Part 3 out of 29
Mr. Bixby was all fixed and ready to start it to the rear again. He
opened on me after this fashion:
"How much water did we have in the middle crossing at Hole-in-The-
Wall, trip before last?"
I considered this an outrage. I said:
"Every trip down and up the leadsmen are singing through that
tangled place for three-quarters of an hour on a stretch. How do
you reckon I can remember such a mess as that?"
"My boy, you've got to remember it. You've got to remember the
exact spot and the exact marks the boat lay in when we had the
shoalest water, in every one of the five hundred shoal places
between St. Louis and New Orleans; and you mustn't get the shoal
soundings and marks of one trip mixed up with the shoal soundings
and marks of another, either, for they're not often twice alike.
You must keep them separate."
When I came to myself again, I said:
"When I get so that I can do that, I'll be able to raise the dead,
and then I won't have to pilot a steamboat to make a living. I want
to retire from this business. I want a slush-bucket and a brush;
I'm only fit for a roustabout. I haven't got brains enough to be a
pilot; and if I had I wouldn't have strength enough to carry them
around, unless I went on crutches."
"Now drop that! When I say I'll learn a man the river I mean it.
And you can depend on it, I'll learn him or kill him."
We have quoted at length from this chapter because it seems of very
positive importance here. It is one of the most luminous in the book so
far as the mastery of the science of piloting is concerned, and shows
better than could any other combination of words something of what is
required of the learner. It does not cover the whole problem, by any
means--Mark Twain himself could not present that; and even considering
his old-time love of the river and the pilot's trade, it is still
incredible that a man of his temperament could have persisted, as he did,
against such obstacles.
THE RIVER CURRICULUM
He acquired other kinds of knowledge. As the streets of Hannibal in
those early days, and the printing-offices of several cities, had taught
him human nature in various unvarnished aspects, so the river furnished
an added course to that vigorous education. Morally, its atmosphere
could not be said to be an improvement on the others. Navigation in the
West had begun with crafts of the flat-boat type--their navigators rude,
hardy men, heavy drinkers, reckless fighters, barbaric in their sports,
coarse in their wit, profane in everything. Steam-boatmen were the
natural successors of these pioneers--a shade less coarse, a thought less
profane, a veneer less barbaric. But these things were mainly "above
stairs." You had but to scratch lightly a mate or a deck-hand to find
the old keel-boatman savagery. Captains were overlords, and pilots kings
in this estate; but they were not angels. In Life on the Mississippi
Clemens refers to his chief's explosive vocabulary and tells us how he
envied the mate's manner of giving an order. It was easier to acquire
those things than piloting, and, on the whole, quicker. One could
improve upon them, too, with imagination and wit and a natural gift for
terms. That Samuel Clemens maintained his promise as to drink and cards
during those apprentice days is something worth remembering; and if he
did not always restrict his profanity to moments of severe pressure or
sift the quality of his wit, we may also remember that he was an extreme
example of a human being, in that formative stage which gathers all as
grist, later to refine it for the uses and delights of men.
He acquired a vast knowledge of human character. He says:
In that brief, sharp schooling I got personally and familiarly
acquainted with all the different types of human nature that are to
be found in fiction, biography, or history. When I find a well-
drawn character in fiction or biography, I generally take a warm
personal interest in him, for the reason that I have, known him
before--met him on the river.
Undoubtedly the river was a great school for the study of life's broader
philosophies and humors: philosophies that avoid vague circumlocution and
aim at direct and sure results; humors of the rugged and vigorous sort
that in Europe are known as "American" and in America are known as
"Western." Let us be thankful that Mark Twain's school was no less than
it was--and no more.
The demands of the Missouri River trade took Horace Bixby away from the
Mississippi, somewhat later, and he consigned his pupil, according to
custom, to another pilot--it is not certain, now, to just which pilot,
but probably to Zeb Leavenworth or Beck Jolly, of the John J. Roe. The
Roe was a freight-boat, "as slow as an island and as comfortable as a
farm." In fact, the Roe was owned and conducted by farmers, and Sam
Clemens thought if John Quarles's farm could be set afloat it would
greatly resemble that craft in the matter of good-fellowship,
hospitality, and speed. It was said of her that up-stream she could even
beat an island, though down-stream she could never quite overtake the
current, but was a "love of a steamboat" nevertheless. The Roe was not
licensed to carry passengers, but she always had a dozen "family guests"
aboard, and there was a big boiler-deck for dancing and moonlight
frolics, also a piano in the cabin. The young pilot sometimes played on
the piano and sang to his music songs relating to the "grasshopper on the
sweet-potato vine," or to an old horse by the name of Methusalem:
Took him down and sold him in Jerusalem,
A long time ago.
There were forty-eight stanzas about this ancient horse, all pretty much
alike; but the assembled company was not likely to be critical, and his
efforts won him laurels. He had a heavenly time on the John J. Roe, and
then came what seemed inferno by contrast. Bixby returned, made a trip
or two, then left and transferred him again, this time to a man named
Brown. Brown had a berth on the fine new steamer Pennsylvania, one of
the handsomest boats on the river, and young Clemens had become a fine
steersman, so it is not unlikely that both men at first were gratified by
But Brown was a fault-finding, tyrannical chief, ignorant, vulgar, and
malicious. In the Mississippi book the author gives his first interview
with Brown, also his last one. For good reasons these occasions were
burned into his memory, and they may be accepted as substantially
correct. Brown had an offensive manner. His first greeting was a surly
"Are you Horace Bigsby's cub?"
"Bixby" was usually pronounced "Bigsby" on the river, but Brown made it
especially obnoxious and followed it up with questions and comments and
orders still more odious. His subordinate soon learned to detest him
thoroughly. It was necessary, however, to maintain a respectable
deportment--custom, discipline, even the law, required that--but it must
have been a hard winter and spring the young steersman put in during
those early months of 1858, restraining himself from the gratification of
slaying Brown. Time would bring revenge--a tragic revenge and at a
fearful cost; but he could not guess that, and he put in his spare time
planning punishments of his own.
I could imagine myself killing Brown; there was no law against that,
and that was the thing I always used to do the moment I was abed.
Instead of going over my river in my mind, as was my duty, I threw
business aside for pleasure and killed Brown. I killed Brown every
night for a month; not in old, stale, commonplace ways, but in new
and picturesque ones--ways that were sometimes surprising for
freshness of design and ghastly for situation and environment.
Once when Brown had been more insulting than usual his subordinate went
to bed and killed him in "seventeen different ways--all of them new."
He had made an effort at first to please Brown, but it was no use. Brown
was the sort of a man that refused to be pleased; no matter how carefully
his subordinate steered, he as always at him.
"Here," he would shout, "where are you going now? Pull her down! Pull
her down! Don't you hear me? Dod-derned mud-cat!"
His assistant lost all desire to be obliging to such a person and even
took occasion now and then to stir him up. One day they were steaming up
the river when Brown noticed that the boat seemed to be heading toward
some unusual point.
"Here, where are you heading for now?" he yelled. "What in nation are
you steerin' at, anyway? Deyned numskull!"
"Why," said Sam, in unruffled deliberation, "I didn't see much else I
could steer for, and I was heading for that white heifer on the bank."
"Get away from that wheel! and get outen this pilothouse!" yelled Brown.
"You ain't fit to become no pilot!"
Which was what Sam wanted. Any temporary relief from the carping tyranny
of Brown was welcome.
He had been on the river nearly a year now, and, though universally liked
and accounted a fine steersman, he was receiving no wages. There had
been small need of money for a while, for he had no board to pay; but
clothes wear out at last, and there were certain incidentals. The
Pennsylvania made a round trip in about thirty-five days, with a day or
two of idle time at either end. The young pilot found that he could get
night employment, watching freight on the New Orleans levee, and thus
earn from two and a half to three dollars for each night's watch.
Sometimes there would be two nights, and with a capital of five or six
dollars he accounted himself rich.
"It was a desolate experience," he said, long afterward, "watching there
in the dark among those piles of freight; not a sound, not a living
creature astir. But it was not a profitless one: I used to have
inspirations as I sat there alone those nights. I used to imagine all
sorts of situations and possibilities. Those things got into my books by
and by and furnished me with many a chapter. I can trace the effect of
those nights through most of my books in one way and another."
Many of the curious tales in the latter half of the Mississippi book came
out of those long night-watches. It was a good time to think of such
LOVE-MAKING AND ADVENTURE
Of course, life with Brown was not all sorrow. At either end of the trip
there was respite and recreation. In St. Louis, at Pamela's there was
likely to be company: Hannibal friends mostly, schoolmates--girls, of
course. At New Orleans he visited friendly boats, especially the John J.
Roe, where he was generously welcomed. One such visit on the Roe he
never forgot. A young girl was among the boat's guests that trip--
another Laura, fifteen, winning, delightful. They met, and were mutually
attracted; in the life of each it was one of those bright spots which are
likely to come in youth: one of those sudden, brief periods of romance,
love--call it what you will the thing that leads to marriage, if pursued.
"I was not four inches from that girl's elbow during our waking hours for
the next three days."
Then came a sudden interruption: Zeb Leavenworth came flying aft
"The Pennsylvania is backing out."
A flutter of emotion, a fleeting good-by, a flight across the decks, a
flying leap from romance back to reality, and it was all over. He wrote
her, but received no reply. He never saw her again, never heard from her
for forty-eight years, when both were married, widowed, and old. She had
not received his letter.
Even on the Pennsylvania life had its interests. A letter dated March 9,
1858, recounts a delightfully dangerous night-adventure in the steamer's
yawl, hunting for soundings in the running ice.
Then the fun commenced. We made fast a line 20 fathoms long, to the
bow of the yawl, and put the men (both crews) to it like horses on
the shore. Brown, the pilot, stood in the bow, with an oar, to keep
her head out, and I took the tiller. We would start the men, and
all would go well till the yawl would bring up on a heavy cake of
ice, and then the men would drop like so many tenpins, while Brown
assumed the horizontal in the bottom of the boat. After an hour's
hard work we got back, with ice half an inch thick on the oars.
Sent back and warped up the other yawl, and then George (George
Ealer, the other pilot) and myself took a double crew of fresh men
and tried it again. This time we found the channel in less than
half an hour, and landed on an island till the Pennsylvania came
along and took us off. The next day was colder still. I was out in
the yawl twice, and then we got through, but the infernal steamboat
came near running over us.... We sounded Hat Island, warped up
around a bar, and sounded again--but in order to understand our
situation you will have to read Dr. Kane. It would have been
impossible to get back to the boat. But the Maria Denning was
aground at the head of the island--they hailed us--we ran alongside,
and they hoisted us in and thawed us out. We had then been out in
the yawl from four o'clock in the morning till half past nine
without being near a fire. There was a thick coating of ice over
men, and yawl, ropes and everything else, and we looked like rock-
This was the sort of thing he loved in those days. We feel the writer's
evident joy and pride in it. In the same letter he says: "I can't
correspond with the paper, because when one is learning the river he is
not allowed to do or think about anything else." Then he mentions his
brother Henry, and we get the beginning of that tragic episode for which,
though blameless, Samuel Clemens always held himself responsible.
