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

An interesting account but no mention of the use of Mark Twain as a signal to begin sounding. The newspaper item paraphrased events noted in the journal; of Sellers, examined after his death earlier that year. The funeral of Isaiah Sellers was at the St. Louis home of his nephew Isaiah William Hood also a pilot, it was he who inherited Sellers journal and logbook. Bill Hood and Sam Clemens were fellow pilots on the steamboat Arago, in the summer of 1860. 3
So was our 1935 writer trying to make a good story or is there some truth in his statement? Researching and studying the historical evidence in this case we can come to a conclusion to the truth of the matter.
“The pilot would sing out:”
It was a decade of change, from 1811 when the first steamboat descended the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, until 1821 when nearly a hundred such vessels had been operating on the Western Rivers. During this time these vessels under went design changed and mechanical improvements making them larger, faster, and more difficult to operate. Steamboat officers and crews were also making changes in their duties, rules, and customs in operating these vessels. With their own vocabulary and tales of wit and wisdom, these boatmen laboring on the western rivers were essentially a spoken affair that was seldom put to paper. Penned accounts by boatmen are scarce and written in the vernacular of the rivers. Entries in logbooks and journals were regularly kept by captains, as operating a steamboat was a business and records needed kept. When these endeavors were resurrected, it was usually by writers and editors, unfamiliar with the languages when set to the printed page. In the newspapers of river ports of these early years, portions of steamboat log-books and memoranda  were published. Many of these accounts, when one vessel met another, it was usually aground on a sand bar or “hopelessly moored upon different shoals.”4
The following account shows just how hazardous piloting was at this time. In July of 1825 the steamboat Pioneer on the Ohio;

“the boat touched, but, on sounding out, found a channel of water . . . In the intermediate spaces there was found, generally two fathoms water—very rarely exceeding, and very often less. There were many other smaller bars; but as no difficulty was experienced in passing them, their situations and names were not retained; but by reference to the navigator, they can pretty accurately ascertained; although the channel and depth of water on these boats change often, yet the position (judging from the information derived from the boatmen on board,) continues to be the same, for several years past.5

Apparently many of these early pilots still had much to learn and perhaps needed to have the lead heaved more often.
On the steamboat General Clark, a passenger traveling down river to New Orleans wrote up his observations that were later published. In his journey down river, our writer begins telling of the leadheaver which is perhaps the earliest account of sounding on the rivers.“As, ever and anon, our General Clark approached any dubious or shallow part of the river, the pilot would sing out: Stop her! Back her! Go ahead! And the leadheaver, as he sounded the fathoms of water: Quarter less twain! Mark above water three! The changing tones of the leadheaver were quite musical; but I wished he would not sing out the least important words the loudest.“6

From this evidence it would appear that all commands by the pilot were sung out, perhaps using a speaking-trumpet. It is evident that the use of small bells in the engine room were as yet not in use. The rules were still slowly developing among the steamboatmen. It appears that to sing out for the lead was not yet a custom or was left unreported.

“I thought I would try it again.”

