Roughing It At Lake Tahoe.

By   Robert E. Stewart

An entertaining and humorous segment of Mark Twain’s enduring book, Roughing It, involved living in Carson City in the fall of 1861.
Earlier that year, Abraham Lincoln had assumed the office of President, and among his duties was naming the leadership for the newly created Nevada Territory. These officials would create the government for the region that included the newly-discovered Silver Mines of the Comstock Lode.
For Governor, Lincoln appointed Secretary of State William Seward’s friend, James Warren Nye, of New York. For Secretary of the Territory—who would also function as acting governor in Nye’s absence—Lincoln named Attorney General Edward Bates’ friend Orion Clemens, then a printer in Keokuk, Iowa. The story of Orion’s brother is well known: Samuel Langhorne Clemens arrived in Carson City with his brother in August, 1861, and in January 1862 adopted the pen name “Mark Twain.”
Shortly after the Clemens brothers’ August, 1861 arrival in Carson City, Sam was rooming at Mrs. Margret Murphy’s boarding house. Also among those sleeping in the 14-bed barracks-style upstairs was Gov. Nye’s older brother, “Captain” John Nye.
Gov. Nye had said, before leaving the East, that his would be an administration made up of “border men”—men with experience living on the frontier of civilization. A few of the border men Nye had asked to fill those positions were living at Mrs. Murphy’s, waiting for the Territorial Legislature to enact the laws creating the positions of Treasurer, Auditor, county commissioners, justices of the peace, etc.
These were hardy men, used to keeping busy; they were not men who sat around and waited. In early August Capt. Nye, until recently a gold miner in California, organized “John Nye and Co.” The partners laid out a timber claim on the shore of Lake Tahoe which encompassed Skunk and Secret harbors, and extended up about a quarter mile past today’s Thunderbird Lodge. The land had not been surveyed by the General Land Office, and was thus not yet eligible for per-emption under federal laws.
One member, William (“Will”) Wagner, was a road-building engineer with the Lander Overland Emigrant Wagon Road in 1860. In that role Wagner also constructed the Rabbit Hole Springs reservoirs.
The Nye partnership was formed before Orion and Sam Clemens arrived in town, but a few days after the stage dropped them off in Carson City, they were living at Mrs. Murphy’s with some of the Nye claim partners. At dinner there, the men doubtless talked of the timber claim and Wagner’s plan to construct a toll road up King’s Canyon to Glenbrook, and then south to the California line. That fall, Nelson Murdock and George Warren, were finishing-up construction Augustus Pray’s sawmill at Glenbrook, then known as Walton’s Landing.
Wagner died suddenly in October, 1861. (The road laid out by Wagner was then built in 1863 by Butler Ives.) The Nye timber claim was formally surveyed and recorded with the Ormsby county (Carson City) recorder shortly after the county was organized in 1863. They had completed construction of a log cabin near Secret Creek. The site is clearly seen today on the recorded plat map of the survey, permanently on file at the Carson City Clerk-Recorder’s office.
The Nye partners based their claim on an anticipated need for timber from the Tahoe Basin. That need did not develop until about 1870, and by then the members had moved on to other employment.
But in September 1861 the men were anticipating the cash returns possible from their claim. Two of the non-brigade guests at Mrs. Murphy’s boarding house were Sam Clemens and John Kinney. Both having arrived after the Nye partnership was formed, they soon decided to make their own claim. According to Clemens’ later account, writing as Mark Twain n the classic book Roughing It, he wrote that they hiked up to Tahoe, located the Nye partnership’s skiff–he called them “The Brigade”—and rowed to the Brigade’s camp at what we today call Secret Harbor. “Three miles away was a sawmill and some workmen, but there were not fifteen other human beings throughout the wide circumference of the lake.” It was not yet a working sawmill. The lead workman at the new Pray sawmill under construction at Glenbrook was Nelson E. Murdock, a millwright who would later help write Nevada’s State Constitution.
Sam and John set the corner of their own claim on the Lake’s shoreline three miles north of the Brigade’s camp. That was in September. In October and November, the first Nevada Territorial Legislature defined the borders of the new territory’s counties. The Nye Brigade’s claim, mostly in Ormsby County, did extend into Washoe County. That meant the entire Clemens-Kinney claim was in Washoe county, and they would need to have the Washoe County Surveyor record their claim. But by the end of 1861, before Washoe County was organized, John Kinney was in Aurora, and Sam Clemens was in Unionville. Chopping down trees had turned out to involve a lot of work, and mining had claimed their interest. So their timber claim was never surveyed, and the two would-be timber barons, like most of the Nye partnership’s members, moved on.

