The Chronicles of Mark Twain in California – Part 1: The Stories Behind the Pen Name

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 first of four articles telling 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 series 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.

Next installment in the Chronicles of Mark Twain in California: Two little fish, Mark Twain and Steve Gillis, in a bigger pond; his writing, getting fired, learning what he could and could not write, becoming a lecturer, developing his unique sense of humor, meeting a few real characters and becoming one himself.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.


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