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How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
May 14, 2024 3:05 am

How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twain

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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May 14, 2024 3:05 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Old West historian Roger McGrath is here to tell the story of a time before the world knew Samuel Clemons by his pen name, Mark Twain. The time he spent in the American West helped Clemens develop a distinctive Western voice and provided him with material that would make him America’s first celebrity author.

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All you can stream with Zoomo Play. This is our American stories and the next story is about a writer, well, whose name you know, but whose story you may not. This is the story of a time before the world knew Samuel Clemens by his pen name, Mark Twain.

The time he spent in the American West helped Clemens develop a distinctive Western voice and provided him with material that would make him America's first celebrity author. Here to tell the story of Samuel Clemens' life in the Old West is Roger McGrath. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier, a U.S. Marine, and former history professor at UCLA. Dr. McGrath has appeared on numerous History Channel documentaries, and he's a regular contributor for us here at Our American Stories.

Here's McGrath. Most people know Sam Clemens as Mark Twain, the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. They have no idea that as a young man, he spent the 1860s in the mining camps of Nevada and California, and it was in those camps he wrote professionally for the first time. It was also in those camps that he learned from older writers a style of writing common to the frontier West and adopted that style for his own.

A book came out of his experiences on the frontier, which is little known but may be his best work roughing it. Sam Clemens is born in Florida, Missouri in November 1835. He is the sixth of seven children, three of whom die in childhood. His parents are of Scotch-Irish, Cornish, and English descent. The family moves to Hannibal, Missouri, a port on the Mississippi, when Sam is four.

There's regular river traffic in and out of the port, and there are pioneers passing through the town on their way west. From a young age, Clemens understands there is a larger world outside of Hannibal. When Clemens is 11, his father, an attorney and judge, dies. Less than a year later, Clemens drops out of school and is apprenticed to a printer.

Clemens soon becomes an accomplished typesetter, working long hours during the day and reading in a library at night. When he's 13, he watches one of his friends depart for California in the gold rush of 1849. Clemens later describes the scene, I still remember the departure of the cavalcade when it spurred westward. We were all there to see and to envy, and I can still see the proud little chap sailing by on a great horse. We were all on hand to gaze and envy when he returned two years later in unimaginable glory, for he had traveled. None of us had ever been 40 miles from home, but he had crossed the continent. He'd been in the gold mines, that fairy land of our imagination.

We would have sold our souls to Satan for the privilege of trading places with him. Clemens continues working as a typesetter until 1857, when he meets Horace Bixby, a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. For a price, Bixby agrees to take on Clemens as an apprentice pilot, or what's called a cub pilot. After training under Bixby for two years, Clemens receives his pilot's license and begins serving on the steamer AB Chambers. It's a prestigious job, and the pay is good, but in 1861, the Civil War erupts, closing most steamboat traffic on the Mississippi.

At the same time, Sam Clemens gets his chance to go west, a dream since childhood. His older brother, Orion, is a practicing attorney and a vigorous supporter of Abraham Lincoln's campaign for president. Orion closes his law office and stumps throughout Missouri in behalf of Lincoln. When Lincoln becomes president, Orion is appointed secretary of the newly created territory of Nevada. Orion has a problem, though.

His months of campaigning for Lincoln have exhausted his personal savings. Orion asks Sam to finance his trip to Nevada. Sam agrees, if Orion takes him along and gives him a job. Orion reckons he will need a private secretary, and Sam can be the secretary. Sam pays $400 for the stagecoach fair for the two of them, from St. Joseph, Missouri to Carson City, Nevada.

The cost is more than $15,000 in today's dollars. The company that operates the line is the Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company. The company is owned by William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell. They become famous not only for their stagecoach service to California, but also for their creation of the Pony Express. On July 26, the Clemens Brothers climb aboard a Central Overland stagecoach and begin a 1,700-mile journey over the Great Plains, through the Rocky Mountains, and across the Great Basin to Carson City. Sam is dressed in a woolen shirt and pants and high-topped boots. He carries a Smith & Wesson revolver, which he hasn't practiced much with, but he feels bully and is ready for his grand adventure. Sam and Orion are among the first to take a stagecoach over the Central route.