In December 1823, Isaiah Sellers was in Nashville, waiting along with the steamboats and keelboats for the water to begin its rise on the Cumberland River. This tall and strong young man with some flatboat experience, shipped on board the keelboat of Capt. Erld [Herld], the Archer. It was the captain’s intent to salvage the wreaked steamboat, the General Green. Returning to Nashville from New Orleans, in February, the vessel struck a sawyer and sank about five miles above Harpers Schools, in the Cumberland River. Part of her cargo had been taken out before the accident; the remainder when recovered was found to be damaged.7
Sellers “did not think much of this kind of life, but it was the only thing I could do, I thought I would try it again.” As a member of the crew on a keelboat warping and poling against the current. Sellers was learning the landmarks and course of the Cumberland River. In July 1824, Sellers made his first trip on a steamboat, the President, under Captain Joseph Miller, to Louisville. Sellers perhaps helped guide the vessel on the Cumberland, soon realized that if he was to stay in the river trade it must be on a steamboat.
As a trusted and able member of the keelboat crew, Sellers took charge of a keelboat, called the Shut-up, in January of 1825. As he described the vessel she was housed in all around the bow, the first one of its kind, and belonged to the owners of the steamboat Rambler. The Rambler was then running from Florence, Alabama, near the headwaters of the Cumberland River, all the way to New Orleans.
Winter and its low water was not the season for steamboat travel on the Cumberland. With the water too low for the Rambler to journey to Florence. Recalling the year before when the steamboat General Green struck an obstruction in the low water. With one of the owners of the enterprise on board, Sellers managed the keelboat Shut-up, the length of the Cumberland to the Ohio. Where the Shut-up met the Rambler, the keelboat was taken in tow as far as they could travel in the up the Cumberland.
The steamboats cargo was loaded on the Shut-up, under the command of Sellers began working up against the current to Florence, Alabama. By March of 1825 Sellers, had brought the Shut-up back to the Ohio with a keelboat load of fright The Shut-up an another loaded keelboat both under the command Sellers, were taken in tow by the Rambler for New Orleans.
For steamboats at this time, the Rambler was a small vessel of just over a hundred tons burden, so towing two loaded keelboats would double its freight capacity. According to Sellers the Rambler “made during that year three trips to New Orleans and back,” When he first reached New Orleans, Gen. Lafayette on his national tour “was in that city” and “they burnt up all the candies in town to illuminate Jackson Square.” These trips with the Rambler, solidified Sellers knowledge of the Cumberland and began his learning of the lower Mississippi River.8


“he would sing out by in that lead”

At Cincinnati on the Ohio that winter of 1826 over half a dozen steamboats were built, and when river conditions were good, launched from the boat yards on nearby Deer Creek. One of the last of these vessels to be completed was the General Carroll, built for the Nashville and New Orleans trade. Another Cincinnati boat built at the same time was the Tecumseh. of similar size and tonnage as the General Carroll A contemporary illustration of the Tecumseh provides a good likeness of what the General Carroll probably appeared. A comparable vessel to the General Carroll, when traveling on the river; was described as a “boat, with a single engine, and were sometimes called the ‘Screamer”, “Screecher” or the “Burster”. Men who lived along the river have told me that they have heard them coughing (puffing) steam from their escape pipe ten miles on a clam night.” When the General Carroll arrived at Smithland, Isaiah Sellers, would have heard her coming down the Ohio river. In his logbook sellers recalled that on the General Carroll;

“James Gordan Master and George Cares & Isac Adams wars Pilots I was Pilot up the Cumberland River and Starsman in the lower River “9

As we have learned the ideal stage of water for steamboat travel on the Cumberland River, was in flood. In early March, the river was in flood, and at Nashville, it had risen “to such a height” that many inhabitants “were removed from the upper stories of their homes in boats.” The General Carroll piloted by Sellers arrived at Nashville on a falling river, Thursday the sixteenth. A few hours before the steamboats arrival; “Mr. Sisco, one of the engineers, while employed about the machinery, got his head caught between one of the levers of the engine and a post a few inches distant.” With his skull broken the unformed man died three days later.10
The flooding Cumberland, in “less than a week after it began, started to decline” and would be “too low for navigation by the largest steam boats.” On Saturday the eighteenth, the General Carroll departed the Nashville landing, “although not fully loaded, was unable to pass the Harper shoals, and the Courier, a small boat, was sent down to unload her” and lighten off the vessel. Within a few days it strayed to rain again and the river soon began to rise. At some point on this trip on the Cumberland Isaiah Sellers as the pilot suggested that the tapping of the large bell to signal the leadsman. He knew that the bell resonated sound better than even a loud human voice from the upper deck to the noisy boilers the engine below and the loud exhaust steam from the escape pipe on the General Carroll.11

“the rule for tapen the Bell for the Deck hands to heave the lead wars enterduced by me in the Spring of 1826 . . . before that the Pilots would Sing out from the Pilot House heav that Stabord lead and when he was dun with it he wold Sing out by in that lead and Soon though the trip. …I. Sellers.12.

