For Miesse, now 69, his research and writing about Mt. Shasta history has been never ending. His work was recently featured in the online edition of Scientific American.
Life can have some unexpected twists and turns: A guy from New Jersey comes out to California to go to college, and ends up in Mount Shasta in 1979 to be near a girlfriend. A few years later he discovers an old, old painting of Mt. Shasta in an antique store.
For Bill Miesse it was a life-changing experience.
“I was fascinated by the emotional and spiritual experience of seeing that painting,” he remembers. “For me, it was alive.”
The purchase of the painting, for $200, was the beginning of his long journey through the past, his tireless explorations of this region’s history. Fast forward to 1992, and Miesse is plowing through 3,000 books, articles, manuscripts, journals and audiovisual materials to compile a comprehensive bibliography of all the significant contributions to our history.
This project, which took a year, was supervised by Dennis Freeman, the head librarian at the College of the Siskiyous and the curator of its Mt. Shasta Collection.
Freeman, now retired, had made it his mission to acquire every scrap of material he could find that related to Mt. Shasta and its environs and house all of it in a room at the library. The collection attracted scholars from all over the world.
For Miesse, now 69, his research and writing about Mt. Shasta history has been never ending. His work was recently featured in the online edition of Scientific American. On a trip to Paris, Miesse, plowing through some dusty archives, unearthed an old map commissioned by the French explorer the Comte de La Perouse in 1786. La Perouse claimed to have witnessed a volcanic eruption while sailing his ship up the California coast. Later historians assumed it was the last known eruption of Mt. Shasta.
But when he looked at La Perous’s old map, Miesse found that the spot marked as the location of the eruption was on the coast, at Cape Mendocino. Miesse realized that the smoke couldn’t possibly have come from Mt. Shasta. He surmised that it was coming from brush fires set by Native Americans.
A little later Freeman backed up this idea with his own original research. Freeman found in the journals of a later explorer, Camille de Roquefeuil, accounts of similar fires in the same place, as well as de Roquefeuil’s conclusion that what he and La Perouse had seen was burning vegetation.
“We were putting a jigsaw puzzle together, piece by piece,” Miesse said of his and Freeman’s research.
When he gave a talk last September at the Sisson Museum, Miesse explained how he put the pieces of another puzzle together, one that may explain how Mt. Shasta got its name.
It was originally called Pit Mountain by Hudson Bay trappers who came through the region in the early 19th century. But by 1844, in early maps, it had the name it has today.
How did that come about? No one knows for sure, but Miesse has an educated guess: The Rogue River Valley in Oregon was called the Shasta Valley back in the early 1800s. He thinks when trappers were about to set out from the Sacramento Valley for southern Oregon and the “Shasta Valley” they were told to head straight for the high mountain visible on the far horizon, a mountain that was called, to simplify matters, Shasta Mountain. To corroborate this theory, Miesse found a passage in an 1846 book that notes that English explorers still referred to the mountain as Pit Mountain, but that French-Canadian trappers were already calling it Shasta Mountain.
That old painting of Mt. Shasta not only set Miesse on a career of historical research. It got him collecting more artwork, what he calls an “historic treasure hunt,” and he made some extra income buying and selling the paintings. But by 1993 he still had in his possession the largest private collection of 19th and 20th century paintings of Mt. Shasta. All of it would eventually end up at the Turtle Bay Museum in Redding.
Miesse is working on an updated version of his bibliography, due to be completed next spring. And there are more puzzles waiting to be solved: Was it the Russians, with their base at Fort Ross, who had the first sighting of Mt. Shasta, or the Spanish, operating out of the Presidio? And where exactly did the legend of the Lemurians and their lost continent come from?
Miesse has some of the pieces of those puzzles already in hand, but there are more waiting to be unearthed. It's a treasure hunt of historical proportions.