Service begins only a week before their departure. The coaches used by the company are the famous Concord, which weigh nearly a ton and are pulled by six-horse teams. The Concord gives its passengers a relatively smooth ride. Suspension is provided by two thick leather straps, called thorough braces, that run between the coach's axles and suspend the coach's body. Passengers experience a rolling motion and not the jolting ride of a wagon.

A suitable run for a team of horses is 10 to 13 miles. Teams are then changed at what are called swing stations. Every fourth station is a home station, where not only are teams changed, but also drivers. For passengers such as Sam Clemons and his brother Orion, there is no turning in.

The Overland Stage runs on an around-the-clock schedule to make the trip from St. Joseph to Sacramento in 20 days, an average speed of 10 miles per hour. Passengers get out to stretch their legs at each station and to eat at home stations, but other than that, they live on the stagecoach. Approaching a home station in Wyoming, Sam begins to hear stories about a division superintendent named Jack Slade. Sam's told that Slade has killed more than 20 men, not counting Indians. Slade had one old enemy, Jules Benny, tied to a post in a station corral. Slade had almost died from bullets he suffered when ambushed by Benny, so he was now going to kill Benny slowly. First, Slade cut off Benny's ears for souvenirs. Slade allowed Benny to suffer earless at the post for hours, and then Slade began taking target practice on his old enemy. One of Slade's bullets took off one of Benny's fingers. Another round tore flesh off Benny's leg, and a third bullet ripped flesh off Benny's arm. Slade kept firing until Benny begged to be put out of his misery. Slade then sent a bullet through Benny's head. Now, who do you suppose happens to be at the home station Sam Clemons is approaching?

Yes, none other than Jack Slade. When the stagecoach reaches the station, Sam, his brother, Ryan, and the other passengers sit down to eat breakfast with, as Sam says, a half-savage, half-civilized company of armed and bearded mountaineers, ranch men, and station employees. Sam winds up seated right next to Jack Slade himself. Oh, Sam doesn't know it at first. Then someone calls Slade by name, and Sam almost collapses.

Says Sam, never has youth stared and shivered as I did when I heard them call him Slade. And you've been listening to Roger McGrath tell the story of Samuel Clemons in the West when we come back, more of this remarkable storytelling here on Our American Stories. The best conversations I have with my colleagues are the ones that happen when no one is looking, when we're not 100% sure yet what to write. Hopefully, having conversations like this can help you figure out your own point of view. That's kind of our job as Washington Post opinions columnists. I'm Charles Lane, deputy opinion editor.

And I'm Amanda Ripley, a contributing columnist. We're going to bring you into these conversations on a new podcast called Impromptu. Follow Impromptu now, wherever you listen. Zumoplay is your destination for endless entertainment with a diverse lineup of 350 plus live channels, movies and full TV series. You'll easily find something to watch right away. And the best part, it's all free. Love music? Get lost in the 90s with I heart 90s. Dance away with hip hop beats and more on the I heart radio music channels. No logins, no signups, no accounts, no hassle. So what are you waiting for? Start streaming at play.xumo.com or download from the app and Google Play stores today.

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For a list of compatible devices, visit Dexcom.com slash compatibility. And we continue here with our American stories. And now let's return to Roger McGrath and continue with the story of Samuel Clemens in the Old West. Sam, though he wants another cup, quickly and politely declines the offer, says Sam. I was afraid he had not killed anybody that morning and he might be needing diversion. Slade insists on filling Sam's cup. I thanked him and drank it, says Sam, but it gave me no comfort.

For I could not feel sure that it would not be sorry presently that he had given it away and proceed to kill me to distract his thoughts from the loss. Because Orion Clemens, as the new secretary of Nevada Territory, has to meet with territorial officials of Utah Territory, Sam gets to spend a couple of days in Salt Lake City. He's greatly impressed with the Mormon splendid city they had built from scratch, but not so much with the Book of Mormon.

West of the Great Salt Lake, the stagecoach rolls across a barren level plain before entering Nevada and coming to the Humboldt River. Here the travelers come upon a tribe of Shoshone Indians called Goshute. Sam's not greatly impressed with the Goshute, saying, they are very considerably inferior to even the despised digger Indians of California and inferior to all races of savages on our continent.