Henry was doing little or nothing here (St. Louis), and I sent him
to our clerk to work his way for a trip, measuring wood-piles,
counting coal-boxes, and doing other clerkly duties, which he
performed satisfactorily. He may go down with us again.
Henry Clemens was about twenty at this time, a handsome, attractive boy
of whom his brother was lavishly fond and proud. He did go on the next
trip and continued to go regularly after that, as third clerk in line of
promotion. It was a bright spot in those hard days with Brown to have
Henry along. The boys spent a good deal of their leisure with the other
pilot, George Ealer, who "was as kindhearted as Brown wasn't," and quoted
Shakespeare and Goldsmith, and played the flute to his fascinated and
inspiring audience. These were things worth while. The young steersman
could not guess that the shadow of a long sorrow was even then stretching
across the path ahead.
Yet in due time he received a warning, a remarkable and impressive
warning, though of a kind seldom heeded. One night, when the
Pennsylvania lay in St. Louis, he slept at his sister's house and had
this vivid dream:
He saw Henry, a corpse, lying in a metallic burial case in the sitting-
room, supported on two chairs. On his breast lay a bouquet of flowers,
white, with a single crimson bloom in the center.
When he awoke, it was morning, but the dream was so vivid that he
believed it real. Perhaps something of the old hypnotic condition was
upon him, for he rose and dressed, thinking he would go in and look at
his dead brother. Instead, he went out on the street in the early
morning and had walked to the middle of the block before it suddenly
flashed upon him that it was only a dream. He bounded back, rushed to
the sitting-room, and felt a great trembling revulsion of joy when he
found it really empty. He told Pamela the dream, then put it out of his
mind as quickly as he could. The Pennsylvania sailed from St. Louis as
usual, and made a safe trip to New Orleans.
A safe trip, but an eventful one; on it occurred that last interview with
Brown, already mentioned. It is recorded in the Mississippi book, but
cannot be omitted here. Somewhere down the river (it was in Eagle Bend)
Henry appeared on the hurricane deck to bring an order from the captain
for a landing to be made a little lower down. Brown was somewhat deaf,
but would never confess it. He may not have understood the order; at all
events he gave no sign of having heard it, and went straight ahead. He
disliked Henry as he disliked everybody of finer grain than himself, and
in any case was too arrogant to ask for a repetition. They were passing
the landing when Captain Klinefelter appeared on deck and called to him
to let the boat come around, adding:
"Didn't Henry tell you to land here?"
Captain. Klinefelter turned to Sam:
"Didn't you hear him?"
Brown said: "Shut your mouth! You never heard anything of the kind."
By and by Henry came into the pilot-house, unaware of any trouble. Brown
set upon him in his ugliest manner.
"Here, why didn't you tell me we had got to land at that plantation?" he
Henry was always polite, always gentle.
"I did tell you, Mr. Brown."
"It's a lie."
Sam Clemens could stand Brown's abuse of himself, but not of Henry. He
said: "You lie yourself. He did tell you."
Brown was dazed for a moment and then he shouted:
"I'll attend to your case in half a minute!" and ordered Henry out of
The boy had started, when Brown suddenly seized him by the collar and
struck him in the face.--[In the Mississippi book the writer states
that Brown started to strike Henry with a large piece of coal; but, in a
letter written soon after the occurrence to Mrs. Orion Clemens, he says:
"Henry started out of the pilot-house-Brown jumped up and collared him--
turned him half-way around and struck him in the face!-and him nearly six
feet high-struck my little brother. I was wild from that moment. I left
the boat to steer herself, and avenged the insult--and the captain said I
was right."]--Instantly Sam was upon Brown, with a heavy stool, and
stretched him on the floor. Then all the bitterness and indignation that
had been smoldering for months flamed up, and, leaping upon Brown and
holding him with his knees, he pounded him with his fists until strength
and fury gave out. Brown struggled free, then, and with pilot instinct
sprang to the wheel, for the vessel had been drifting and might have got
into trouble. Seeing there was no further danger, he seized a spy-glass
as a weapon.
"Get out of this here pilot-house," he raged.
But his subordinate was not afraid of him now.
"You should leave out the 'here,'" he drawled, critically. "It is
understood, and not considered good English form."
"Don't you give me none of your airs," yelled Brown. "I ain't going to
stand nothing more from you."
"You should say, 'Don't give me any of your airs,'" Sam said, sweetly,
"and the last half of your sentence almost defies correction."
A group of passengers and white-aproned servants, assembled on the deck
forward, applauded the victor.
Brown turned to the wheel, raging and growling. Clemens went below,
where he expected Captain Klinefelter to put him in irons, perhaps, for
it was thought to be felony to strike a pilot. The officer took him into
his private room and closed the door. At first he looked at the culprit
thoughtfully, then he made some inquiries:
"Did you strike him first?" Captain Klinefelter asked.
"A stool, sir."
"Did it knock him down?"
"He--he fell, sir."
"Did you follow it up? Did you do anything further?"
"What did you do?"
"Pounded him, sir."
"Did you pound him much--that is, severely?"
"One might call it that, sir, maybe."
"I am deuced glad of it! Hark ye, never mention that I said that.
You have been guilty of a great crime; and don't ever be guilty of
it again on this boat, but--lay for him ashore! Give him a good
sound thrashing; do you hear? I'll pay the expenses."--["Life on
Captain Klinefelter told him to clear out, then, and the culprit heard
him enjoying himself as the door closed behind him. Brown, of course,
forbade him the pilothouse after that, and he spent the rest of the trip
"an emancipated slave" listening to George Ealer's flute and his readings
from Goldsmith and Shakespeare; playing chess with him sometimes, and
learning a trick which he would use himself in the long after-years--that
of taking back the last move and running out the game differently when he
Brown swore that he would leave the boat at New Orleans if Sam Clemens
remained on it, and Captain Klinefelter told Brown to go. Then when
another pilot could not be obtained to fill his place, the captain
offered to let Clemens himself run the daylight watches, thus showing his
confidence in the knowledge of the young steersman, who had been only a
little more than a year at the wheel. But Clemens himself had less
confidence and advised the captain to keep Brown back to St. Louis. He
would follow up the river by another boat and resume his place as
steersman when Brown was gone. Without knowing it, he may have saved his
life by that decision.
It is doubtful if he remembered his recent disturbing dream, though some
foreboding would seem to have hung over him the night before the
Pennsylvania sailed. Henry liked to join in the night-watches on the
levee when he had finished his duties, and the brothers often walked the
round chatting together. On this particular night the elder spoke of
disaster on the river. Finally he said:
"In case of accident, whatever you do, don't lose your head--the
passengers will do that. Rush for the hurricane deck and to the life-
boat, and obey the mate's orders. When the boat is launched, help the
women and children into it. Don't get in yourself. The river is only a
mile wide. You can swim ashore easily enough."
It was good manly advice, but it yielded a long harvest of sorrow.
THE TRAGEDY OF THE "PENNSYLVANIA"
Captain Klinefelter obtained his steersman a pass on the A. T. Lacey,
which left two days behind the Pennsylvania. This was pleasant, for Bart
Bowen had become captain of that fine boat. The Lacey touched at
Greenville, Mississippi, and a voice from the landing shouted:
"The Pennsylvania is blown up just below Memphis, at Ship Island! One
hundred and fifty lives lost!"
Nothing further could be learned there, but that evening at Napoleon a
Memphis extra reported some of the particulars. Henry Clemens's name was
mentioned as one of those, who had escaped injury. Still farther up the
river they got a later extra. Henry was again mentioned; this time as
being scalded beyond recovery. By the time they reached Memphis they
knew most of the details: At six o'clock that warm mid-June morning,
while loading wood from a large flat-boat sixty miles below Memphis, four
out of eight of the Pennsylvania's boilers had suddenly exploded with
fearful results. All the forward end of the boat had been blown out.
Many persons had been killed outright; many more had been scalded and
crippled and would die. It was one of those hopeless, wholesale
steamboat slaughters which for more than a generation had made the
Mississippi a river of death and tears.
Samuel Clemens found his brother stretched upon a mattress on the floor
of an improvised hospital--a public hall--surrounded by more than thirty
others more or less desperately injured. He was told that Henry had
inhaled steam and that his body was badly scalded. His case was
Henry was one of those who had been blown into the river by the
explosion. He had started to swim for the shore, only a few hundred
yards away, but presently, feeling no pain and believing himself unhurt,
he had turned back to assist in the rescue of the others. What he did
after that could not be clearly learned. The vessel had taken fire; the
rescued were being carried aboard the big wood-boat still attached to the
wreck. The fire soon raged so that the rescuers and all who could be
saved were driven into the wood-flat, which was then cut adrift and
landed. There the sufferers had to lie in the burning sun many hours
until help could come. Henry was among those who were insensible by that
time. Perhaps he had really been uninjured at first and had been scalded
in his work of rescue; it will never be known.
His brother, hearing these things, was thrown into the deepest agony and
remorse. He held himself to blame for everything; for Henry's presence
on the boat; for his advice concerning safety of others; for his own
absence when he might have been there to help and protect the boy. He
wanted to telegraph at once to his mother and sister to come, but the
doctors persuaded him to wait--just why, he never knew. He sent word of
the disaster to Orion, who by this time had sold out in Keokuk and was in
East Tennessee studying law; then he set himself to the all but hopeless
task of trying to bring Henry back to life. Many Memphis ladies were
acting as nurses, and one, a Miss Wood, attracted by the boy's youth and
striking features, joined in the desperate effort. Some medical students
had come to assist the doctors, and one of these also took special
interest in Henry's case. Dr. Peyton, an old Memphis practitioner,
declared that with such care the boy might pull through.
But on the fourth night he was considered to be dying. Half delirious
with grief and the strain of watching, Samuel Clemens wrote to his mother
and to his sister-in-law in Tennessee. The letter to Orion Clemens's
wife has been preserved.
MEMPHIS, TENN., Friday, June 18, 1858.
DEAR SISTER MOLLIE,--Long before this reaches you my poor Henry--my
darling, my pride, my glory, my all will have finished his blameless
career, and the light of my life will have gone out in utter
darkness. The horrors of three days have swept over me--they have
blasted my youth and left me an old man before my time. Mollie,
there are gray hairs in my head to-night. For forty-eight hours I
labored at the bedside of my poor burned and bruised but
uncomplaining brother, and then the star of my hope went out and
left me in the gloom of despair. Men take me by the hand and
congratulate me, and call me "lucky" because I was not on the
Pennsylvania when she blew up! May God forgive them, for they know
not what they say.
I was on the Pennsylvania five minutes before she left N. Orleans,
and I must tell you the truth, Mollie--three hundred human beings
perished by that fearful disaster. But may God bless Memphis, the
noblest city on the face of the earth. She has done her duty by
these poor afflicted creatures--especially Henry, for he has had
five--aye, ten, fifteen, twenty times the care and attention that
any one else has had. Dr. Peyton, the best physician in Memphis (he
is exactly like the portraits of Webster), sat by him for 36 hours.