Robert E. (Bob) Stewart has been a resident of Carson City since 1971, having moved here as Press Secretary and Administrative Assistant to Gov. Mike O’Callaghan. He remained in Carson while employed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management in Reno. Now retired, he is recognized nationally as a scholar of Mark Twain’s years in Nevada.

Sam Clemens: A Reporters Earliest Items for the Territorial Enterprise.

According to the Territorial Enterprise, all mining Recorders are done away with. Says that journal of the 14th instant:
The Old Mining Records. — there is a call for miners’ meeting on Monday next, for the purpose of electing a Recorder. There will probably be no one found willing to take the office, as by an Act of the last Legislature, mining property was made real estate, and is required to be recorded in the office of the County Recorder. As these old mining district records are of great importance to all owning claims in the district, it is necessary that they should be carefully preserved in someplace where they may be conveniently examined, and we would recommend that they be placed in the keeping of the County Recorder, with the late mining records. As all mining claims must, according to the laws of the Territory, be recorded in the office of the County Recorder, the old office of District Recorder is virtually abolished, and should such an officer be elected, the only duty he would ever be called upon to perform, would be to safely preserve the old books of record.

The Mexican Independence Day.

The Mexicans celebrated the eve of “their Fourth of July” on the 15th. They beat the Yankees all hollow in their jubilees, with their music, suppers, torch-light parades, fandangos, illuminations, fire-works, cannonading. They celebrated all day and at night had a magnificent fandango twice more splendid that the last, “regardless of expense.” American celebrations are nowhere. Nothing but the seven days’ battle before Richmond can equal a Mexican Independence fete.

San Francisco Bulletin, September 20, 1862, p.1



A Gunpowder Mine

Sam Clemens after two weeks on the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise was showing his journalism, reporting and humorous styles on a story that appears to have been a hoax.

A GUNPOWDER MINE.– During the past few days a great number of Indians have visited the Whitman coal mine, situated north of the Palmyra district and occupying rather an isolated position in relation to the other settlements of the Territory. As the Indians visiting the mine scowled and jabbered in a terribly earnest manner, the workmen engaged upon the mine became greatly alarmed. Considering that they were on the frontier, with no white settlements between them and the Indian territory, the men stopping at the mine were seriously considering the preference to withdrawing to the settlements when a Pi-Ute who could speak English quite fluently, was brought to the mine by a crowd of wild red men. This Indian made the owners of the mine an offer a offer of $19,000 for the mine and soon made it plain to the whites that he supposed the black stuff the miners were digging Gunpowder, and only needed pulverizing to be fit for use. So positive were they that this was the case that they would not be convinced to the contrary until they had repaired en mass to the house and seen some of the coal placed in the stove. When they saw it did not explode, and had it explained to them, that it was to be used as wood instead of gunpowder, they left the vicinity to gather pine nuts on the hill, probably satisfied that the mine was no “durned” big thing after all — “nothing but wood.” –Territorial Enterprise. ( n.d.).

San Francisco Bulletin, October 4, 1862, p 3.



“…fired across her bow…”

The opening shots of the War between the States were fired in Charleston, South Carolina upon Fort Sumter  in April of 1861 or so the history books tell us. This event did provoke the war, but they were not the first shots fired.