And those are the nicest things he says about the Goshute. On the 19th day out from St. Joseph, Missouri, including the two day layover in Salt Lake City, Sam Clemens finds himself in the waterless 40 mile desert which lies between the Humboldt sink and the Carson River in Nevada. As Sam Clemens describes it, the coach wheel sunk from six inches to a foot. We worked our passage most of the way across, that is to say, we got out and walked. It was a dreary pull and a long and thirsty one for we had no water. From one extremity of this desert to the other, the road was white with the bones of oxen and horses. It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that we could have walked the 40 miles and set our feet on a bone at every step.

The desert was one prodigious graveyard, and the log chains, wagon tires, and rotting wrecks of vehicles were almost as thick as the bones. On the afternoon of the 20th day of the overland journey, the stagecoach rolls into Carson City, the capital of Nevada Territory. Earlier known as Washoe, the area is in the midst of a boom because of two great strikes, one at Virginia City and the other at Aurora. Nevada Territory's first governor is James Nye. Before his appointment, he was an attorney in New York and a major general in the state militia.

He was also very active in Republican politics in New York during the 1850s. He brings several of his old political allies with him to Nevada to fill various jobs. He also brings Bridget Murphy, a motherly, talented, energetic, and fearless proprietor of a boarding house in New York City. She sets up a boarding house in Carson City, and most of Nye's brigade moves into it, including Sam and Orion Clemens. They call the boarding house the ranch. While Nye is trying to place all those at the boarding house in official jobs, he keeps them busy with various make-work jobs, including surveying a possible railroad route. On the survey job, they run into tarantulas again and again and begin to take the big eerie spiders back to the boarding house, keeping them under glass tumblers in a large dormitory-like bedroom.

Sam Clemens hates the sight of them. Late one night, a tremendous wind sends a portion of a roof slamming into the side of the boarding house. A shelf with a dozen tumbler-covered tarantulas crashes to the floor.

Turn out, boys, yells one of the boarders. The tarantulas are loose. Sam Clemens describes the scene in the dark room.

No warning ever sounded so dreadful. Nobody tried to leave the room, lest they might step on a tarantula. Every man groped for a trunk or a bed and jumped on it, then followed the strangest silence, a silence of grisly suspense it was, too.

Waiting, expectancy, fear. It was dark as pitch, and one had to imagine the spectacle of those scant-clad men roosting gingerly on trunks and beds. Sam Clemens doesn't say how long all the men remained frozen in place, but he does say different men at different times were certain of tarantulas crawling over them, and no one was willing to cross the floor to light a lantern. Suddenly, the door to the room swings open, and there's Mrs. Murphy with a lantern in her hand.

She shakes her head in disgust, and fourteen grown men sheepishly climb down from their perches on boxes, trunks, and beds. During the next several months, Sam prospects for gold in various mining districts and tries to stake a claim on timberlands on the shores of Lake Tahoe. Early in 1862, Sam and several of his friends set off for Aurora, the newest strike in Nevada. With a slouch hat on his head and high-top boots on his feet, wearing a woolen shirt and trousers, and armed with a Colt revolver, Sam looks the part of a prospector.

He doesn't think he will have occasion to use the gun, but says he carries it, in deference to popular sentiment, and in order that it might not, by its absence, be offensively conspicuous in a subject of remark. In Aurora, Sam begins writing professionally. Under the non-deplume Josh, he writes several pieces for the Esmeralda Star, one of the town's two daily newspapers. He also starts sending articles describing events in Aurora to the territorial enterprise in Virginia City, again as Josh. Sam does some mining, but most of the time, he's found in one or another of Aurora's many saloons, sipping whiskey and telling stories.

He's a gifted storyteller, and always has an audience. Meanwhile, Cal Higby, Sam's trusty partner, who has been prospecting from sunup to sundown, strikes a vein of ore. That night, the two men talk of the riches that await them. Says Sam, Higby and I went to bed at midnight, but it was only to lie broad awake and think, dream, scheme. The floorless tumbledown cabin was a palace. The ragged gray blankets, silk.

The furniture, rosewood and mahogany. Each new splendor that burst out of my visions of the future whirled me bodily over in bed or jerked me to a sitting posture, just as if an electric battery had been applied to me. By a complicated series of events, Clemens and Higby lose the claim, and their dreams of becoming millionaires are dashed. And you're listening to Roger McGrath tell the story of Samuel Clemens. And my goodness, at 13 years old, he watches in awe as another young man departs for gold rush territory.