Isaiah Sellers was neither educated or articulate enough to convey his thoughts to correct writing. Among the snags of grammar and spelling, the facts as presented do tell a tale of the lead.
The custom before that was when a steamboat first departed on a trip upon the rivers and when the depth of the river was required the Pilots would Sing out from the Pilot House heave that Starboard lead. So when he was done with it that is by the depth mark of that first lead, the next occasion to heave the lead he would sing out by in that lead and so on through the trip. If that install depth of the lead was two fathoms, then “By the Mark Twain” would be the call.
With nearly a year on the General Carroll Isaiah Sellers as a steersman was learning the lower Mississippi. The next year 1827 he continued on the President from Smithland to New Orleans. These vessels had cargos of a large number of bails of cotton, barrels of tobacco and whisky, In March of 1828 “he got his first berth on a steamboat, steering in the first watch, his pay being $90 a month,” on the Jubilee from St. Louis to New Orleans, thus learning the Upper Mississippi. Near the end 1828 he was made Captain of the Jubilee. On his first trip on the early morning of November 8th the Jubilee, navigating at night and bound up struck a snag just below Island 18. Captain Sellers ordered the vessel run into the shore, thus saving the Jubilee from sinking. Steamboats traveling at night was a new a dangerous endeavor. As a captain and a pilot Sellers, was a pioneer in river navigation.13
“mark above water twain”
From the earliest days of steamboating on the western rivers to the 1850’s, written descriptions of the throwing of the lead, two fathoms was called by the leadsman as “mark above the water twain”.

The following are examples from 1825, 1833,and1854:

As noted above on the General Clark the pilot would sing out: . . . and the leadheaver sounded the fathoms of water: ‘Quarter less twain!—Mark above water three!’

Its evident that “mark above water twain” is one fathom less than “Mark above water three’ was in use before Sellers yes a pilot.
“, . . the occasional soundings which we made in crossing a sand bar. ‘A quarter less twain,’ ‘no bottom,’ ‘mark above water twain.’ or the like, were the chief sounds that saluted our ears . . .”

“The process of searching for the channel was full of amusing interest to us, watching it for the first time. When the water is high, the course of a steamer of our class up the river is direct and regular, without soundings or dodging of deflections of any kinds. But when it is at a low stage, there are a great many sandy and muddy obstacles to yield to, surmount, or to get round, and to do either or all of these successfully requires a truly skillful pilot. This trip of ours, for example, was probably some two hundred miles longer that it would have been had the river been full.
Our boat was heavily freighted with merchandise of various kinds, deliverable at the several points on the Mississippi, and her draught was about eight feet. Of course, when we approached a part of the river in which there were only some six or seven feet of water, navigation began to be a delicate matter. The captain seemed to know all these shallows of old, and his discretion was frequently taxed to decide how to deal with them. Sometimes he would make a bold push, with intent to plough through them; often coming off valorously in the attempt, and at times finding his endeavors foiled. When successful, a series of bumps and jolts, like those one experiences in driving over a corduroy road, would jar the vessel in a somewhat startling manner: the alarms of the timorous subsiding, however, immediately, as they found themselves once more in deep water, and going on their voyage smoothly.
At times these daring attempts to force a passage were baffled, and then came the necessity of an endeavor to get round what could not be got over or through. The wheels were backed, and another line of progression was tried, and if that did not serve, another, and another, until the right one was found. All this time the old sailors were kept at the bows of the boat taking soundings, reporting the state of the water to the pilot aloft, in a most melodious manner. That weather-beaten veteran on the port side has a voice and a method that would have made him prime among bassos, had his education been conducted in that direction. He canted out his “Mark above water, twain;” in a style that would have delighted the soul of old Dibdin, who would surely have dedicated a new sea song to him at the first heaving. One of these rough vocalists seemed to have taken his lessons in the art as Demosthenes is said to have practiced oratory, amidst the roaring of the ocean waves. There were the disjecta membra of thirty years’ nor’westers in his vocal compass.14

It would appear around the time Sam Clemens was a steersman in 1857-58 the custom of the leadsman call had been reduced to Mark Twain. While Clemens was on the river the river city papers regally employed ‘mark twain’ in their river columns and in steamboat memoranda. These instances read as such, mark twain in the channel to Cairo, found mark twain at Prophet Island or the mud at the levee is mark twain.
“by the mark twain!”