Earlier in December of 1860, the state of South Carolina seceded from the union prompting other southern states to begin proceedings to do the same. The United States Secretary of War, John B. Floyd, formerly Governor of Virginia and a southern sympathizer, sent an order to the Allegheny Arsenal near Pittsburgh for a shipment of 124 cannons to be sent down the Ohio river to New Orleans for several U.S. forts being built on the gulf. The steamers SILVER WAVE and MARENGO were engaged to convey these cannon south. Upon hearing of these developments citizens of Pittsburgh formed committees to protest this action knowing these guns would be used to build up the arsenals of the southern states, sent telegrams to Washington. The commandant of the arsenal, John Symington, attempted to obey orders to ship the cannon. The guns and their military escorts, were halted on the streets by angry crowds on Christmas Eve and in one case delayed for several hours, though no violence occurred. Thirtyeight were on board the SILVER WAVE before the orders were countermanded.

“Fireeaters” in the south were enraged by the actions of the citizens of Pittsburgh. In early January of 1861 Louisiana seceded followed by Mississippi. Louisiana in order to build up its arsenal used state troops to capture the Baton Rouge arsenal with its U. S. troops without bloodshed. Governor John J. Pettus of Mississippi soon responded upon; “Being advised by the Governor of Louisiana that he had reason to believe that an expedition would be sent down the Mississippi river to reinforce the Garrisons of the Forts and Arsenals of that State, I sent Capt. Kerr with sixteen of the Jackson Artillery Company, and ordered Capt. H. H. Miller to call out the Volunteer Companies of Vicksburg, and take such position as would enable him to prevent any hostile expedition from the Northern States descending the river.” (Message of the Governor John J. Pettus to the Senate and House of Representatives of Mississippi, Jan. 15, 1861, Journal of the House of Representatives of the State of Mississippi, Jackson, 1861, p. 6.)

At Vicksburg four guns were placed at the “foot of the bluff, a quarter of a mile above the wharfboat.” It was reported that “blank cartridges were fired to bring to and cause to land the GLADIATOR, the IMPERIAL and the A. O. TAYLOR, and that it was understood that if the summons was not attended to, the next gun fired would be shotted” (Memphis Appeal, Jan. 17, 1861).

Other reports differ as to blanks being fired. The IMPERIAL “passed there during the night, and was forced to land at the behest of a twelvepound shot fired across her bows” (Memphis Avalanche, Jan. 17, 1861).

“The A. O. TAYLOR disobeyed the first injunction delivered by a sixpound shot, and a twentyfour pounder was loaded with chain shot, and aimed at the boat. Fortunately or unfortunately, as the case may be, the gun misfired, and the boat got beyond the range of the battery. The TAYLOR landed at Butler’s wharfboat, was boarded by a detachment of military, and made to go back to the encampment, where she was thoroughly overhauled and then permitted to go on her way” (Missouri Republican, Jan. 25, 1861).

New Orleans papers reported that the “Mississippians are in ‘dead earnest’ making all ‘foreign’ boats stop and give an account of themselves. . . . All Cincinnati boats will be stopped by the soldiers of the new Republic.” At Cincinnati and other northern river ports it was believed that the “object of planting cannon at Vicksburg was to capture the cannon expected down on the steamers MARENGO and SILVER WAVE, or any ammunition that might be forwarded South by the Government” and that it was a deliberate attempt to harass northern vessels. (Cincinnati Enquirer, Jan. 23, 1861, Missouri Republican, Jan. 25, 1861).

Sam Clemens was also witness to these events. His fellow pilot Will Bowen wrote Clemens on Dec. 10, 1889 recalling, “with your own eyes you saw it all. Do you recall the first Gun of the war directed at you from the Vicksburg Fort, expecting to capture the Boat that had Floyd’s Pittsburg armament, going to Baton Rouge. You were on watch on the ‘Alonzo Child.’”