And why was he in awe? Well, Clemens said it best, for he had traveled. When we come back, more of this remarkable story, Roger McGrath on Samuel Clemens in the West, here on Our American Stories. The best conversations I have with my colleagues are the ones that happen when no one is looking, when we're not 100% sure yet what to write. Hopefully, having conversations like this can help you figure out your own point of view. That's kind of our job as Washington Post opinions columnist. I'm Charles Lane, deputy opinion editor.

And I'm Amanda Ripley, a contributing columnist. We're going to bring you into these conversations on a new podcast called Impromptu. Follow Impromptu now, wherever you listen. Zumoplay is your destination for endless entertainment with a diverse lineup of 350 plus live channels, movies and full TV series. You'll easily find something to watch right away.

And the best part? It's all free. Love music? Get lost in the 90s with I heart 90s. Dance away with hip hop beats and more on the I heart radio music channels. No logins, no signups, no accounts, no hassle. So what are you waiting for? Start streaming at Play.XUMO.com or download from the app and Google Play stores today.

All you can stream with Zumoplay. Managing your diabetes just got easier. The powerful new Dexcom G7 lets you see your glucose numbers on your compatible watch and phone without painful finger sticks. So you will always know which way your glucose is headed.

An arrow shows you where you're heading up, down or steady. It can even alert you before you go too low or when you're too high. And because Dexcom G7 is the most accurate CGM available, you can make better diabetes decisions about food, medication and activity in the moment.

And all those little decisions can lead to big results. Results you can see like more time and range and lower A1C. With Dexcom G7, you can manage your diabetes with confidence. Get started with the number one recommended CGM brand by doctors and patients at Dexcom.com. That's Dexcom.com. Dexcom data on file 2023. If your glucose alerts and readings from the G7 do not match symptoms or expectations, use a blood glucose meter to make diabetes treatment decisions.

For a list of compatible devices, visit Dexcom.com slash compatibility. And we continue here with our American stories and Roger McGrath telling the story of Samuel Clemens and his time spent in the American West. By the way, if you've read Huck Finn and loved it, do read Roughing It because it is as good as Ulysses S. Grant's memoir. It's that good. And if you haven't read Grant's memoir, pick it up. You won't put it down.

You'll thank me. Let's continue with McGrath. After six months in Aurora, Sam gives up on mining and leaves for Virginia City. In September 1862, Sam Clemens walks into the territorial enterprise office, introduces himself to Irishman Dennis McCarthy, the co-owner and editor of the newspaper, and says, My name is Clemens and I've come to write for the paper. The territorial enterprise is Nevada's first and most important newspaper. By the early 1860s, it has supplanted the Sacramento Union as the miners Bible.

The enterprise wields enormous influence not only in Virginia City, but throughout the West. It's read on every mining frontier. The paper is full of hard factual news, but its reporters are allowed to indulge themselves on page three. They then become essayists, poets, philosophers, humorists. They pen stories about imaginary mining strikes or mining disasters or about anything that strikes their fancy. The co-owners and editors of the territorial enterprise, Dennis McCarthy and Joe Goodman, tell the writers they are free to write anything they want on page three, but they must take personal responsibility for any explosive reaction by the public.

As a result of this policy, the newspaper becomes a training school for original and versatile writers. The one who achieves the greatest prominence and success is Sam Clemens, although it's by his new nom de plume, Mark Twain, that he gains fame. Sam takes the name from his river pilot days when deckhands called out depth readings. Each mark is six feet or one fathom.

Twain is two fathoms or 12 feet, the depth needed for safe passage of the typical steamboat. Sam first attaches the name to one of his territorial enterprise articles in February, 1863. Sam's first of many tongue in cheek pieces with the territorial enterprise appears in October, 1862, titled Petrified Man. Sam describes the discovery of a man's body, perfectly petrified, that is put on display by a local politician in front of a crowd of onlookers.

The petrified man's arms and hands are in a position suggesting he's thumbing his nose at the world, and one eye appears to be winking. Newspapers throughout the country get the story by way of the telegraph and reprint it as straight news. In reality, none of it's true, but it's Sam's way of poking fun at the politician and his gullible constituents. More such tall tales come from Sam's pen, but most of his work consists of solid factual reporting, especially on the territorial legislature in Carson City. He has a nose for sniffing out corruption and incompetence, and lights and exposing it in vitriolic prose. He makes friends, and he makes enemies. After several challenges to duels, he decides to take a permanent vacation. He arrives in San Francisco in May, 1864, and spends money freely, certain that his mining stock will allow him many months of frivolity. However, his stock plunges, and he is forced to take a job with the San Francisco Daily newspaper, The Morning Call.

