The Adventures of Mark Twain in Northern California

People dream of coming to California to become the next Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks, but hardly the “father of American literature” (William Faulkner) or the “greatest humorist this country has produced” (from his obituary in the New York Times). The very notion of such celebrity, fame and fortune were no doubt very far from young Sam Clemens’ mind when he accompanied his older brother Orion out west.

This is the extraordinary tale of how California transformed a young man who quit school after fifth grade, became a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River and even spent a few weeks as a Confederate soldier into one of America’s best loved and recognized writer/humorists. Twain’s short stories, novels, quips and speeches are studied and celebrated by scholars the world over. His humor and colorful storytelling style reflects a voice that is distinctly American. “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain,” said Ernest Hemingway, “called Huckleberry Finn.”

There were notable people, beloved characters one and all, who influenced the evolution of the persona we recognize as Mark Twain. His brother Orion Clemens, the Gillis family (Steve, Jim, Bill and their parents), Dick Stoker, Artemas Ward (Charles Browne) and Ben Coon to name a few. Like characters in a Mark Twain novel, their colorful lives flirted with adult beverages, yarning, barroom brawls, evading the law and even dueling.

This article is not meant to be a textbook historical account of Mark Twain’s years in California. We know a lot about Twain’s years in California, and some things are still up for debate. Fact is, we know that some of things Twain wrote in his own autobiography were not true (like his account of how Yreka, CA was named). Things we know as documented history will be clearly stated. Things that may be speculation will be similarly identified.

Westward, Ho!

Early life was not easy for young Sam Clemens. His family moved to the Mississippi River town of Hannibal, Missouri when he was four. His father passed away when Sam was 11, and he dropped out of school the next year to become a printer’s apprentice. Soon after he became a typesetter and started contributing humorous stories to the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper owned by his older brother Orion. He went on to work as a printer in New York City and other Eastern cities, but his lifelong dream had been working as a riverboat pilot.

Clemens got his big break when steamboat pilot Horace E. Bixby took him on as an apprentice, a position he held for over two years. He then became pilot of the steamer A.B. Chambers until 1861 when the Civil War brought all river traffic to a screeching halt. In a world spinning out of control, Clemens spent several weeks as a soldier in a Confederate unit before realizing he was not cut out for such work. His unit disbanded and many, like Clemens, deserted his post.

Just Over The Border

Fourth Ward School (Virginia City, Nevada)

Sam’s brother Orion was 10 years older and had supported Abraham Lincoln and the Union cause. (There must have been a few spirited conversations in that household!) As a reward he was appointed secretary to the Nevada Territory Governor in 1861. Sam still had money from his riverboat pilot days and wasn’t anxious to be caught after deserting the army, so he paid for he and his brother to travel to Nevada. Arriving in the mining town of Nevada City, NV, Sam caught a strong case of “silver fever,” but this didn’t (ahem) pan out.

While not exactly California, Virginia City was a short distance across the border northeast of Lake Tahoe. Clemens even invested in a timber operation on the Lake Tahoe, which eventually caught fire.

Sam needed a job. A gifted storyteller, he submitted a few humorous pieces to the Nevada City Territorial Enterprise and signed them “Josh,” as in ‘I’m just joshing you.’ Soon after he was offered a job as City Editor for that paper, where Steve Gillis was also employed.

In those days, Virginia City was another Sodom and Gamora, sin city on steroids. It was sitting on a huge vein of silver, the Comstock Lode, the largest American mining discovery since the Gold Rush of 1849. Money seemed to flow in rivers and Clemens was a regular customer in area saloons, contributing to the two extant versions of how Clemens started using the name Mark Twain in about 1863.

“Mark Twain,” Two Stories-

Mark Twain’s desk at the Territorial Enterprise, now memorialized in Virginia City.

Clemens claimed that his nom de plume “Mark Twain” came from his days as a riverboat pilot. A reading of “mark twain” meant the river was at least two fathoms deep, just deep enough to navigate a riverboat through without hanging up.

One non-official version of the story comes from the crazy days in Virginia City when Clemens always ordered two drinks at a time. He was said to call to the bartender “MARK TWO” holding up two fingers, meaning he wanted two more drinks. Saloon keepers often kept track of customers’ tabs on chalkboards behind the bar, so that meant two marks next to Clemens’ name. “Mark two” was close enough to what he had learned on the riverboats that it soon became Mark Twain, two fathoms, two drinks, two marks on the chalkboard. Some scholars speculate that Twain wanted to bury the drinking version of the story in favor of the riverboat story as his fame spread as a legitimate literary figure.

