Month: August 2015



 Isaiah Sellers  and the Development and Use of the Term Mark Twain on the Western Rivers.

 Michael H. Marleau

“it was the custom of the pilot”

The existence of the use of Mark Twain on the Western Rivers originated in the decades before the birth of Samuel L. Clemens in 1835. This Mark Twain emerged from Isaiah Sellers from the upper reaches of the Cumberland River. Within three years he went from a boatman on a keelboat, to a pilot and then a captain of steamboats. A century after Clemens birth a newspaper article suggested there were two Mark Twain’s. The first Mark Twain was Captain Isaiah Sellers. Sam Clemens, the second Twain, who was the “Mark of the books“, and knew Sellers when he was the oldest captain and pilot on the rivers. Sellers was the “Mark of the river” and a “man of ingenuity.”  “He originated the system of bell-tapping as the pilot’s signal to take soundings. It replaced an older method of shouting from the wheelhouse to “Mark Twain.”1

This is a extraordinary statement concerning the “older method of shouting” and the use of Mark Twain. The writer of that article, used as his source Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi. Chapter L (50) of this work contains information about the life of Captain Isaiah Sellers (1803-1864). The mentioning of “bell-tapping” by Twain is actually a quoits from a 1864, St. Louis newspaper.

“In February 1825, Sellers shipped on board of the steamer Rambler at Florence, Ala., and made during that year three trips to New Orleans and back, . . . This on the Gen. Carroll, between Nashville and New Orleans. It was during his stay on this boat that Captain Sellers introduced the tap of the bell as a signal to hear the lead, previous to witch time it was the custom of the pilot to speak to the men below when soundings were wanted. The proximity of the forecastle of the pilot-house, no doubt, rendered this an easy matter, but different on one of our palaces of the present day.”2


“COOLING OUR BOTTOM ON THE SAND BARS” A Chronicle of a Low Water Trip.


“Double Tripping” cargo during low water.

Michael H. Marleau

“it’s all owing to my own enterprise”
In November 1860, Sam Clemens pilot of the steamer Alonzo Child was running up river “in the fog,” trying to make some time “in order to beat another boat.” It was about seventy miles from New Orleans, on the “coast” with its burning sugar cane bagasse piles creating the smoky fog of late fall, when Clemens “grounded the ‘Child’ on the bank” at the Houmas Plantation. The steamer General Quitman came up and tried to pull her off the bank but was unsuccessful. Here the Alonzo Child remained until the river rose enough to float her free after losing “28 hours on the coast.” Exposed as she was on the bank “so warped and twisted” her timbers that her hull now leaked. This incident of his “own enterprise” so humiliated Clemens, he decided to keep a record of that portion of the river on paper to supplement his memory (1).

On his watch in the pilothouse after the Alonzo Child floated free Sam Clemens began writing in a notebook. In this book he made detailed sets of notations of up stream piloting and navigating instructions for a section of the Mississippi River from above New Orleans to the vicinity of Cairo. The first of these notes is designated “1st high water trip of the ‘Child’” for a portion of the trip made after he grounded the Alonzo Child, between the 12th and 17th of November 1860. Upon arriving at St. Louis on November 18, Clemens “jumped aboard the ‘McDowell’ and went down to look at the river” as it was “falling slowly” down to Cairo. The steamer Sovereign was scheduled to take the place of the Alonzo Child in the Railroad Line’s operations (2). The steamer Augustus McDowell, under Captain William Wilcox, with Clemens aboard was seen above the St. Mary’s River a day out of St. Louis. A few hours later the McDowell ran upon a sand bar were she “stayed aground 24 hours.” On November 20, having grown tired of being stuck on the bar Clemens decided to return, probably hailing an upbound steamer, arriving in St. Louis the next day. A seemingly mended Alonzo Child “looking gay as a lark, was at the Railroad Line wharfboat, foot of Market Street” where she was scheduled to leave the next evening. All the next day snow “fell in large flakes and without ceasing” making the streets and the steamboat landing “miserably sloppy.” As a consequence of the inclement weather the departure of the Alonzo Child was delayed until the following morning. In a letter written to his brother upon his return to St. Louis from the McDowell, Clemens penned a curious line since the Alonzo Child was now inspected, certified and preparing to depart the next day. Clemens wrote that he regretted returning, would have rather hailed a downstream boat while the McDowell was grounded and continued down to inspect the river since he “would have had plenty of time” (3).

In referring to having “plenty of time,” Sam Clemens was possibly suggesting that he might not be going south with the Child. In this letter to his brother, Clemens mentioned the possibility of his going up state to Memphis, Missouri, where his brother resided, he talked of money matters, of using his wages to speculate in produce and eggs and was now “strapped.” Perhaps because of the grounding which occurred in the jurisdiction of the local inspectors of the fourth supervising district covering the southern Mississippi river, Captain O’Neal might have feared that Clemens’s license could be revoked when they reached New Orleans on account of his carelessness. Consequently, Clemens might have been advised to stay on the upper river in the fifth supervising district, forestalling an investigation of the grounding and its circumstances by the inspectors. He could then avoid having to report and give testimony before the inspectors in New Orleans and continue piloting on the upper river. If so, Captain O’Neal, himself a pilot, could have taken over for Sam or hired another pilot to take Clemens’s place on the Child until the matter was resolved. Pilots had reason to be apprehensive of the local inspectors who could by law impose a fine or suspend their license for carelessness or unskillful management of a vessel (4).