Printed items called memoranda were occasionally published in the newspaper river columns of the major port cities along the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, customarily a brief record or log from which rivermen “might learn something of the whereabouts and late deeds” of the steamboats on the rivers. These memoranda were compiled from simple entries of some notable occurrence while on watch and usually entered into a log book. By there very nature they were composed of information that came primarily from the pilothouse and hurricane deck where the captain, mates and pilots stood their watches when underway. Periodically passenger and freight information might also be included, leading to the presumption that a steamboat clerk could have a hand in the drafting of an individual memoranda. Upon the completion of a trip these entries were sometimes collected with little or no editing for the newspapers and members of the river fraternity. As chronicles of the life and times on the western rivers surviving steamboat log books available for study are in fact very rare thereby making these memoranda valuable materials for study. Among the steamboat memoranda published in the Missouri Democrat, are several that are of a unique character and fall within the known activities of Sam Clemens.

Clemens was a steersman on the PENNSYLVANIA from late September of 1857 until her collision with the VICKSBURG on the twenty sixth of November of that year. A week later he was clerking and steering on the WILLIAM M. MORRISON under the watchful eye of the old pilot Isaiah Sellers. Sellers was one of the pilots on the J. M. WHITE in 1844 when she set the speed record for a trip from New Orleans to St. Louis in 3 days, 23 hours and 9 minutes. In February of 1858 the MORRISON was laid up and Clemens returned to his duties on the repaired PENNSYLVANIA.

In March the MORRISON was back in service and the “high water” of April “gave her a chance of spreading herself, and she proved herself very fast.” Her memoranda from the Missouri Democrat tells of her trip:

Steamer Wm. M. Morrison left New Orleans Sunday, April 4th, at 11 o’clock A. M., with the United States mail and a fair cargo of freight — having a fast rising river to Napoleon. Above Natchez the water was over the banks. From Lake Providence to Napoleon it was over the levee, and for twenty miles above Greenville the levees were washed away. Discharged freight at Lake Providence, Greenville, Napoleon, Helena, Memphis, New Madrid, Island No. 10, Hickman, Cairo and Chester.

New Orleans to 81 mile Point 7 hrs 51 min., to Baton Rouge 12 hrs 15 min., to Bayou Sara 15 hrs 45 min., to Morgan’s Bend 1 day, to Islands Nos. 98 and 99 2 days, to Islands Nos. 62 and 63 3 days, to Island No. 21 4 days, to Devil’s Island 5 days. Whole time from port to port 5 days 14 hrs. Deducted. Running time 5 days 1 hr.

In May the PENNSYLVANIA had a fast trip too. The following memoranda is from the St. Louis Evening News of May 27, 1858.

Memoranda–Steamer PENNSYLVANIA left New Orleans on Thursday, May 20th, at 7 P. M. In Port for St. Louis, steamers R. J. LACKLAND and RR. packets A T LACEY and FALLS CITY. 21st — Met RR. packet HIAWATHA at Baton Rouge. 22d — Met CITY OF MEMPHIS at Lake Providence, T L MCGILL head of 93. 23d — Met NEW UNCLE SAM at 71. 24th — Met GOLDEN AGE, CORA ANDERSON at 37, IMPERIAL at Ashport. 25th –Met EDITOR at Island No. 4, WM. M. MORRISON in Dogtooth Bend; passed J J ROE at Lane’s Landing. 26th — Met L M KENNETT at Cape Girardeau. Time six days from port to port. Lost 32 hours by storms and fogs.

The following day, May 28, 1858, the Missouri Democrat also published a memoranda from the PENNSYLVANIA, but this one was a little unconventional, a slight bend from the norm, and quite possibly written by cub pilot Samuel Clemens.