There are 32 scalded men in that room, and you would know Dr.
Peyton better than I can describe him if you could follow him around
and hear each man murmur as he passes, "May the God of Heaven bless
you, Doctor!" The ladies have done well, too. Our second mate, a
handsome, noble-hearted young fellow, will die. Yesterday a
beautiful girl of 15 stooped timidly down by his side and handed him
a pretty bouquet. The poor suffering boy's eyes kindled, his lips
quivered out a gentle "God bless you, Miss," and he burst into
tears. He made them write her name on a card for him, that he might
not forget it.
Pray for me, Mollie, and pray for my poor sinless brother.
Your unfortunate brother,
SAML. L. CLEMENS.
P. S.--I got here two days after Henry.
But, alas, this was not all, nor the worst. It would seem that Samuel
Clemens's cup of remorse must be always overfull. The final draft that
would embitter his years was added the sixth night after the accident--
the night that Henry died. He could never bring himself to write it. He
was never known to speak of it but twice.
Henry had rallied soon after the foregoing letter had been mailed, and
improved slowly that day and the next: Dr. Peyton came around about
eleven o'clock on the sixth night and made careful examination. He said:
"I believe he is out of danger and will get well. He is likely to be
restless during the night; the groans and fretting of the others will
disturb him. If he cannot rest without it, tell the physician in charge
to give him one-eighth of a grain of morphine."
The boy did wake during the night, and was disturbed by the complaining
of the other sufferers. His brother told the young medical student in
charge what the doctor had said about the morphine. But morphine was a
new drug then; the student hesitated, saying:
"I have no way of measuring. I don't know how much an eighth of a grain
Henry grew rapidly worse--more and more restless. His brother was half
beside himself with the torture of it. He went to the medical student.
"If you have studied drugs," he said, "you ought to be able to judge an
eighth of a grain of morphine."
The young man's courage was over-swayed. He yielded and ladled out in
the old-fashioned way, on the point of a knife-blade, what he believed to
be the right amount. Henry immediately sank into a heavy sleep. He died
before morning. His chance of life had been infinitesimal, and his death
was not necessarily due to the drug, but Samuel Clemens, unsparing in his
self-blame, all his days carried the burden of it.
He saw the boy taken to the dead room, then the long strain of grief, the
days and nights without sleep, the ghastly realization of the end
overcame him. A citizen of Memphis took him away in a kind of daze and
gave him a bed in his house, where he fell into a stupor of fatigue and
surrender. It was many hours before he woke; when he did, at last, he
dressed and went to where Henry lay. The coffin provided for the dead
were of unpainted wood, but the youth and striking face of Henry Clemens
had aroused a special interest. The ladies of Memphis had made up a fund
of sixty dollars and bought for him a metallic case. Samuel Clemens
entering, saw his brother lying exactly as he had seen him in his dream,
lacking only the bouquet of white flowers with its crimson center--a
detail made complete while he stood there, for at that moment an elderly
lady came in with a large white bouquet, and in the center of it was a
single red rose.
Orion arrived from Tennessee, and the brothers took their sorrowful
burden to St. Louis, subsequently to Hannibal, his old home. The death
of this lovely boy was a heavy sorrow to the community where he was
known, for he had been a favorite with all.--[For a fine
characterization of Henry Clemens the reader is referred to a letter
written by Orion Clemens to Miss Wood. See Appendix A, at the end of the
From Hannibal the family returned to Pamela's home in St. Louis. There
one night Orion heard his brother moaning and grieving and walking the
floor of his room. By and by Sam came in to where Orion was. He could
endure it no longer, he said; he must, "tell somebody."
Then he poured all the story of that last tragic night. It has been set
down here because it accounts for much in his after-life. It magnified
his natural compassion for the weakness and blunders of humanity, while
it increased the poor opinion implanted by the Scotchman Macfarlane of
the human being as a divine invention. Two of Mark Twain's chief
characteristics were--consideration for the human species, and contempt
In many ways he never overcame the tragedy of Henry's death. He never
really looked young again. Gray hairs had come, as he said, and they did
not disappear. His face took on the serious, pathetic look which from
that time it always had in repose. At twenty-three he looked thirty. At
thirty he looked nearer forty. After that the discrepancy in age and
looks became less notable. In vigor, complexion, and temperament he was
regarded in later life as young for his years, but never in looks.
The young pilot returned to the river as steersman for George Ealer, whom
he loved, and in September of that year obtained a full license as
Mississippi River pilot.--[In Life on the Mississippi he gives his
period of learning at from two to two and a half years; but documentary
evidence as well as Mr. Bixby's testimony places the apprenticeship at
eighteen months]--Bixby had returned by this time, and they were again
together, first on the Crescent City, later on a fine new boat called the
New Falls City. Clemens was still a steersman when Bixby returned; but
as soon as his license was granted (September 9, 1858) his old chief took
him as full partner.
He was a pilot at last. In eighteen months he had packed away in his
head all the multitude of volatile statistics and acquired that
confidence and courage which made him one of the elect, a river
sovereign. He knew every snag and bank and dead tree and reef in all
those endless miles between St. Louis and New Orleans, every cut-off and
current, every depth of water--the whole story--by night and by day. He
could smell danger in the dark; he could read the surface of the water as
an open page. At twenty-three he had acquired a profession which
surpassed all others for absolute sovereignty and yielded an income equal
to that then earned by the Vice-President of the United States. Boys
generally finish college at about that age, but it is not likely that any
boy ever finished college with the mass of practical information and
training that was stored away in Samuel Clemens's head, or with his
knowledge of human nature, his preparation for battle with the world.
"Not only was he a pilot, but a good one." These are Horace Bixby's
words, and he added:
"It is the fashion to-day to disparage Sam's piloting. Men who were born
since he was on the river and never saw him will tell you that Sam was
never much of a pilot. Most of them will tell you that he was never a
pilot at all. As a matter of fact, Sam was a fine pilot, and in a day
when piloting on the Mississippi required a great deal more brains and
skill and application than it does now. There were no signal-lights
along the shore in those days, and no search-lights on the vessels;
everything was blind, and on a dark, misty night in a river full of snags
and shifting sand--bars and changing shores, a pilot's judgment had to be
founded on absolute certainty."
He had plenty of money now. He could help his mother with a liberal
hand, and he did it. He helped Orion, too, with money and with advice.
From a letter written toward the end of the year, we gather the new
conditions. Orion would seem to have been lamenting over prospects, and
the young pilot, strong and exalted in his new estate, urges him to
renewed consistent effort:
What is a government without energy?--[he says]--. And what is a
man without energy? Nothing--nothing at all. What is the grandest
thing in "Paradise Lost"--the Arch-Fiend's terrible energy! What
was the greatest feature in Napoleon's character? His unconquerable
energy! Sum all the gifts that man is endowed with, and we give our
greatest share of admiration to his energy. And to-day, if I were a
heathen, I would rear a statue to Energy, and fall down and worship
I want a man to--I want you to--take up a line of action, and follow
it out, in spite of the very devil.
Orion and his wife had returned to Keokuk by this time, waiting for
something in the way of a business opportunity.
His pilot brother, wrote him more than once letters of encouragement and
council. Here and there he refers to the tragedy of Henry's death, and
the shadow it has cast upon his life; but he was young, he was
successful, his spirits were naturally exuberant. In the exhilaration of
youth and health and success he finds vent at times in that natural human
outlet, self-approval. He not only exhibits this weakness, but confesses
it with characteristic freedom.
Putting all things together, I begin to think I am rather lucky than
otherwise--a notion which I was slow to take up. The other night I
was about to "round to" for a storm, but concluded that I could find
a smoother bank somewhere. I landed five miles below. The storm
came, passed away and did not injure us. Coming up, day before
yesterday, I looked at the spot I first chose, and half the trees on
the bank were torn to shreds. We couldn't have lived 5 minutes in
such a tornado. And I am also lucky in having a berth, while all
the other young pilots are idle. This is the luckiest circumstance
that ever befell me. Not on account of the wages--for that is a
secondary consideration-but from the fact that the City of Memphis
is the largest boat in the trade, and the hardest to pilot, and
consequently I can get a reputation on her, which is a thing I never
could accomplish on a transient boat. I can "bank" in the
neighborhood of $100 a month on her, and that will satisfy me for
the present (principally because the other youngsters are sucking
their fingers). Bless me! what a pleasure there is in revenge!--and
what vast respect Prosperity commands! Why, six months ago, I could
enter the "Rooms," and receive only the customary fraternal greeting
now they say, "Why, how are you, old fellow--when did you get in?"
And the young pilots who use to tell me, patronizingly, that I could
never learn the river cannot keep from showing a little of their
chagrin at seeing me so far ahead of them. Permit me to "blow my
horn," for I derive a living pleasure from these things, and I must
confess that when I go to pay my dues, I rather like to let the
d---d rascals get a glimpse of a hundred-dollar bill peeping out
from amongst notes of smaller dimensions whose face I do not
exhibit! You will despise this egotism, but I tell you there is a
"stern joy" in it.
We are dwelling on this period of Mark Twain's life, for it was a period
that perhaps more than any other influenced his future years. He became
completely saturated with the river its terms, its memories, its
influence remained a definite factor in his personality to the end of his
days. Moreover, it was his first period of great triumph. Where before
he had been a subaltern not always even a wage-earner--now all in a
moment he had been transformed into a high chief. The fullest ambition
of his childhood had been realized--more than realized, for in that day
he had never dreamed of a boat or of an income of such stately
proportions. Of great personal popularity, and regarded as a safe pilot,
he had been given one of the largest, most difficult of boats. Single-
handed and alone he had fought his way into the company of kings.
And we may pardon his vanity. He could hardly fail to feel his glory and
revel in it and wear it as a halo, perhaps, a little now and then in the
Association Rooms. To this day he is remembered as a figure there,
though we may believe, regardless of his own statement, that it was not
entirely because of his success. As the boys of Hannibal had gathered
around to listen when Sam Clemens began to speak, so we may be certain
that the pilots at St. Louis and New Orleans laid aside other things when
he had an observation to make or a tale to tell.
He was much given to spinning yarns--[writes one associate of those
days]--so funny that his hearers were convulsed, and yet all the
time his own face was perfectly sober. If he laughed at all, it
must have been inside. It would have killed his hearers to do that.
Occasionally some of his droll yarns would get into the papers. He
may have written them himself.
Another riverman of those days has recalled a story he heard Sam Clemens
We were speaking of presence of mind in accidents--we were always
talking of such things; then he said:
"Boys, I had great presence of mind once. It was at a fire. An old
man leaned out of a four-story building calling for help. Everybody
in the crowd below looked up, but nobody did anything. The ladders
weren't long enough. Nobody had any presence of mind--nobody but
me. I came to the rescue. I yelled for a rope. When it came I
threw the old man the end of it. He caught it and I told him to tie
it around his waist. He did so, and I pulled him down."