The next sets of notes in Clemens’s notebooks were recorded as “2d highwater trip” made between the 29th of January and the 5th of February 1861. Between these two trips the Child had compiled a trip south under similar river conditions from St. Louis to New Orleans, with the up trip to Cairo between the 4th to the 11th of December 1860, in which there are no notes recorded. Due to the deteriorating river conditions between Cairo and St. Louis, the Alonzo Child was laid up with a number of other vessels at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers until January 1861. When the Alonzo Child resumed her round trips between St. Louis and New Orleans, so did Clemens’s up river notations, beginning with the “2d highwater trip.” They then continued without interruption for the next four trips into the month of April 1861. Accordingly, the only interruption since Clemens began his notes is between the recorded notes of his first and second highwater trips. The interval of this gap in the notebook introduces the possibility that Clemens served aboard a different steamboat during this time frame. This possibility is supported by evidence of someone who signed himself “SAM” in a newspaper letter which detailed an interesting trip to Cairo. Or, in the vernacular of the river, having a “glorious time of getting out of the river” (5).


Sam Clemens Reports On The Second Session Of TheNevada Territorial Legislature.

Territorial Enterprise, November 1862

The second session of the Nevada Legislature is in full blast. It met on the 11th of November at Carson City, in the County Buildings, formerly the Great Basin Hotel — the rooms for the accommodation of the two Houses having been fitted up in princely style. There were, as represented, a large number of office-seekers, log-rollers and lobbyists, ready to serve themselves and their country in attendance.
The number of councilmen having been increased to thirteen, at the last session, a question arose as to the right of the President of the last session to assume the chair, which was arranged by its vacation by Mr. Van Bokkelen, the former President, and the Council then proceeded to effect an organization, which took some considerable time to accomplish. There were three aspirants for the office — Van Bokkelen, Judge Hall, of Carson and Dr. Pugh, of Esmeralda, who were put in nomination by their respective friends, and, on the fifty-fifth ballot, the latter was declared elected, having received seven votes out of twelve, one council-man having been absent.
G. W. Hopkins, of Carson, was elected Secretary, on the second ballot, and George Palmer was elected assistant Secretary, by acclamation. For Sergeant-at-arms, four men were put in nomination, and fifteen unsuccessful ballots were taken, when Col. Madeira was nominated and elected, on the seventeenth ballot. He is said to be a cousin of Gov. Sam Medary, of Ohio, who, as alleged, does not know how to spell his name correctly. D. R. Hawkins was elected messenger, on the fourth ballot, and H. Lewis, page, by acclamation.

The House of Representatives organized with but little delay. John H. Mills, of Storey county, was elected Speaker, unanimously; W. M. Gillespie, Chief Clerk; Charles King, Assistant Clerk; John Bowman, Sergeant-at-arms; Charles Carter, Messenger; Chas. Craduck, Page; James H. Boyd, Fireman; and Rev. Mr. White, Chaplain. For most of the offices there were several aspirants.
The House passed a resolution, instructing the Sergeant-at-arms to furnish each member with three daily newspapers, such as they might make choice of respectively.


Making of a Journalist

Henry H. Ashton, a Virginia City capitalist, has in his library richly bound in crushed Levant, those early volumes of the Virginia City Enterprise, to which Mark Twain contributed.

The faded pages contain innumerable specimens of the famous writer’s quaint humor. Mr. Ashton often points out the first paragraph that Mark Twain wrote on his arrival in Virginia City. The paragraph runs:

“A thunderstorm made Beranger a poet, a mother’s kiss made Benjamin West a painter and a salary of $15 a week makes us a journalist.”
Dallas Morning News, November 17, 1907, p. 4.



Samuel L. Clemens:  On The Mississippi River To Roughing It In The West.


“Truth is Stranger than Fiction,” Mark Twain wrote in Following the Equator, “but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to Possibilities; Truth isn’t.” (That remained true about novels until Jules Verne took pen in hand.) In Twain’s recently published autobiographical musings, he makes no effort to put the truth in a chronological order. The same is true of his semi-autobiographical works, including Roughing It, and later Old Times on the Mississippi and Life on the Mississippi. Nor, in these, does he always tell the whole truth, and occasionally he has created his own tall tales.


Research into 1800s newspaper articles and documents reveals that Twain writes of events in his life, but not necessarily in the order they occurred, or even during the event being described. The historical researcher finds Twain’s writing to be based, by and large, on actual events in his life, but that many facts are left out, and others are moved in time to fit the narrative.


The purpose of this site is to explore factual information about Mark Twain’s life as found in newspapers of the time, federal and state archives, county records, private collections and other sources. The two managers of this website each have over forty years in research, speaking, and publishing relative to the West, Sam Clemens on the Mississippi River, and Sam as a sojourner in Nevada Territory and California.


    Michael H. Marleau                                        Robert E. Stewart

     Stockton, California                                       Carson City, Nevada

Sam Clemens in Virginia City, Nevada Territory September 1862.


Sam Clemens, reporter for the Enterprise and as the Local Editor he was ti report on rhe silver mines.  .

THE UPS AND DOWNS OF A MINE.— On the Ashland claim,situated immediately west of town, a shaft has been sunk to the depth of 150 feet; from the bottom of the shaft a drift has been cut westward about 150 feet; in the end of this drift a second shaft has been sink a depth of 60 feet, and from the bottom a drift has been run westward 40 feet, is now being driven in still further. It is enough to make one’s head swim to think of all these “ups and downs and crooks and turns.” The whole of the dirt excavated is brought to the surface through the main shaft. It is winched from the back part of the lower drift to the second shaft, up which it is hauled by means of a windless up to the end of the first drift where the tub containing the dirt is wheeled to the main shift, when it is hooked to a second windless and hoisted to the surface. They are now drifting in a mixture of quartz and granite, which has the appearance of being the casing to the lead.

Territorial Enterprise
18 or 19 of September 1862
From the San Francisco Bulletin, September 23, 1862,