Back in the Hot Seat

One of the responsibilities of newspaper editors is to report the news, the facts of the day. Twain did that at first, but the budding writer evidently felt the need to spread his wings into more creative endeavors. Eventually Twain’s writing seemed to stray further and further away from merely reporting the news. Over time his writing evolved from stating the facts to mildly embellishment to outright fabrications and lies. This inevitably got him in trouble and he made numerous enemies in the community. James L. Laird, Editor of the Virginia City Daily Union so infuriated Twain that he publicly challenged Laird to a duel.

So here was Sam Clemens, now known as Mark Twain, in another uncomfortable situation not unlike when he deserted the Confederate Army. It turned out that challenging someone to a duel was illegal in Nevada, and the authorities had taken notice.

Twain and his newspaper (and drinking) buddy Steve Gillis took the occasion to relocate from Virginia City to San Francisco. While Sam Clemens had adopted to name Mark Twain by this time, he was not yet finished filling out the persona of the worldwide figure he would eventually become.

Getting Fired in San Francisco

By the time Mark Twain (formerly Sam Clemens) made it to San Francisco in the mid 1860s, people had begun referring to the city as the “Paris of the West.” Mark Twain would have appreciated the double entendre.

On the one hand the city was gaining traction as a worldwide cultural center. It was growing exponentially and becoming more ethnically diverse. There was major investment in the arts, parks and education. The famous cable cars were being built. Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson were a few of the literary luminaries Twain might have bumped into. But “Paris of the West” was also meant sarcastically, referring to the city’s infamous dark side.

The nine-block area known as the “Barbary Coast” was San Francisco’s red light district frequented by sailors, gold miners and vagabonds longing for female companionship. Prostitution, gambling houses and opium dens were rampant. According to Benjamin Estelle Lloyd’s Lights and Shades of San Francisco, “Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where blear-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous.”

Patrons gambled with being shanghaied; passed out, drugged or bludgeoned, only to wake up in the hold of an evil-smelling, rat-infested ship and forced into years of slave labor. It would have been a perfect classroom for Twain to observe detestable characters like Huck Finn’s villainous father, “Pap.”

But young Twain and friend Steve Gillis were experienced newspaper men, and George Barnes, editor of the Morning Call newspaper (now the San Francisco Chronicle) hired them both. Up until this time Twain was used to taking “liberties” with the truth in order to tell a more appealing story. The problem was, Barnes hired Twain to be a street reporter who stuck to the facts. There was to be no “embellishment.” Twain was expected to dig up news, which generally included the police beat, the courts, city government, schools, theaters and anything else he thought to be “newsworthy.”

“It was fearful drudgery, soulless drudgery, and almost destitute of interest,” he remembered. “It was an awful slavery for a lazy man.”

So how does a boy with a fifth grade education transform into a literary giant? Young Sam Clemens worked as a typesetter for brother Orion’s local newspaper. Printing in those days was accomplished by assembling blocks of letters in trays to form words and sentences, both of which are fundamental to the craft of writing. Journalism was a lot less formal in those days. No one worried about copyrights, and much of what appeared in papers was “borrowed” from other publications. Without realizing the good it was doing him, Twain grew up reading and writing and selecting the best of his own and others’ writing for publication.

Editor Barnes quickly realized that Twain was not only miserable, but completely out of his element. Even though he told Twain he had great creative writing potential, that was it for the Morning Call. Twain was out of a job.

Many years later, in his autobiography, Twain remembered the bittersweet experience: “It was the only time in my life that I have ever been discharged, and it hurts yet — although I am in my grave.”

Next he went to work for the Californian, a weekly paper considered to be more “literary.” Twain was to write one article per week, and was paid $50 per month. Even though he was much happier than he had been writing for the Morning Call, there was still a legendary humorist inside of him anxious to take the stage.

Artemus Ward had met Twain in Virginia City before coming to San Francisco where they became friends and spent a week together drinking and having a merry time. Ward was the stage “personna” created by Charles Farrar Browne, known at the time as a popular “lecturer.” Using the pseudonym Artemus Ward, Browne first submitted humorous stories to a variety of East Coast publications including Punch, Plain Dealer and Vanity Fair. What we might call a standup comedian today was known as a “lecturer” in Twain’s day, and Artemus Ward was a sensation. Abraham Lincoln was such a fan that he often opened cabinet meetings reading his material.

Ward had gone back East, but he kept in touch with Twain in San Francisco. Ward recognized Twain’s potential as a humorist and encouraged him to send his writing back East where he would help get it published. He also planted a seed that “lecturers” made a lot more money (in those days) than writers, a notion that appealed to Twain. But all of this would have to wait, because youth, testosterone and questionable judgement were about to intervene.