This was one of the stories that got into print and traveled far.
Perhaps, as the old pilot suggests, he wrote some of them himself, for
Horace Bixby remembers that "Sam was always scribbling when not at the
But if he published any work in those river-days he did not acknowledge
it later--with one exception. The exception was not intended for
publication, either. It was a burlesque written for the amusement of his
immediate friends. He has told the story himself, more than once, but it
belongs here for the reason that some where out of the general
circumstance of it there originated a pseudonym, one day to become the
best-known in the hemispheres the name Mark Twain.
That terse, positive, peremptory, dynamic pen-name was first used by an
old pilot named Isaiah Sellers--a sort of "oldest inhabitant" of the
river, who made the other pilots weary with the scope and antiquity of
his reminiscent knowledge. He contributed paragraphs of general
information and Nestorian opinions to the New Orleans Picayune, and
signed them "Mark Twain." They were quaintly egotistical in tone,
usually beginning: "My opinion for the benefit of the citizens of New
Orleans," and reciting incidents and comparisons dating as far back as
Captain Sellers naturally was regarded as fair game by the young pilots,
who amused themselves by imitating his manner and general attitude of
speech. But Clemens went further; he wrote at considerable length a
broadly burlesque imitation signed "Sergeant Fathom," with an
introduction which referred to the said Fathom as "one of the oldest cub
pilots on the river." The letter that followed related a perfectly
impossible trip, supposed to have been made in 1763 by the steamer "the
old first Jubilee" with a "Chinese captain and a Choctaw crew." It is a
gem of its kind, and will bear reprint in full today.--[See Appendix B,
at the end of the last volume.]
The burlesque delighted Bart Bowen, who was Clemens's pilot partner on
the Edward J. Gay at the time. He insisted on showing it to others and
finally upon printing it. Clemens was reluctant, but consented. It
appeared in the True Delta (May 8 or 9, 1859), and was widely and
It broke Captain Sellers's literary heart. He never contributed another
paragraph. Mark Twain always regretted the whole matter deeply, and his
own revival of the name was a sort of tribute to the old man he had
thoughtlessly wounded. If Captain Sellers has knowledge of material
matters now, he is probably satisfied; for these things brought to him,
and to the name he had chosen, what he could never himself have achieved
PILOTING AND PROPHECY
Those who knew Samuel Clemens best in those days say that he was a
slender, fine-looking man, well dressed--even dandified--given to patent
leathers, blue serge, white duck, and fancy striped shirts. Old for his
years, he heightened his appearance at times by wearing his beard in the
atrocious mutton-chop fashion, then popular, but becoming to no one,
least of all to him. The pilots regarded him as a great reader--
a student of history, travels, literature, and the sciences--a young man
whom it was an education as well as an entertainment to know. When not
at the wheel, he was likely to be reading or telling yarns in the
He began the study of French one day when he passed a school of
languages, where three tongues, French, German, and Italian, were taught,
one in each of three rooms. The price was twenty-five dollars for one
language, or three for fifty dollars. The student was provided with a
set of cards for each room and supposed to walk from one apartment to
another, changing tongues at each threshold. With his unusual enthusiasm
and prodigality, the young pilot decided to take all three languages, but
after the first two or three round trips concluded that for the present
French would do. He did not return to the school, but kept his cards and
bought text-books. He must have studied pretty faithfully when he was
off watch and in port, for his river note-book contains a French
exercise, all neatly written, and it is from the Dialogues of Voltaire.
This old note-book is interesting for other things. The notes are no
longer timid, hesitating memoranda, but vigorous records made with the
dash of assurance that comes from confidence and knowledge, and with the
authority of one in supreme command. Under the head of "2d high-water
trip--Jan., 1861--Alonzo Child," we have the story of a rising river with
its overflowing banks, its blind passages and cut-offs--all the
circumstance and uncertainty of change.
Good deal of water all over Coles Creek Chute, 12 or 15 ft. bank--
could have gone up shore above General Taylor's--too much drift....
Night--didn't run either 77 or 76 towheads--8 ft. bank on main shore
And so on page after page of cryptographic memoranda. It means little
enough to the lay reader, yet one gets an impression somehow of the
swirling, turbulent water and a lonely figure in that high glassed-in
place peering into the dark for blind land-marks and possible dangers,
picking his way up the dim, hungry river of which he must know every foot
as well as a man knows the hall of his own home. All the qualifications
must come into play, then memory, judgment, courage, and the high art of
steering. "Steering is a very high, art," he says; "one must not keep a
rudder dragging across a boat's stern if he wants to get up the river
He had an example of the perfection of this art one misty night on the
Alonzo Child. Nearly fifty years later, sitting on his veranda in the
dark, he recalled it. He said:
"There was a pilot in those days by the name of Jack Leonard who was a
perfectly wonderful creature. I do not know that Jack knew anymore about
the river than most of us and perhaps could not read the water any
better, but he had a knack of steering away ahead of our ability, and I
think he must have had an eye that could see farther into the darkness.
"I had never seen Leonard steer, but I had heard a good deal about it. I
had heard it said that the crankiest old tub afloat--one that would kill
any other man to handle--would obey and be as docile as a child when Jack
Leonard took the wheel. I had a chance one night to verify that for
myself. We were going up the river, and it was one of the nastiest
nights I ever saw. Besides that, the boat was loaded in such a way that
she steered very hard, and I was half blind and crazy trying to locate
the safe channel, and was pulling my arms out to keep her in it. It was
one of those nights when everything looks the same whichever way you
look: just two long lines where the sky comes down to the trees and where
the trees meet the water with all the trees precisely the same height--
all planted on the same day, as one of the boys used to put it--and not a
thing to steer by except the knowledge in your head of the real shape of
the river. Some of the boats had what they call a 'night hawk' on the
jackstaff, a thing which you could see when it was in the right position
against the sky or the water, though it seldom was in the right position
and was generally pretty useless.
"I was in a bad way that night and wondering how I could ever get through
it, when the pilot-house door opened, and Jack Leonard walked in. He was
a passenger that trip, and I had forgotten he was aboard. I was just
about in the worst place and was pulling the boat first one way, then
another, running the wheel backward and forward, and climbing it like a
"'Sam,' he said, "let me take the wheel. Maybe I have been over this
place since you have.'
"I didn't argue the question. Jack took the wheel, gave it a little turn
one way, then a little turn the other; that old boat settled down as
quietly as a lamb--went right along as if it had been broad daylight in a
river without snags, bars, bottom, or banks, or anything that one could
possibly hit. I never saw anything so beautiful. He stayed my watch out
for me, and I hope I was decently grateful. I have never forgotten it."
The old note-book contained the record of many such nights as that; but
there were other nights, too, when the stars were blazing out, or when
the moon on the water made the river a wide mysterious way of speculative
dreams. He was always speculating; the planets and the remote suns were
always a marvel to him. A love of astronomy--the romance of it, its vast
distances, and its possibilities--began with those lonely river-watches
and never waned to his last day. For a time a great comet blazed in the
heavens, a "wonderful sheaf of light" that glorified his lonely watch.
Night after night he watched it as it developed and then grew dim, and he
read eagerly all the comet literature that came to his hand, then or
afterward. He speculated of many things: of life, death, the reason of
existence, of creation, the ways of Providence and Destiny. It was a
fruitful time for such meditation; out of such vigils grew those larger
philosophies that would find expression later, when the years had
conferred the magic gift of phrase.
Life lay all ahead of him then, and during those still watches he must
have revolved many theories of how the future should be met and mastered.
In the old notebook there still remains a well-worn clipping, the words
of some unknown writer, which he had preserved and may have consulted as
a sort of creed. It is an interesting little document--a prophetic one,
the reader may concede:
HOW TO TAKE LIFE.--Take it just as though it was--as it is--an
earnest, vital, and important affair. Take it as though you were
born to the task of performing a merry part in it--as though the
world had awaited for your coming. Take it as though it was a grand
opportunity to do and achieve, to carry forward great and good
schemes; to help and cheer a suffering, weary, it may be
heartbroken, brother. Now and then a man stands aside from the
crowd, labors earnestly, steadfastly, confidently, and straightway
becomes famous for wisdom, intellect, skill, greatness of some sort.
The world wonders, admires, idolizes, and it only illustrates what
others may do if they take hold of life with a purpose. The
miracle, or the power that elevates the few, is to be found in their
industry, application, and perseverance under the promptings of a
brave, determined spirit.
The old note-book contains no record of disasters. Horace Bixby, who
should know, has declared:
"Sam Clemens never had an accident either as a steersman or as a pilot,
except once when he got aground for a few hours in the bagasse (cane)
smoke, with no damage to anybody though of course there was some good
luck in that too, for the best pilots do not escape trouble, now and
Bixby and Clemens were together that winter on the Alonzo Child, and a
letter to Orion contains an account of great feasting which the two
enjoyed at a "French restaurant" in New Orleans--"dissipating on a ten-
dollar dinner--tell it not to Ma!"--where they had sheepshead fish,
oysters, birds, mushrooms, and what not, "after which the day was too far
gone to do anything." So it appears that he was not always reading
Macaulay or studying French and astronomy, but sometimes went frivoling
with his old chief, now his chum, always his dear friend.
Another letter records a visit with Pamela to a picture-gallery in St.
Louis where was being exhibited Church's "Heart of the Andes." He
describes the picture in detail and with vast enthusiasm.
"I have seen it several times," he concludes, "but it is always a new
picture--totally new--you seem to see nothing the second time that you
saw the first."
Further along he tells of having taken his mother and the girls--his
cousin Ella Creel and another--for a trip down the river to New Orleans.
Ma was delighted with her trip, but she was disgusted with the girls
for allowing me to embrace and kiss them--and she was horrified at
the 'schottische' as performed by Miss Castle and myself. She was
perfectly willing for me to dance until 12 o'clock at the imminent
peril of my going to sleep on the after-watch--but then she would
top off with a very inconsistent sermon on dancing in general;
ending with a terrific broadside aimed at that heresy of heresies,
I took Ma and the girls in a carriage round that portion of New
Orleans where the finest gardens and residences are to be seen, and,
although it was a blazing hot, dusty day, they seemed hugely
delighted. To use an expression which is commonly ignored in polite
society, they were "hell-bent" on stealing some of the luscious-
looking oranges from branches which overhung the fence, but I
In another letter of this period we get a hint of the future Mark Twain.
It was written to John T. Moore, a young clerk on the John J. Roe.
What a fool old Adam was. Had everything his own way; had succeeded
in gaining the love of the best-looking girl in the neighborhood,
but yet, unsatisfied with his conquest, he had to eat a miserable
little apple. Ah, John, if you had been in his place you would not
have eaten a mouthful of the apple--that is, if it had required any
exertion. I have noticed that you shun exertion. There comes in
the difference between us. I court exertion. I love work. Why,
sir, when I have a piece of work to perform, I go away to myself,
sit down in the shade, and muse over the coming enjoyment.