MEMORANDA — The PENNSYLVANIA left New Orleans on Thursday, May 20th, at 7 P. M. In port for St. Louis, R. J. LACKLAND, A. T. LACEY and FALLS CITY. 21st, met HIAWATHA at Baton Rouge, CITY OF MEMPHIS at Lake Providence; T. L. MCGILL at head of 93; NEW UNCLE SAM at 71: CORA ANDERSON at 37; IMPERIAL at Ashport. 25th, EDITOR at island 4; WM. M. MORRISON in Dogtooth bend. Time from port to port 3 days and 72 hours. Only once before has a trip been made in 3 days and some hours.

The reference to “only once before” has such a trip been made is a poke in jest directed at Isaiah Sellers as he was one of the pilots of the fleet J. M. WHITE in 1844. The “Only once before” item was published in the Democrat, the same paper the memoranda from Isiah Seller’s log had been published a few weeks earlier. It is likely Sam Clemens was the author of the memoranda. Clemens would later recall how the “Oldest Pilot” was “full of strange lies & worldly brag” and probably bored the steersman with his boasting of the exploit.

In his personal notebooks for 1881-82 Clemens penned a similar river joke: “Trip up Missouri river 3300 miles made fastest time on record viz. 3 days 9 hours and 4 months” (Mark Twain’s Notebooks & Journals, vol. 2, p. 574).


October 22, 1862 Territorial  Enterprise  

As the local reporter on the Enterprise Sam Clemens, wrote up this frighting incident with his usual humor.


1862-10-28  p1  SF Bull

October 28, 1862, San Francisco Bulletin


On the  river a large snag was sometimes refuted to as  an ugly customer as its prone to board a steamboat by punching up through it’s bottom.



       As a steersman on the Pennsylvania, Clemens was an eyewitness to the race and collision between his vessel and the steamer Vicksburg in November 1857 north of New Orleans.  In the ensuing court case he gave his deposition by answering questions  proposed to him. 


Taken 19 March 1858
I was on the “Pennsylvania” as Steersman at the time of the collision in November last. I was not at the wheel at the time–At the moment of the collision I was standing on the Sky light deck, aft of the Pilot house. When I first came and I stood on the extreme stern on the hurricane deck–The “Vicksburg seemed to be about 250 yards behind us and about 200 to our larboard–I noticed the “Pennsylvania” when she started to cross, She headed on the left hand point. She straightened up in the middle of the river. She might have pulled a little to the starboard after she straightened up–of this, I am not certain. But at the time of the collision, I think she was steady,–holding her course whatever it was. We straightened up. The “Vicksburg” was coming up on us very fast then. When her head was about abreast the Pennsylvania’s” stern there was a space of about thirty yards between the boats. Then I went and stood a moment on the larboard side, aft the wheel house–and then went upon the Sky light deck, midway between Pilot house and the stern–This deck is about two feet higher than the hurricane deck–It seemed to me then, that the “Vicksburg” was probably heading for a point a little forward of the center of our wheel–Her stem was then abreast a point midway between our stern and our wheelhouse–The “Vicksburg” then seemed to me, to wheel suddenly to the starboard, and struck us as near as I could judge a little forward of the center of our wheelhouse. It was a little to the starboard of the “Vicksburg’s” Stem that struck us–I could not see her bow from the place where I stood–I could only judge by the position of the Jack Staff. I do not think I noticed the shores at the time of the collision. I think at the moment it occurred the “Pennsylvania” was nearly straight with the right hand shore, heading up the river, and about in the middle of the river. I heard a bell on the “Vicksburg” just before the collision–I think it was the engine bell–I heard it about ten seconds before the collision, and the “Vicksburg” wheeled instantly after I heard it, and came immediately into us. I think that at the instant the “Vicksburg struck us that one of the engines was still going–and my reason for thinking so is, that she did not recede from us after she struck, but kept pressing on–the crash of timbers continued–the deck swayed under me, and I thought I heard the nose of her engines. It was over a minute after the “Vicksburg struck us, before she began to back away from us. After the boats came together, I heard the Captain of the “Vicksburg” call to Captain Klinefelter, and I understood him to say that he (Capt White) “Knew that the “Vicksburg” would run from the bar”–I am learning the river–have been learning it, now, about ten months. At that time I had been on the “Pennsylvania” about three trips. The “Pennsylvania” steers very easily, I was in the Pilot house that night before supper, and I noticed that she steered well–that is her general character for steering. The “Pennsylvania” is a first class boat every way–she is large, and well finished for a passenger boat. The officers and crew which the “Pennsylvania” had at the time of the collision were all of them capable sober and patient. When I was on the extreme stern of the “Pennsylvania” as above stated, Capt Klinefelter was there–I do not know where he was after that. After the collision the “Vicksburg” towed the “Pennsylvania” to the right hand shore–The “Vicksburg then backed off. I am not exactly certain whether I was in a position to see her when she left us. I do not think she landed after she left us–I think she just backed out, and went up the river. I am certain she did.

