recognizing their connections.

“There are no living descendants from Don Carlos,” said Kennedy, “ but members of our extended family came to the monument dedication to recognize Josephine Donna Smith/Ina Coolbrith and to honor her life and the legacy she left to the world - her own poetry and the works of the young writers she mentored.”

By Lila Bringhurst June 6, 2013


  1. (p. 73)
  2. (p. 317)
  3. (p. 372)