Friend and newspaper colleague Steve Gillis had accompanied Twain to San Francisco, and the pair were regular customers at a number of notorious saloons. Twain was not known for brawling or violence, but friend Steve Gillis was a scrapper.

Big Jim Casey was the proprietor of a saloon where, on this particular day he was giving a man a vicious beating. Standing up for the weaker man, Steve Gillis leapt into the fray, which enraged big Jim Casey. “Why don’t you try me,” challenged Gillis.

According to The Sagebrush Bohemian: Mark Twain’s Wild Years by Nigey Lennon, Casey then locked the front door to the saloon and snarled at Gillis, “Now, Mister, since you’ve butted in without being asked, I’ll finish the job on you!” When Casey lunged, Gillis smashed him over the head with a beer pitcher, which ended the festivities promptly. Gillis was immediately arrested for assault and battery and hauled away to jail.

The next day Casey’s busted head was no better, and some speculated he would next be dispensing liquor on the other side of the Pearly Gates. Since it wasn’t looking good for Steve Gillis, he and Twain concocted a bail-jumping scheme. Twain would sign for the $500 bond, and he and Gillis would “disappear.” Gillis headed back to Virginia City, and Twain was invited to hide out in Jim Gillis’ mining cabin (Steve’s older brother) in the Motherload mining country in the Sierra foothills, a place called “Jackass Hill.” Mark Twain was on the lam!

Jackass Hill

Steve Gillis’ brother Jim had been visiting, and it was decided that Twain could bunk at Angels Camp in the Sierra foothills while Steve headed back to Virginia City. The 88 days Twain spent in the ramshackle mining cabin, almost a short vacation really, would turn out to be transformational in his writing and lecturing career.

The squalid mining cabin was located on a mound of earth known as Jackass Hill eight miles outside of Sonora. The name comes from the fact that Mexican freighters used to rest their mules there, hundreds at a time, on the way to Sacramento. There was a time the area was flush with gold, but by the time Twain made it there the gold was all but gone and most miners had long past moved on. There was no gold, no irate police officers and no pressure. What Twain found (and obviously needed) was some peace and quiet. Yet the cabin provided much that Twain didn’t even know he needed desperately.

There were women in the neighborhood, but the cabin itself was a quintessential bachelor pad. It was unique from others only in that it’s long-time resident Jim Gillis was something of an English scholar. Not only did Gillis speak both Greek and Latin, but the cabin even had its own humble library containing the works of Shakespeare, Byron and Dickens to name a few. While it’s not known if Twain availed himself of the fine reading available, it is certain that his cabin mates were rather distinctive. Jim Gillis in particular was regarded as a gifted “yarner.

Imagine staying in a cabin without electricity or running water, no Internet, TV or cell phone reception in the dead of winter. There might have been a light snowfall once or twice while Twain was there, but most days were just gray, cool and rainy. Besides reading by candlelight and a few meager attempts at pocket mining, there wasn’t a whole lot to do. The boys did walk to other nearby camps a few times, but the main source of entertainment was telling stories, or “yarning” as they called it in those days. Besides Twain and Jim Gillis, Jim’s partner Dick Stoker also lived there most of the time. Billy Gillis, Steve and Jim’s younger brother visited from time to time.

“Impromptu Lying”

The men entertained each other by telling outrageous stories “impromptu lying” as Twain later called it. Some of these tall tales were no doubt original, but it also perfectly acceptable to “borrow” a story heard someplace else, embellish it and tell it over and over again. Each storyteller added their own twists and turns, accents, funny voices, gestures, etc. Recall too that the year before Twain had become fast friends with Artemus Ward, the most popular “lecturer” (ie: humorist) in the country, and cabin mate Jim Gillis was almost as good. Twain later referred to Gillis as, “a born humorist, and a very competent one.” Ward had been very impressed with Twain’s storytelling ability, and dropped the hint that “lecturing” paid a whole lot more than writing in those days.

All the while Twain was passing the time in the gray, wet Sierra foothills he kept journals; not really dairies, but far more and just notebooks. He wrote about the food, the weather, what he did most days. He also recorded elements of stories he’d heard and things he might like to write about someday. One of the stories he’d heard had to do with a jumping frog.

Whose Frog Was It?

Mark Twain’s sketch of a “jumping frog”

When he finally wrote The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, the story that put Mark Twain on the map, it was not the first time the story had been told. Ten years earlier Jim Townsend had written a version of the story for the Sonora Herald, and it’s very likely that he did not make it up either. It was merely one of the hundreds of yarns that were told and retold, sometimes well and sometimes poorly, in saloons, mining camps and parlors all over the West. The first time Twain heard it, he later wrote, it was poorly told. Yet he recognized that if he could write the story as if Artemus Ward or Jim Gillis might have told it, it could become something special.