——Cross Examined——
I am still on the “Pennsylvania” in the same capacity, as steersman. I began to run on the river in May 1857. Mr. W. G. Brown is still employed on the “Pennsylvania” and has been ever since the collision.
I did not notice when the “Vicksburg” crossed to the left hand shore–I was only paying attention to the movements of the “Pennsylvania”. The “Pennsylvania” started across from the right hand shore at the foot of a false bend above McCutcheons Point. She was then about thirty yards from the right hand shore–the “Vicksburg” was then about two hundred yards to the left and still astern of the “Pennsylvania”.–At the time the “Pennsylvania” headed across the river, the “Vicksburg” was heading up the river. The river is about eight hundred yards wide, at the place of the collision–a small bar makes out there from the left hand shore.–I am not well acquainted with that bar and cannot speak particularly about it. Opposite the place of the collision on the right hand side the shore is bluff, and the water is deep, and also at the place where the “Pennsylvania” landed after the collision–I do not think there is any bend on the left hand shore, where the collision took place. There is a bend below, and just under the “Thirty mile point,” on the left hand shore. The collision occurred about a mile below the main point. I cannot remember the exact words used by Captain White to Captain Klinefelter, but I think they were “I knew the “Vicksburg” would run from the bar.”
The engines of the “Pennsylvania” were not stopped at all, up to the time of the collision–While I was on the hurricane deck, I do not think that any signals, by bell or by whistle, was given by the “Pennsylvania”.–The “Pennsylvania” had no lights on her wheel houses at the time or just before the collision–I do not know whether she had any signal lights up. At the time we straightened up after leaving the right hand shore, we were not more that fifty yards from the “Vicksburg”. When we started from the right hand shore to go to thirty mile point, it was about a mile distant–I mean to the exact point to which we were heading, on the left hand shore. The collision took place, I suppose, four hundred yards from the left hand shore–I do not think we were nearer the left, than the right hand shore,–but it is my impression we were somewhat nearer the right hand shore. The night was a pretty bright moon light night–Do not know which is the faster of the two boats–do not know which was the faster that night–The “Pennsylvania” was, I supposed, running as fast that night as she could as she was trimmed–but I am not an engineer, and do not know much about it.

——Re-Examination in Chief——
The signal lights on the “Pennsylvania” are usually hung up on the chimney–that is the usual place for boats to carry them. The cabin of the “Pennsylvania” was well lighted at the time of the collision–The furnaces of the “Vicksburg” were visible and well lighted–I do not know about her cabin. When the cabin of the “Pennsylvania” is lighted she shows a great deal of light through her Sky lights. I had no difficulty in seeing the “Vicksburg” & determining her location.

. J. W. Gurley   Samuel L. Clemens
U.S. Comms.


John Klinefelter et. al. vs. Steamer Vicksburg, J. M. White, Master, National Archives–Southwest Branch, Forth Worth, TX, Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21,(NA), United States District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana, New Orleans Division, Case file #7316 (7316) and United States Circuit Court, Appeal from District Court, Case file #3160 (3160). Samuel Clemens deposition is regrettably missing from case file #7316 (7316 NA) but its copy is preserved in the case, file #3160 (3160).