Sometimes I am so industrious that I muse too long.
There remains another letter of this period--a sufficiently curious
document. There was in those days a famous New Orleans clairvoyant known
as Madame Caprell. Some of the' young pilot's friends. had visited her
and obtained what seemed to be satisfying results. From time to time
they had urged him to visit the fortune-teller, and one idle day he
concluded to make the experiment. As soon as he came away he wrote to
Orion in detail.
She's a very pleasant little lady--rather pretty--about 28--say
5 feet 2 1/4--would weigh 116--has black eyes and hair--is polite
and intelligent--used good language, and talks much faster than I
She invited me into the little back parlor, closed the door; and we
were alone. We sat down facing each other. Then she asked my age.
Then she put her hands before her eyes a moment, and commenced
talking as if she had a good deal to say and not much time to say it
in. Something after this style:
'Madame.' Yours is a watery planet; you gain your livelihood on the
water; but you should have been a lawyer--there is where your
talents lie; you might have distinguished yourself as an orator, or
as an editor--, you have written a great deal; you write well--but
you are rather out of practice; no matter--you will be in practice
some day; you have a superb constitution, and as excellent health as
any man in the world; you have great powers of endurance; in your
profession your strength holds out against the longest sieges
without flagging; still, the upper part of your lungs, the top of
them, is slightly affected--you must take care of yourself; you do
not drink, but you use entirely too much tobacco; and you must stop
it; mind, not moderate, but stop the use of it, totally; then I can
almost promise you 86, when you will surely die; otherwise, look out
for 28, 31, 34, 47, and 65; be careful--for you are not of a long-
lived race, that is, on your father's side; you are the only healthy
member of your family, and the only one in it who has anything like
the certainty of attaining to a great age--so, stop using tobacco,
and be careful of yourself.... In some respects you take after your
father, but you are much more like your mother, who belongs to the
long-lived, energetic side of the house.... You never brought all
your energies to bear upon any subject but what you accomplished it
--for instance, you are self-made, self-educated.
'S. L. C.' Which proves nothing.
'Madame.' Don't interrupt. When you sought your present
occupation, you found a thousand obstacles in your way--obstacles
unknown--not even suspected by any save you and me, since you keep
such matter to yourself--but you fought your way, and hid the long
struggle under a mask of cheerfulness, which saved your friends
anxiety on your account. To do all this requires the qualities
which I have named.
'S. L. C.' You flatter well, Madame.
'Madame.' Don't interrupt. Up to within a short time you had
always lived from hand to mouth--now you are in easy circumstances--
for which you need give credit to no one but yourself. The turning-
point in your life occurred in 1840-7-8.
'S. L. C.' Which was?
'Madame.' A death, perhaps, and this threw you upon the world and
made you what you are; it was always intended that you should make
yourself; therefore, it was well that this calamity occurred as
early as it did. You will never die of water, although your career
upon it in the future seems well sprinkled with misfortune. You
will continue upon the water for some time yet; you will not retire
finally until ten years from now.... What is your brother's age?
23--and a lawyer? and in pursuit of an office? Well, he stands a
better chance than the other two, and he may get it; he is too
visionary--is always flying off on a new hobby; this will never do--
tell him I said so. He is a good lawyer--a very good lawyer--and a
fine speaker--is very popular and much respected, and makes many
friends; but although he retains their friendship, he loses their
confidence by displaying his instability of character.... The land
he has now will be very valuable after a while----
'S. L. C.' Say 250 years hence, or thereabouts, Madame----
'Madame.' No--less time--but never mind the land, that is a
secondary consideration--let him drop that for the present, and
devote himself to his business and politics with all his might, for
he must hold offices under Government....
After a while you will possess a good deal of property--retire at
the end of ten years--after which your pursuits will be literary--
try the law--you will certainly succeed. I am done now. If you
have any questions to ask--ask them freely--and if it be in my
power, I will answer without reserve--without reserve.
I asked a few questions of minor importance-paid her and left-under
the decided impression that going to the fortune-teller's was just
as good as going to the opera, and cost scarcely a trifle more--
ergo, I will disguise myself and go again, one of these days, when
other amusements fail. Now isn't she the devil? That is to say,
isn't she a right smart little woman?
When you want money, let Ma know, and she will send it. She and
Pamela are always fussing about change, so I sent them a hundred and
twenty quarters yesterday--fiddler's change enough to last till I
get back, I reckon.
In the light of preceding and subsequent events, we must confess that
Madame Caprell was "indeed a right smart little woman." She made
mistakes enough (the letter is not quoted in full), but when we remember
that she not only gave his profession at the moment, but at least
suggested his career for the future; that she approximated the year of
his father's death as the time when he was thrown upon the world; that
she admonished him against his besetting habit, tobacco; that she read.
minutely not only his characteristics, but his brother Orion's; that she
outlined the struggle in his conquest of the river; that she seemingly
had knowledge of Orion's legal bent and his connection with the Tennessee
land, all seems remarkable enough, supposing, of course, she had no
material means of acquiring knowledge--one can never know certainly about
THE END OF PILOTING
It is curious, however, that Madame Caprell, with clairvoyant vision,
should not have seen an important event then scarcely more than two
months distant: the breaking-out of the Civil War, with the closing of
the river and the end of Mark Twain's career as a pilot. Perhaps these
things were so near as to be "this side" the range of second sight.
There had been plenty of war-talk, but few of the pilots believed that
war was really coming. Traveling that great commercial highway, the
river, with intercourse both of North and South, they did not believe
that any political differences would be allowed to interfere with the
nation's trade, or would be settled otherwise than on the street corners,
in the halls of legislation, and at the polls. True, several States,
including Louisiana, had declared the Union a failure and seceded; but
the majority of opinions were not clear as to how far a State had rights
in such a matter, or as to what the real meaning of secession might be.
Comparatively few believed it meant war. Samuel Clemens had no such
belief. His Madame Caprell letter bears date of February 6, 1861, yet
contains no mention of war or of any special excitement in New Orleans--
no forebodings as to national conditions.
Such things came soon enough: President Lincoln was inaugurated on the
4th of March, and six weeks later Fort Sumter was fired upon. Men began
to speak out then and to take sides.
It was a momentous time in the Association Rooms. There were pilots who
would go with the Union; there were others who would go with the
Confederacy. Horace Bixby was one of the former, and in due time became
chief of the Union River Service. Another pilot named Montgomery (Samuel
Clemens had once steered for him) declared for the South, and later
commanded the Confederate Mississippi fleet. They were all good friends,
and their discussions, though warm, were not always acrimonious; but they
A good many were not very clear as to their opinions. Living both North
and South as they did, they saw various phases of the question and
divided their sympathies. Some were of one conviction one day and of
another the next. Samuel Clemens was of the less radical element. He
knew there was a good deal to be said for either cause; furthermore, he
was not then bloodthirsty. A pilot-house with its elevated position and
transparency seemed a poor place to be in when fighting was going on.
"I'll think about it," he said. "I'm not very anxious to get up into a
glass perch and be shot at by either side. I'll go home and reflect on
He did not realize it, but he had made his last trip as a pilot. It is
rather curious that his final brief note-book entry should begin with his
future nom de plume--a memorandum of soundings--"mark twain," and should
end with the words "no lead."
He went up the river as a passenger on a steamer named the Uncle Sam.
Zeb Leavenworth was one of the pilots, and Sam Clemens usually stood
watch with him. They heard war-talk all the way and saw preparations,
but they were not molested, though at Memphis they basely escaped the
blockade. At Cairo, Illinois, they saw soldiers drilling--troops later
commanded by Grant. The Uncle Sam came steaming up toward St. Louis,
those on board congratulating themselves on having come through
unscathed. They were not quite through, however. Abreast of Jefferson
Barracks they suddenly heard the boom of a cannon and saw a great whorl
of smoke drifting in their direction. They did not realize that it was a
signal--a thunderous halt--and kept straight on. Less than a minute
later there was another boom, and a shell exploded directly in front of
the pilot-house, breaking a lot of glass and destroying a good deal of
the upper decoration. Zeb Leavenworth fell back into a corner with a
"Good Lord Almighty! Sam;" he said, "what do they mean by that?"
Clemens stepped to the wheel and brought the boat around. "I guess they
want us to wait a minute, Zeb," he said.
They were examined and passed. It was the last steamboat to make the
trip from New Orleans to St. Louis. Mark Twain's pilot-days were over.
He would have grieved had he known this fact.
"I loved the profession far better than any I have followed since," he
long afterward declared, "and I took a measureless pride in it."
The dreamy, easy, romantic existence suited him exactly. A sovereign and
an autocrat, the pilot's word was law; he wore his responsibilities as a
crown. As long as he lived Samuel Clemens would return to those old days
with fondness and affection, and with regret that they were no more.
Clemens spent a few days in St. Louis (in retirement, for there was a
pressing war demand for Mississippi pilots), then went up to Hannibal to
visit old friends. They were glad enough to see him, and invited him to
join a company of gay military enthusiasts who were organizing to "help
Gov. 'Claib' Jackson repel the invader." A good many companies were
forming in and about Hannibal, and sometimes purposes were conflicting
and badly mixed. Some of the volunteers did not know for a time which
invader they intended to drive from Missouri soil, and more than one
company in the beginning was made up of young fellows whose chief
ambition was to have a lark regardless as to which cause they might
--[The military organizations of Hannibal and Palmyra, in 1861, were as
follows: The Marion Artillery; the Silver Grays; Palmyra Guards; the W.
E. Dennis company, and one or two others. Most of them were small
private affairs, usually composed of about half-and-half Union and
Confederate men, who knew almost nothing of the questions or conditions,
and disbanded in a brief time, to attach themselves to the regular
service according as they developed convictions. The general idea of
these companies was a little camping-out expedition and a good time. One
such company one morning received unexpected reinforcements. They saw
the approach of the recruits, and, remarking how well drilled the new
arrivals seemed to be, mistook them for the enemy and fled.]
Samuel Clemens had by this time decided, like Lee, that he would go with
his State and lead battalions to victory. The "battalion" in this
instance consisted of a little squad of young fellows of his own age,
mostly pilots and schoolmates, including Sam Bowen, Ed Stevens, and Ab
Grimes, about a dozen, all told. They organized secretly, for the Union
militia was likely to come over from Illinois any time and look up any
suspicious armies that made an open demonstration. An army might lose
enthusiasm and prestige if it spent a night or two in the calaboose.
So they met in a secret place above Bear Creek Hill, just as Tom Sawyer's
red-handed bandits had gathered so long before (a good many of them were
of the same lawless lot), and they planned how they would sell their
lives on the field of glory, just as Tom Sawyer's band might have done if
it had thought about playing "War," instead of "Indian" and "Pirate" and
"Bandit" with fierce raids on peach orchards and melon patches. Then, on
the evening before marching away, they stealthily called on their
sweethearts--those who had them did, and the others pretended sweethearts
for the occasion--and when it was dark and mysterious they said good-by
and suggested that maybe those girls would never see them again. And as
always happens in such a case, some of them were in earnest, and two or
three of the little group that slipped away that night never did come
back, and somewhere sleep in unmarked graves.
