Born Josephine Donna Smith, oldest daughter of Don Carlos and Agnes Coolbrith Smith, in Nauvoo, Illinois, March 10,1842, she entered California through the Beckwourth Pass in a covered wagon train in 1852. Her first poems were published in the Los Angeles Times in 1854. After a brief and tragic marriage at 17, and the death of her child, she moved to San Francisco in 1862 adopting a new name Ina and her mother’s maiden surname Coolbrith. Arriving with a reputation as a poet, she soon began writing for The Golden Era and The Californian, forming intimate friendships with Bret Harte, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Mark Twain, among others. She worked as a journalist on the Overland Monthly. Later she was librarian of the Mechanics Institute Library and the Bohemian Club library, and was the first librarian of the Oakland Public Library. She lost her San Francisco home and all her possessions in the earthquake and fire of 1906. Through the generosity of the best known California writers of the day, another home was built on Russian Hill, where she lived until the infirmities of age led her to share the home of her niece in Berkeley in 1923 until her death.
Ina Coolbrith received many honors. She was the first person asked to write a Commencement Ode for the University of California, which she did on two occasions. She was the first woman member of San Francisco's Bohemian Club. In 1915, the president of the University of California and the Board of Regents presented her with the title “California’s loved, laurel-wreathed poet, ” and the California state legislator confirmed her position as (California’s first Poet Laureate) —the first in the United States—in 1918. She bore the honor until her death in 1928, , but she was quickly forgotten; her grave was unmarked until 1986, when the Ina Coolbrith Circle donated a headstone in her honor, and she is now acknowledged as a significant literary figure.She held correspondences throughout the nation and the world, including Tennyson, Whittier, Longfellow, Lowell and others. She counted amongst her close friends the likes of Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Gertrude Atherton, Joaquin Miller, Charles Warren Stoddard, and William Keith. Jack London called her his 'literary mother.' Isadora Duncan recalled in her memoirs 'the beauty and fire of the poet's eyes.'
At the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915 she was appointed President of the Congress of Authors and Journalists; in arranging for the Congress she wrote over 4,000 letters to the leading writers and journalists in every country. At the Exposition a formal presentation of a laurel wreath was made to her by Dr. Benjamin Ide Wheeler, President of the University of California, and the Board of Regents, with the title 'loved, laurel-crowned poet of California.' The title of Poet Laureate was confirmed by the State Legislature.
In 1924 Mills College awarded her the honorary degree of Master of Arts; as a young woman she had attended Mills, known at the time as Benicia College for Women. On the day of her funeral the Legislature adjourned in her memory and soon afterward named a 7,900 foot peak near Beckworth Pass 'Mount Ina Coolbrith.'
Some of Ina Coolbrith's most powerful poems were written after her 80th birthday. Her published works include 'A Perfect Day and Other Poems, ' 'Songs from the Golden Gate, ' and the posthumously published 'Wings of Sunset.'