by William H. Benson
July 13, 2006
In July of 1861, Sam Clemens and his brother Orion boarded the sailing packet the Sioux City that departed St. Louis. It took them up the Missouri River, and dropped them off in St. Joseph. There, Sam bought two tickets on a stagecoach, and on July 26th, they headed west across Nebraska. Sam often sat atop the stagecoach and drank in the scenery mile after mile while Orion sat inside the coach bouncing on top of the mailbags.
In early August, they walked among the Mormons in Salt Lake City, and on August 14, 1861, the twentieth day of their journey, they arrived in Carson City, Nevada. Sam described the desert: “Imagine a vast, wave-less ocean stricken dead and turned to ashes; imagine this solemn waste tufted with ash-dusted sage bushes.”
Sam was dodging the Civil War that had begun in April. Being from Missouri—a slave-holding state that refused to secede from the Union—Sam was ambivalent about which side to join—North or South. Because he felt no desire to fight, he sat out the war in the west, over two thousand miles away from the ghastly and bloody battle sites.
William Seward, the Secretary of State under the new President, Abraham Lincoln, had appointed Orion Clemens to be the Secretary of State of the territory of Nevada. When Sam heard this news, he had appointed himself to be his brother’s assistant and even offered to pay their way to Carson City, for he understood that if he stayed in St. Louis, one of the two armies would grab him.
In Carson City, Orion worked with the territory’s governor and legislature, but Sam, intoxicated by gold fever, combed the Nevada hills digging for gold or silver. “We were stark mad with excitement—drunk with happiness—smothered under mountains of prospective wealth—arrogantly compassionate toward the plodding millions who knew not our marvelous canyon—but our credit was not good at the grocer’s.”
He stayed at it for a year. His hands blistered, and his back was breaking before he gave up. “I was discharged just at the moment that I was going to resign,” he wrote. “I could not endure the heavy labor; and on the company’s side they did not feel justified in paying me to shovel sand down my back.” He found a job as a newspaper reporter.
Determined to make something of himself in the west, he wrote of his ambition to his brother Orion, “I shall never look upon Ma’s face again until I am a rich man.”
His reporting skills extended to exaggeration and outright hoaxes that got him into serious trouble and that took him to San Francisco and even to the Hawaiian Islands.
The winter of 1864-1865 when held up in the Sierra foothills in a mining camp, Sam met a stranger who told him a story about a jumping frog and a gambler who bet on the frog but lost because someone had poured buckshot down the frog’s mouth. Sam wrote down the story and mailed it back east where “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” was published, and Mark Twain’s name was suddenly well-known.
In San Francisco Sam rented a theatre for $50, and posted advertisements that read, “Doors open at 7 o’clock. The Trouble to begin at 8.” On October 2, 1866 Sam stepped in front of the crowd and began talking in his slow Missouri drawl. Soon he had everyone laughing, even the Governor of the State of California and the socially elite. He made $400 that night, and continued to perform across California and Nevada.
On January 1, 1867 after five and a half years in the west, Mark Twain boarded a ship in San Francisco bay and sailed south. At the isthmus at Panama he walked the few miles to the Atlantic side, and from there he sailed north to New York City. Sam Clemens had outgrown the west and was now ready to conquer the east and Europe and the world. He had transformed himself into Mark Twain, America’s eminent humorist and writer.