The "two Sams"--Sam Bowen and Sam Clemens--called on Patty Gore and Julia
Willis for their good-by visit, and, when they left, invited the girls to
"walk through the pickets" with them, which they did as far as Bear Creek
Hill. The girls didn't notice any pickets, because the pickets were away
calling on girls, too, and probably wouldn't be back to begin picketing
for some time. So the girls stood there and watched the soldiers march
up Bear Creek Hill and disappear among the trees.
The army had a good enough time that night, marching through the brush
and vines toward New London, though this sort of thing grew rather
monotonous by morning. When they took a look at themselves by daylight,
with their nondescript dress and accoutrements, there was some thing
about it all which appealed to one's sense of humor rather than to his
patriotism. Colonel Ralls, of Ralls County, however, received them
cordially and made life happier for them with a good breakfast and some
encouraging words. He was authorized to administer the oath of office,
he said, and he proceeded to do it, and made them a speech besides; also
he sent out notice to some of the neighbors--to Col. Bill Splawn, Farmer
Nuck Matson, and others--that the community had an army on its hands and
perhaps ought to do something for it. This brought in a number of
contributions, provisions, paraphernalia, and certain superfluous horses
and mules, which converted the battalion into a cavalry, and made it
possible for it to move on to the front without further delay. Samuel
Clemens, mounted on a small yellow mule whose tail had been trimmed down
to a tassel at the end in a style that suggested his name, Paint Brush,
upholstered and supplemented with an extra pair of cowskin boots, a pair
of gray blankets, a home-made quilt, frying-pan, a carpet sack, a small
valise, an overcoat, an old-fashioned Kentucky rifle, twenty yards of
rope, and an umbrella, was a representative unit of the brigade. The
proper thing for an army loaded like that was to go into camp, and they
did it. They went over on Salt River, near Florida, and camped not far
from a farm-house with a big log stable; the latter they used as
headquarters. Somebody suggested that when they went into battle they
ought to have short hair, so that in a hand-to-hand conflict the enemy
could not get hold of it. Tom Lyon found a pair of sheep-shears in the
stable and acted as barber. They were not very sharp shears, but the
army stood the torture for glory in the field, and a group of little
darkies collected from the farm-house to enjoy the performance. The army
then elected its officers. William Ely was chosen captain, with Asa
Glasscock as first lieutenant. Samuel Clemens was then voted second
lieutenant, and there were sergeants and orderlies. There were only
three privates when the election was over, and these could not be
distinguished by their deportment. There was scarcely any discipline in
Then it set in to rain. It rained by day and it rained by night. Salt
River rose until it was bank full and overflowed the bottoms. Twice
there was a false night alarm of the enemy approaching, and the battalion
went slopping through the mud and brush into the dark, picking out the
best way to retreat, plodding miserably back to camp when the alarm was
over. Once they fired a volley at a row of mullen stalks, waving on the
brow of a hill, and once a picket shot at his own horse that had got
loose and had wandered toward him in the dusk.
The rank and file did not care for picket duty. Sam Bowen--ordered by
Lieutenant Clemens to go on guard one afternoon--denounced his superior
and had to be threatened with court-martial and death. Sam went finally,
but he sat in a hot open place and swore at the battalion and the war in
general, and finally went to sleep in the broiling sun. These things
began to tell on patriotism. Presently Lieutenant Clemens developed a
boil, and was obliged to make himself comfortable with some hay in a
horse-trough, where he lay most of the day, violently denouncing the war
and the fools that invented it. Then word came that "General" Tom
Harris, who was in command of the district, was stopping at a farmhouse
two miles away, living on the fat of the land.
That settled it. Most of them knew Tom Harris, and they regarded his
neglect of them as perfidy. They broke camp without further ceremony.
Lieutenant Clemens needed assistance to mount Paint Brush, and the little
mule refused to cross the river; so Ab Grimes took the coil of rope,
hitched one end of it to his own saddle and the other end to Paint
Brush's neck. Grimes was mounted on a big horse, and when he started it
was necessary for Paint Brush to follow. Arriving at the farther bank,
Grimes looked around, and was horrified to see that the end of the rope
led down in the water with no horse and rider in view. He spurred up the
bank, and the hat of Lieutenant Clemens and the ears of Paint Brush
"Ah," said Clemens, as he mopped his face, "do you know that little devil
waded all the way across?"
A little beyond the river they met General Harris, who ordered them back
to camp. They admonished him to "go there himself." They said they had
been in that camp and knew all about it. They were going now where there
was food--real food and plenty of it. Then he begged them, but it was no
use. By and by they stopped at a farm-house for supplies. A tall, bony
woman came to the door:
"You're secesh, ain't you?"
They acknowledged that they were defenders of the cause and that they
wanted to buy provisions. The request seemed to inflame her.
"Provisions!" she screamed. "Provisions for secesh, and my husband a
colonel in the Union Army. You get out of here!"
She reached for a hickory hoop-pole that stood by the door, and the army
moved on. When they arrived at Col. Bill Splawn's that night Colonel
Splawn and his family had gone to bed, and it seemed unwise to disturb
them. The hungry army camped in the barnyard and crept into the hay-loft
to sleep. Presently somebody yelled "Fire!" One of the boys had been
smoking and started the hay. Lieutenant Clemens suddenly wakened, made a
quick rolling movement from the blaze, and rolled out of a big hay-window
into the barnyard below. The rest of the army, startled into action,
seized the burning hay and pitched it out of the same window. The
lieutenant had sprained his ankle when he struck the ground, and his boil
was far from well, but when the burning hay descended he forgot his
disabilities. Literally and figuratively this was the final straw. With
a voice and vigor suited to the urgencies of the case, he made a spring
from under the burning stuff, flung off the remnants, and with them his
last vestige of interest in the war. The others, now that the fire was,
out, seemed to think the incident boisterously amusing. Whereupon the
lieutenant rose up and told them, collectively and individually, what he
thought of them; also he spoke of the war and the Confederacy, and of the
human race at large. They helped him in, then, for his ankle was
swelling badly. Next morning, when Colonel Splawn had given them a good
breakfast, the army set out for New London.
But Lieutenant Clemens never got any farther than Nuck Matson's farm-
house. His ankle was so painful by that time that Mrs. Matson had him
put to bed, where he stayed for several weeks, recovering from the injury
and stress of war. A little negro boy was kept on watch for Union
detachments--they were passing pretty frequently now--and when one came
in sight the lieutenant was secluded until the danger passed. When he
was able to travel, he had had enough of war and the Confederacy. He
decided to visit Orion in Keokuk. Orion was a Union abolitionist and
might lead him to mend his doctrines.
As for the rest of the army, it was no longer a unit in the field. Its
members had drifted this way and that, some to return to their
occupations, some to continue in the trade of war. Sam Bowen is said to
have been caught by the Federal troops and put to sawing wood in the
stockade at Hannibal. Ab (A. C.) Grimes became a noted Confederate spy
and is still among those who have lived to furnish the details here set
down. Properly officered and disciplined, that detachment would have
made as brave soldiers as any. Military effectiveness is a matter of
leaders and tactics.
Mark Twain's own Private History of a 'Campaign that Failed' is, of
course, built on this episode. He gives us a delicious account, even if
it does not strikingly resemble the occurrence. The story might have
been still better if he had not introduced the shooting of the soldier in
the dark. The incident was invented, of course, to present the real
horror of war, but it seems incongruous in this burlesque campaign, and,
to some extent at least, it missed fire in its intention.
--[In a book recently published, Mark Twain's "nephew" is quoted as
authority for the statement that Mark Twain was detailed for river duty,
captured, and paroled, captured again, and confined in a tobacco-
warehouse in St. Louis, etc. Mark Twain had but one nephew: Samuel E.
Moffett, whose Biographical Sketch (vol. xxii, Mark Twain's Works)
contains no such statement; and nothing of the sort occurred.]
OVER THE HILLS AND FAR AWAY
When Madame Caprell prophesied that Orion Clemens would hold office under
government, she must have seen with true clairvoyant vision. The
inauguration of Abraham Lincoln brought Edward Bates into his Cabinet,
and Bates was Orion's friend. Orion applied for something, and got it.
James W. Nye had been appointed Territorial governor of Nevada, and Orion
was made Territorial secretary. You could strain a point and refer to
the office as "secretary of state," which was an imposing title.
Furthermore, the secretary would be acting governor in the governor's
absence, and there would be various subsidiary honors. When Lieutenant
Clemens arrived in Keokuk, Orion was in the first flush of his triumph
and needed only money to carry him to the scene of new endeavor. The
late lieutenant C. S. A. had accumulated money out of his pilot salary,
and there was no comfortable place just then in the active Middle West
for an officer of either army who had voluntarily retired from the
service. He agreed that if Orion would overlook his recent brief
defection from the Union and appoint him now as his (Orion's) secretary,
he would supply the funds for both overland passages, and they would
start with no unnecessary delay for a country so new that all human
beings, regardless of previous affiliations and convictions, were flung
into the common fusing-pot and recast in the general mold of pioneer.
The offer was a boon to Orion. He was always eager to forgive, and the
money was vitally necessary. In the briefest possible time he had packed
his belongings, which included a large unabridged dictionary, and the
brothers were on their way to St. Louis for final leave-taking before
setting out for the great mysterious land of promise--the Pacific West.
From St. Louis they took the boat for St. Jo, whence the Overland stage
started, and for six days "plodded" up the shallow, muddy, snaggy
Missouri, a new experience for the pilot of the Father of Waters.
In fact, the boat might almost as well have gone to St. Jo by land,
for she was walking most of the time, anyhow--climbing over reefs
and clambering over snags patiently and laboriously all day long.
The captain said she was a "bully" boat, and all she wanted was some
"shear" and a bigger wheel. I thought she wanted a pair of stilts,
but I had the deep sagacity not to say so.'--['Roughing It'.]--
At St. Jo they paid one hundred and fifty dollars apiece for their stage
fare (with something extra for the dictionary), and on the twenty-sixth
of July, 1861, set out on that long, delightful trip behind sixteen
galloping horses--or mules--never stopping except for meals or to change
teams, heading steadily into the sunset, following it from horizon to
horizon over the billowy plains, across the snow-clad Rockies, covering
the seventeen hundred miles between St. Jo and Carson City (including a
two-day halt in Salt Lake City) in nineteen glorious days. What an
inspiration in such a trip! In 'Roughing It' he tells it all, and says:
"Even at this day it thrills me through and through to think of the life,
the gladness, and the wild sense of freedom that used to make the blood
dance in my face on those fine Overland mornings."
The nights, with the uneven mail-bags for a bed and the bounding
dictionary for company, were less exhilarating; but then youth does not
All things being now ready, stowed the uneasy dictionary where it
would lie as quiet as possible, and placed the water-canteen and
pistols where we could find them in the dark. Then we smoked a
final pipe and swapped a final yarn; after which we put the pipes,
tobacco, and bag of coin in snug holes and caves among the mail-
bags, and made the place as dark as the inside of a cow, as the
conductor phrased it in his picturesque way. It was certainly as
dark as any place could be--nothing was even dimly visible in it.