The work is hard and mostly routine, and he's not allowed his flights of fancy. After too many months of what Sam considers drudgery with the call, the editor tells him he has literary talents beyond a simple reporting job and fires them. Sam now convinces the territorial enterprise that he should be the San Francisco correspondent for the newspaper.

Sam's paid handsomely, and again has allowed great latitude. This also allows him to remain in San Francisco and continue to be part of a literary circle of talented and aspiring young writers who include Joaquin Miller and Bret Hart. Sam also makes trips to California's mother lode country, staying in old mining camps with such colorful names as Jackass Hill, Angels Camp, Rough and Ready, Red Dog, Gold Hill, and Fiddle Town. He meets many veteran sourdoughs from the gold rush of 1849, and is regaled with stories from the first days of the great strike.

One of these tales is about a jumping frog. Sam sees the makings of a great story and takes notes. A few weeks later, Sam has a story written and sends it to a publisher in New York.

What would become commonly known as the celebrated jumping frog at Calaveras County appears in November 1865 in The Saturday Press. It's an instant sensation and is reprinted in various publications across the United States. Suddenly, Mark Twain is a household name. With his elevated status, Sam convinces the Sacramento Union newspaper to send him to Hawaii as a correspondent.

He arrives in March 1866, and for the next four months sends stories about the islands to California. One of his stories captures the attention of the entire nation. Sam happens to be on the spot when survivors of a 43-day ordeal at sea in a lifeboat are brought ashore.

They are sailors from the ship Hornet, which caught fire in the Pacific and sank. When Sam returns home, he finds himself in great demand. Managed by Dennis McCarthy, his editor from the Territorial Enterprise days, Sam begins a lecture tour that takes him to not only sold-out venues in San Francisco and Sacramento, but to packed venues in one mining camp after another in the motherlode country, and over the stairs to Carson City, Gold Hill, and Virginia City. He travels hundreds of miles in stagecoaches and is greeted as a celebrity at every stop. In the final days of his lecture tour, Sam has a practical joke played on him that he would have enjoyed immensely, were he not the victim of it. After lecturing to a standing-room-only crowd in Gold Hill, he and Dennis McCarthy begin the two-mile walk back to their lodgings in Virginia City.

About midnight, they reach the desolate hilltop divide between the two towns. Lying in wait for them are a group of old friends, masked and disguised. The order, stand and deliver, rings out, and a half dozen men with guns drawn descend on Clemens and McCarthy. The would-be robbers wave their revolvers in Sam's face. Says Sam, don't flourish those pistols so promiscuously.

They might go off by accident. Sam begins to reach in his pockets for his money, but is told to reach for the sky. As soon as he puts his hands up, he's told to pull out his money.

This goes on for another round. Sam doesn't realize it's the joke, and exasperated, asks how he's supposed to get his money if he's reaching for the sky. By now the robbers are all about to burst out laughing, so they dig through Sam's pockets while he holds his hands high, pick up a satchel of silver coins, the proceeds from the night's lecture that McCarthy had been carrying, and hastily depart, telling Clemens and McCarthy to remain in position for 15 minutes with their hands high.

None the wiser. Sam gets a story in the next day's territorial enterprise about the dastardly robbery by six highwaymen on the divide. Later, he has all the money returned to him, and learns it was all a practical joke. Sam is steamed and remains in high dudgeon until he leaves for San Francisco a couple of days later. Late in 1867, Sam Clemens decides it's time to return to the East.

He soon marries and settles in Connecticut. His days in the Old West are over, but his time on the frontier created his writing style and gave him enough material for a lifetime of stories. Most Americans today know Mark Twain was once a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi, but most Americans know nothing of his many years of roughing it on the wild and woolly frontier. And great job, as always, to Greg for producing that piece, and to Roger McGrath. And again, Roger is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier, a former U.S. Marine, and, of course, a history professor at UCLA, one of the best there. The story of Samuel Clemens in the Old West here on Our American Stories.

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