One renowned aspect of Twain’s writing was that he was especially good with dialects, capturing the ways different sorts of people actually talked; the slang, the expressions, the common jokes and phrases and preserving them for history. Students often struggle trying to read the words of Jim, the escaped slave in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, but Twain had actually worked as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River where he would have had ample exposure to how real slaves expressed talked. When he did finally write the frog story, he knew the way common people in Calaveras County expressed themselves, and this was something entirely new and different for New York City audiences.

From Jackass Hill to Paris of the West

After 88 days on Jackass Hill, Twain was refreshed and convinced that he could go back to work in San Francisco and pay back the $500 bail bond he still owed for getting Steve Gillis released from jail. Twain was soon writing for The Californian once again and things were looking up. He had absorbed far more on Jackass Hill than he knew at the time, things that were destined to turn up in numerous novels he had not yet written.

Still his enthusiastic supporter, friend Artemus Ward was back in New York City by this time begging Twain to write something for his upcoming book. In the meantime it was back to work. Twain had to make a living.

The Stand Up Comedian

Illustration of Mark Twain on the lecture circuit

Artemus Ward was an immensely popular stand-up comic and humorist (called “lecturers” in those days) Twain had met in Virginia City, NV. After a week of bar-hopping and general carousing around together, Ward was convinced Twain was a man who was going places. Ward had returned back East, but had kept in touch with Twain, dearly wanting him to contribute something for a book Ward was in the process of writing.

Twain was suffering from severe writer’s block. He made several attempts at writing something for Ward, but judged these  just weren’t good enough. He stalled and stalled, but Ward kept badgering him. Eventually Twain’s procrastination caused him to miss Ward’s publication deadline, but he didn’t know that at the time. 

Twain later wrote, “A still, small voice began to make itself heard. ‘Try me – try me.” It was the little frog! Out of sheer exasperation Twain wrote out the story and sent it to Artemus Ward, a story he had overheard in a tavern in Angels Camp.

Since Ward had already submitted his book manuscript for publication, he instead sent Twain’s story to The New York Saturday Press where it appeared in November, 1865. The story was simple enough, but captured unique elements of life and language “out West,” which were of particular interest to readers on the East Coast. 

Twain’s story was an instant sensation. Soon it was printed and reprinted in newspapers and magazines all across America. Suddenly Twain’s name was on everyone’s lips, but he’d never forgotten Artemus Ward’s advice, that writing was well and good, but “lecuring” (being a stand-up comedian) paid better at the time. 

When the Sacramento Union newspaper offered to send him to the “Sandwich Islands” (Hawaii) for a series of humorous observations, Twain jumped at the chance. He stayed several months. Upon returning to San Francisco he was urged to try “lecturing” by his friend Thomas Maquire who owned several theaters. Twain had no experience whatsoever on stage, but the practiced eye of Artemus Ward (considered the George Carlin, Robin Williams or Jim Carey of his day) had indeed seen something in him. Twain accepted.  

Twain later wrote he had been positively terrified, but he had the presence of mind to memorize his lecture on the Sandwich Islands word-for-word, and then practiced so it appeared spontaneous. He even paid a few folks to laugh at all of his jokes, which was common at the time. 

Taking the stage in front of a sold-out San Francisco crowd, Twain stood stiff, silent and mortified for an entire minute before uttering a word. But once he started, he took to it like a natural-born stage performer. The crowd loved him. Few modern readers even know that during his lifetime Twain was just as famous as a stage performer as he was a writer. Over the next 30 years he went on to give hundreds of lectures on a variety of subjects all over America and abroad.

Finding his “Voice”

California had given Samuel Clemens the “voice” of his persona, Mark Twain. Refined Easterners had no idea how people really talked in the wild west, and Twain’s uniquely western “twang” came straight from the barrooms, honky tonks and mining camps of California. He learned to imitate great “yarners” like Jim Gillis and Artemus Ward in a voice (both written and spoken) as authentic as a spittoon. It is because of Mark Twain we have some idea of how Mississippi River pilots, escaped slaves and professional con-men of the 1860s might have sounded. Many of these have become some of the most beloved and recognizable characters in American fiction.

Twain spent about seven years in California before going on to international literary rock-stardom, but they were critical, formative years. When he left, Twain took pieces of California and Californians with him to forever resonate through the best of American literature.

Active NorCal

Northern California's Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine


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