And finally we rolled ourselves up like silkworms, each person in
his own blanket, and sank peacefully to sleep.
Youth loves that sort of thing, despite its inconvenience. And sometimes
the clatter of the pony-rider swept by in the night, carrying letters at
five dollars apiece and making the Overland trip in eight days; just a
quick beat of hoofs in the distance, a dash, and a hail from the
darkness, the beat of hoofs again, then only the rumble of the stage and
the even, swinging gallop of the mules. Sometimes they got a glimpse of
the ponyrider by day--a flash, as it were, as he sped by. And every
morning brought new scenery, new phases of frontier life, including, at
last, what was to them the strangest phase of all, Mormonism.
They spent two wonderful days at Salt Lake City, that mysterious and
remote capital of the great American monarchy, who still flaunts her
lawless, orthodox creed the religion of David and Solomon--and thrives.
An obliging official made it his business to show them the city and the
life there, the result of which would be those amusing chapters in
'Roughing It' by and by. The Overland travelers set out refreshed from
Salt Lake City, and with a new supply of delicacies--ham, eggs, and
tobacco--things that make such a trip worth while. The author of
'Roughing It' assures us of this:
Nothing helps scenery like ham and eggs. Ham and eggs, and after
these a pipe--an old, rank, delicious pipe--ham and eggs and
scenery, a "down-grade," a flying coach, a fragrant pipe, and a
contented heart--these make happiness. It is what all the ages have
But one must read all the story of that long-ago trip. It was a trip so
well worth taking, so well worth recording, so well worth reading and
rereading to-day. We can only read of it now. The Overland stage long
ago made its last trip, and will not start any more. Even if it did, the
life and conditions, the very scenery itself, would not be the same.
It was a hot, dusty August 14th that the stage reached Carson City and
drew up before the Ormsby Hotel. It was known that the Territorial
secretary was due to arrive; and something in the nature of a reception,
with refreshments and frontier hospitality, had been planned. Governor
Nye, formerly police commissioner in New York City, had arrived a short
time before, and with his party of retainers ("heelers" we would call
them now), had made an imposing entrance. Perhaps something of the sort
was expected with the advent of the secretary of state. Instead, the
committee saw two way-worn individuals climb down from the stage,
unkempt, unshorn--clothed in the roughest of frontier costume, the same
they had put on at St. Jo--dusty, grimy, slouchy, and weather-beaten with
long days of sun and storm and alkali desert dust. It is not likely
there were two more unprepossessing officials on the Pacific coast at
that moment than the newly arrived Territorial secretary and his brother:
Somebody identified them, and the committee melted away; the half-formed
plan of a banquet faded out and was not heard of again. Soap and water
and fresh garments worked a transformation; but that first impression had
been fatal to festivities of welcome.
Carson City, the capital of Nevada, was a "wooden town," with a
population of two thousand souls. Its main street consisted of a few
blocks of small frame stores, some of which are still standing. In
'Roughing It' the author writes:
In the middle of the town, opposite the stores, was a "Plaza," which
is native to all towns beyond the Rocky Mountains, a large,
unfenced, level vacancy with a Liberty Pole in it, and very useful
as a place for public auctions, horse trades, and mass-meetings, and
likewise for teamsters to camp in. Two other sides of the Plaza
were faced by stores, offices, and stables. The rest of Carson City
was pretty scattering.
One sees the place pretty clearly from this brief picture of his, but it
requires an extract from a letter written to his mother somewhat later to
populate it. The mineral excitement was at its height in those days of
the early sixties, and had brought together such a congress of nations as
only the greed for precious metal can assemble. The sidewalks and
streets of Carson, and the Plaza, thronged all day with a motley
aggregation--a museum of races, which it was an education merely to gaze
upon. Jane Clemens had required him to write everything just as it was--
"no better and no worse."
Well--[he says]--,"Gold Hill" sells at $5,000 per foot, cash down;
"Wild Cat" isn't worth ten cents. The country is fabulously rich in
gold, silver, copper, lead, coal, iron, quicksilver, marble,
granite, chalk, plaster of Paris (gypsum), thieves, murderers,
desperadoes, ladies, children, lawyers, Christians, Indians,
Chinamen, Spaniards, gamblers, sharpens; coyotes (pronounced ki-yo-
ties), poets, preachers, and jackass rabbits. I overheard a
gentleman say, the other day, that it was "the d---dest country
under the sun," and that comprehensive conception I fully subscribe
to. It never rains here, and the dew never falls. No flowers grow
here, and no green thing gladdens the eye. The birds that fly over
the land carry their provisions with them. Only the crow and the
raven tarry with us. Our city lies in the midst of a desert of the
purest, most unadulterated and uncompromising sand, in which
infernal soil nothing but that fag-end of vegetable creation, "sage-
brush," ventures to grow. . . . I said we are situated in a flat,
sandy desert--true. And surrounded on all sides by such prodigious
mountains that when you look disdainfully down (from them) upon the
insignificant village of Carson, in that instant you are seized with
a burning desire to stretch forth your hand, put the city in your
pocket, and walk off with it.
As to churches, I believe they have got a Catholic one here, but,
like that one the New York fireman spoke of, I believe "they don't
run her now."
Carson has been through several phases of change since this was written--
for better and for worse. It is a thriving place in these later days,
and new farming conditions have improved the country roundabout. But it
was a desert outpost then, a catch-all for the human drift which every
whirlwind of discovery sweeps along. Gold and silver hunting and mine
speculations were the industries--gambling, drinking, and murder were the
diversions--of the Nevada capital. Politics developed in due course,
though whether as a business or a diversion is not clear at this time.
The Clemens brothers took lodging with a genial Irishwoman, Mrs. Murphy,
a New York retainer of Governor Nye, who boarded the camp-followers.--
[The Mrs, O'Flannigan of 'Roughing It'.]--This retinue had come in the
hope of Territorial pickings and mine adventure--soldiers of fortune they
were, and a good-natured lot all together. One of them, Bob Howland, a
nephew of the governor, attracted Samuel Clemens by his clean-cut manner
and commanding eye.
"The man who has that eye doesn't need to go armed," he wrote later. "He
can move upon an armed desperado and quell him and take him a prisoner
without saying a single word." It was the same Bob Howland who would be
known by and by as the most fearless man in the Territory; who, as city
marshal of Aurora, kept that lawless camp in subjection, and, when the
friends of a lot of condemned outlaws were threatening an attack with
general massacre, sent the famous message to Governor Nye: "All quiet in
Aurora. Five men will be hung in an hour." And it was quiet, and the
programme was carried out. But this is a digression and somewhat
Orion Clemens, anxious for laurels, established himself in the meager
fashion which he thought the government would approve; and his brother,
finding neither duties nor salary attached to his secondary position,
devoted himself mainly to the study of human nature as exhibited under
frontier conditions. Sometimes, when the nights were cool, he would
build a fire in the office stove, and, with Bob Howland and a few other
choice members of the "Brigade" gathered around, would tell river yarns
in that inimitable fashion which would win him devoted audiences all his
days. His river life had increased his natural languor of habit, and his
slow speech heightened the lazy impression which he was never unwilling
to convey. His hearers generally regarded him as an easygoing, indolent
good fellow with a love of humor--with talent, perhaps--but as one not
likely ever to set the world afire. They did not happen to think that
the same inclination which made them crowd about to listen and applaud
would one day win for him the attention of all mankind.
Within a brief time Sam Clemens (he was never known as otherwise than
"Sam" among those pioneers) was about the most conspicuous figure on the
Carson streets. His great bushy head of auburn hair, his piercing,
twinkling eyes, his loose, lounging walk, his careless disorder of dress,
drew the immediate attention even of strangers; made them turn to look a
second time and then inquire as to his identity.
He had quickly adapted himself to the frontier mode. Lately a river
sovereign and dandy, in fancy percales and patent leathers, he had become
the roughest of rough-clad pioneers, in rusty slouch hat, flannel shirt,
coarse trousers slopping half in and half out of the heavy cowskin boots
Always something of a barbarian in love with the loose habit of
unconvention, he went even further than others and became a sort of
paragon of disarray. The more energetic citizens of Carson did not
prophesy much for his future among them. Orion Clemens, with the stir
and bustle of the official new broom, earned their quick respect; but his
brother--well, they often saw him leaning for an hour or more at a time
against an awning support at the corner of King and Carson streets,
smoking a short clay pipe and staring drowsily at the human kaleidoscope
of the Plaza, scarcely changing his position, just watching, studying,
lost in contemplation--all of which was harmless enough, of course, but
how could any one ever get a return out of employment like that?
Samuel Clemens did not catch the mining fever immediately; there was too
much to see at first to consider any special undertaking. The mere
coming to the frontier was for the present enough; he had no plans. His
chief purpose was to see the world beyond the Rockies, to derive from it
such amusement and profit as might fall in his way. The war would end,
by and by, and he would go back to the river, no doubt. He was already
not far from homesick for the "States" and his associations there. He
closed one letter:
I heard a military band play "What Are the Wild Waves Saying" the
other night, and it brought Ella Creel and Belle (Stotts) across the
desert in an instant, for they sang the song in Orion's yard the
first time I ever heard it. It was like meeting an old friend. I
tell you I could have swallowed that whole band, trombone and all,
if such a compliment would have been any gratification to them.
His friends contracted the mining mania; Bob Howland and Raish Phillips
went down to Aurora and acquired "feet" in mini-claims and wrote him
enthusiastic letters. With Captain Nye, the governor's brother, he
visited them and was presented with an interest which permitted him to
contribute an assessment every now and then toward the development of the
mine; but his enthusiasm still languished.
He was interested more in the native riches above ground than in those
concealed under it. He had heard that the timber around Lake Bigler
(Tahoe) promised vast wealth which could be had for the asking. The lake
itself and the adjacent mountains were said to be beautiful beyond the
dream of art. He decided to locate a timber claim on its shores.
He made the trip afoot with a young Ohio lad, John Kinney, and the
account of this trip as set down in 'Roughing It' is one of the best
things in the book. The lake proved all they had expected--more than
they expected; it was a veritable habitation of the gods, with its
delicious, winy atmosphere, its vast colonnades of pines, its measureless
depths of water, so clear that to drift on it was like floating high
aloft in mid-nothingness. They staked out a timber claim and made a
semblance of fencing it and of building a habitation, to comply with the
law; but their chief employment was a complete abandonment to the quiet
luxury of that dim solitude: wandering among the trees, lounging along
the shore, or drifting on that transparent, insubstantial sea. They did
not sleep in their house, he says:
"It never occurred to us, for one thing; and, besides, it was built to
hold the ground, and that was enough. We did not wish to strain it."
They lived by their camp-fire on the borders of the lake, and one day--it
was just at nightfall--it got away from them, fired the forest, and
destroyed their fence and habitation. His picture in 'Roughing It' of
the superb night spectacle, the mighty mountain conflagration reflected
in the waters of the lake, is splendidly vivid. The reader may wish to
compare it with this extract from a letter written to Pamela at the time.
The level ranks of flame were relieved at intervals by the standard-
bearers, as we called the tall, dead trees, wrapped in fire, and
waving their blazing banners a hundred feet in the air. Then we
could turn from the scene to the lake, and see every branch and leaf
and cataract of flame upon its banks perfectly reflected, as in a
gleaming, fiery mirror. The mighty roaring of the conflagration,
together with our solitary and somewhat unsafe position (for there
was no one within six miles of us), rendered the scene very
impressive. Occasionally one of us would remove his pipe from his
mouth and say, "Superb, magnificent!--beautifull--but--by the Lord
God Almighty, if we attempt to sleep in this little patch to-night,
we'll never live till morning!"
This is good writing too, but it lacks the fancy and the choice of
phrasing which would develop later. The fire ended their first excursion
to Tahoe, but they made others and located other claims--claims in which
the "folks at home, "Mr. Moffett, James Lampton, and others, were
included. It was the same James Lampton who would one day serve as a
model for Colonel Sellers. Evidently Samuel Clemens had a good opinion
of his business capacity in that earlier day, for he writes:
This is just the country for cousin Jim to live in. I don't believe
it would take him six months to make $100,000 here if he had $3,000
to commence with. I suppose he can't leave his family, though.
Further along in the same letter his own overflowing Seller's optimism
Orion and I have confidence enough in this country to think that if
the war lets us alone we can make Mr. Moffett rich without its ever
costing him a cent or a particle of trouble.
This letter bears date of October 25th, and from it we gather that a
certain interest in mining claims had by this time developed.
We have got about 1,650 feet of mining ground, and, if it proves
good, Mr. Moffett's name will go in, and if not I can get "feet" for
him in the spring.
You see, Pamela, the trouble does not consist in getting mining
ground--for there is plenty enough--but the money to work it with
after you get it.
He refers to Pamela's two little children, his niece Annie and Baby Sam,
--[Samuel E. Moffett, in later life a well-known journalist and editor.]
--and promises to enter claims for them--timber claims probably--for he
was by no means sanguine as yet concerning the mines. That was a long
time ago. Tahoe land is sold by the lot, now, to summer residents.
Those claims would have been riches to-day, but they were all abandoned
presently, forgotten in the delirium which goes only with the pursuit of
It was not until early winter that Samuel Clemens got the real mining
infection. Everybody had it by that time; the miracle is that he had not
fallen an earlier victim. The wildest stories of sudden fortune were in
the air, some of them undoubtedly true. Men had gone to bed paupers, on
the verge of starvation, and awakened to find themselves millionaires.
Others had sold for a song claims that had been suddenly found to be
fairly stuffed with precious ores. Cart-loads of bricks--silver and
gold--daily drove through the streets.
In the midst of these things reports came from the newly opened Humboldt
region--flamed up with a radiance that was fairly blinding. The papers
declared that Humboldt County "was the richest mineral region on God's
footstool." The mountains were said to be literally bursting with gold
and silver. A correspondent of the daily Territorial Enterprise fairly
wallowed in rhetoric, yet found words inadequate to paint the measureless
wealth of the Humboldt mines. No wonder those not already mad speedily
became so. No wonder Samuel Clemens, with his natural tendency to
speculative optimism, yielded to the epidemic and became as "frenzied as
the craziest." The air to him suddenly began to shimmer; all his
thoughts were of "leads" and "ledges" and "veins"; all his clouds had
silver linings; all his dreams were of gold. He joined an expedition at
once; he reproached himself bitterly for not having started earlier.
Hurry was the word! We wasted no time. Our party consisted of four
persons--a blacksmith sixty years of age, two young lawyers, and
myself. We bought a wagon and two miserable old horses. We put
1,800 pounds of provisions and mining tools in the wagon and drove
out of Carson on a chilly December afternoon.
In a letter to his mother he states that besides provisions and mining
tools, their load consisted of certain luxuries viz., ten pounds of
killikinick, Watts's Hymns, fourteen decks of cards, Dombey and Son, a
cribbage-board, one small keg of lager-beer, and the "Carmina Sacra."
The two young lawyers were A. W.(Gus) Oliver (Oliphant in 'Roughing It'),
and W. H. Clagget. Sam Clemens had known Billy Clagget as a law student
in Keokuk, and they were brought together now by this association. Both
Clagget and Oliver were promising young men, and would be heard from in
time. The blacksmith's name was Tillou (Ballou), a sturdy, honest soul
with a useful knowledge of mining and the repair of tools. There were
also two dogs in the party--a small curly-tailed mongrel, Curney, the
property of Mr. Tillou, and a young hound. The combination seemed a
It proved a weak one in the matter of horses. Oliver and Clemens had
furnished the team, and their selection had not been of the best. It was
two hundred miles to Humboldt, mostly across sand. The horses could not
drag their load and the miners too, so the miners got out. Then they
found it necessary to push.
Not because we were fond of it, Ma--oh, no! but on Bunker's account.
Bunker was the "near" horse on the larboard side, named after the
attorney-general of this Territory. My horse--and I am sorry you do
not know him personally, Ma, for I feel toward him, sometimes, as if
he were a blood relation of our family--he is so lazy, you know--my
horse--I was going to say, was the "off" horse on the starboard
side. But it was on Bunker's account, principally, that we pushed
behind the wagon. In fact, Ma, that horse had something on his mind
all the way to Humboldt.--[S. L. C. to his mother. Published in
the Keokuk (Iowa) Gate city.]--
So they had to push, and most of that two hundred miles through snow and
sand storm they continued to push and swear and groan, sustained only by
the thought that they must arrive at last, when their troubles would all
be at an end, for they would be millionaires in a brief time and never
know want or fatigue any more.
There were compensations: the camp-fire at night was cheerful, the food
satisfying. They bundled close under the blankets and, when it was too
cold to sleep, looked up at the stars, while the future entertainer of
kings would spin yarn after yarn that made his hearers forget their
discomforts. Judge Oliver, the last one of the party alive, in a recent
letter to the writer of this history, says:
He was the life of the camp; but sometimes there would come a
reaction and he could hardly speak for a day or two. One day a pack
of wolves chased us, and the hound Sam speaks of never stopped to
look back till he reached the next station, many miles ahead.
Judge Oliver adds that an Indian war had just ended, and that they
occasionally passed the charred ruin of a shack, and new graves: This was
disturbing enough. Then they came to that desolation of desolations, the
Alkali Desert, where the sand is of unknown depth, where the road is
strewn thickly with the carcasses of dead beasts of burden, the charred
remains of wagons, chains, bolts, and screws, which thirsty emigrants,
grown desperate, have thrown away in the grand hope of being able, when
less encumbered, to reach water.
They traveled all day and night, pushing through that fierce, waterless
waste to reach camp on the other side. It was three o'clock in the
morning when they got across and dropped down utterly exhausted. Judge
Oliver in his letter tells what happened then:
The sun was high in the heavens when we were aroused from our sleep
by a yelling band of Piute warriors. We were upon our feet in an
instant. The pictures of burning cabins and the lonely graves we
had passed were in our minds. Our scalps were still our own, and
not dangling from the belts of our visitors. Sam pulled himself
together, put his hand on his head as if to make sure he had not
been scalped, and then with his inimitable drawl said: "Boys, they
have left us our scalps. Let's give them all the flour and sugar
they ask for." And we did give them a good supply, for we were
They were eleven weary days pushing their wagon and team the two hundred
miles to Unionville, Humboldt County, arriving at last in a driving snow-
storm. Unionville consisted of eleven poor cabins built in the bottom of
a canon, five on one side and six facing them on the other. They were
poor, three-sided, one-room huts, the fourth side formed by the hill; the
roof, a spread of white cotton. Stones used to roll down on them
sometimes, and Mark Twain tells of live stock--specifically of a mule and
cow--that interrupted the patient, long-suffering Oliver, who was trying
to write poetry, and only complained when at last "an entire cow came
rolling down the hill, crashed through on the table, and made a shapeless
wreck of everything."--['The Innocents Abroad.']
Judge Oliver still does not complain; but he denies the cow. He says
there were no cows in Humboldt in those days, so perhaps it was only a
literary cow, though in any case it will long survive. Judge Oliver's
name will go down with it to posterity.
In the letter which Samuel Clemens wrote home he tells of what they found
"National" there was selling at $50 per foot and assayed $2,496 per
ton at the mint in San Francisco. And the "Alda Nueva," "Peru,"
"Delirio," "Congress," "Independent," and others were immensely rich
leads. And moreover, having winning ways with us, we could get
"feet" enough to make us all rich one of these days.
"I confess with shame," says the author of 'Roughing It', "that I
expected to find masses of silver lying all about the ground." And he
adds that he slipped away from the cabin to find a claim on his own
account, and tells how he came staggering back under a load of golden
specimens; also how his specimens proved to be only worthless mica; and
how he learned that in mining nothing that glitters is gold. His account
in 'Roughing It' of the Humboldt mining experience is sufficiently good
history to make detail here unnecessary. Tillou instructed them in
prospecting, and in time they located a fairly promising claim. They
went to work on it with pick and shovel, then with drill and blasting-
powder. Then they gave it up
"One week of this satisfied me. I resigned."
They tried to tunnel, but soon resigned again. It was pleasanter to
prospect and locate and trade claims and acquire feet in every new ledge
than it was to dig-and about as profitable. The golden reports of
Humboldt had been based on assays of selected rich specimens, and were
mainly delirium and insanity. The Clemens-Clagget-Oliver-Tillou
combination never touched their claims again with pick and shovel, though
their faith, or at least their hope, in them did not immediately die.
Billy Clagget put out his shingle as notary public, and Gus Oliver put
out his as probate judge. Sam Clemens and Tillou, with a fat-witted,
arrogant Prussian named Pfersdoff (Ollendorf) set out for Carson City.
It is not certain what became of the wagon and team, or of the two dogs.
The Carson travelers were water-bound at a tavern on the Carson River
(the scene of the "Arkansas" sketch), with a fighting, drinking lot.
Pfersdoff got them nearly drowned getting away, and finally succeeded in
getting them absolutely lost in the snow. The author of 'Roughing It'
tells us how they gave themselves up to die, and how each swore off
whatever he had in the way of an evil habit, how they cast their
tempters-tobacco, cards, and whisky-into the snow. He further tells us
how next morning, when they woke to find themselves alive, within a few
rods of a hostelry, they surreptitiously dug up those things again and,
deep in shame and luxury, resumed their fallen ways: It was the 29th of
January when they reached Carson City. They had been gone not quite two
months, one of which had been spent in travel. It was a brief period,
but it contained an episode, and it seemed like years.
Meantime, the Territorial secretary had found difficulties in launching
the ship of state. There was no legislative hall in Carson City; and if