In Mark Twains 1874 novel The Gilded Age, chapter IV contains an illustration with the caption, “by the mark twain.” What is pictured is the starboard bow of a steamboat with the figure of a leadsman. It represents what Twain elided to in his text describing the command to throw the lead to mark the depth of the river. A leadsman, who upon hearing the Pilots tapping the big bell three times, two leadsmen sprang to their posts. Heaving the lead and calling out the depth the leadsman sing out,
“No Bottom!”
“De-e-p four.”
“Half three!”
“Half twain”
“Quarter twain! —”
When this depth was reached the pilot ordered the engines slowed. The pilot pulled a couple of ropes — there was a jingling of small bells far below in the engine room. As the engines slowed, the now pent up steam in the boiler was screaming as it escaped out the safety valve. At this point Twain writes “By the mark twain!”, and again the call of the lead continues,
“Quart ter her less – twain!”
“Eight and a half!”
“Eight feet”
“Seven and a half! —”15
To conclude in the illustration of the leadsman is shown not in the act of shouting the depth of the lead, but in that moment of hearing the signal to heave the lead. Thus the three taps of the bell are to signal “By The Mark Twain!”, the command to throw the lead from the Mark Twain. Apparently it was an early boatman slang for the pilot. Being the pilot that introduced the rule Isaiah Sellers would have been the original Mark Twain.


1 Bogne, Jesse, Mark Twain No-2 Dims Namesake In St.. Louis Grave. The Oshkosh Northern, August 19, 1935, Jesse Bogne was a United Press Staff Correspondent.

2. Twain, Mark, Life On The Mississippi, James B. Osgood and Company, Boston, 1883. pp 493-494. from the Missouri Republican (St. Louis, n.d.) Complete quote of the article in Gould, E. W., Fifty Years on the Mississippi, Nixon-Jones Printings Co. St. Louis, 1889, pp. 600-601.; Benson, Ivan, Mark Twains Western Years, Russell & Russell, New York, 1966, Reprint of 1938 edition, pp. 81-82, (Benson); Journal of Isaiah Sellers, “The entries have to do primarily with Mississippi River data, and Captain Sellers makes several claims concerning the origination of steamboating practices particularly those concerned with the work of the leadsmen. . . . Clippings pasted in the journal are stories written by others—newspaper reporters—in which rather rout ion river data, signed I. Sellers, are included.”; Logbook of Isaiah Sellers, “The entries of this type of information in the log show how necessary it was for the newspapers to edit Captain Sellers material. . . . It contains entries from February, 1825 to November 22, 1862.”

3. Sellers funeral, Missouri Republican, March 17, 1864.; Argo, Bates, Alan, Sam Clemens, Pilot Humorist of a Tramp Steamboat, American Literature, March 1967, pp. 102-109.

4. Arthur Singleton, Esq., (Harvey C. Knight). Original Miscellany Four Tours To The South And West, Boston Traveler, Boston, August 4, 1826, p.4/ (Miscellany);The following are several extracts concerning grounded vessels from logbooks: Steamboat Washington, “Met the steam boat Buffaloe at the head of No 57, aground.” , Steubenville Herald, p.2., August 8, 1817,
Steamboat General Jackson “passed S. boats Missouri and Exchange aground at Little Chain; the Exchange got off before were out of sight“: Louisiana Advertiser New Orleans, LA, June 6, 1820, p.3
Steamboat Comet, Jan. 18, passed steam-boat Exchange, bound down, aground below Petit Gulf, nearly out of water—20th, at Island No. 93, was boarded by the small boat of the steam-boat Gen. Green, aground on the left side, bound down. Arkansas Weekly Gazette, Little Rock, January 27, 1821, p.3.

5. Extract of al letter from a Gentleman in the West., Alexandra Gazette, VA. February 4, 1826, p.3. Pioneer, 129 tons, Cincinnati, OH.., 1825, New Orleans, LA. Lytle, William. M. and Holdcamper, Forrest R., Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States 1790-1868. With three supplements. The Steamship Historical Society of America Inc., Staten Island NY, 1975, p. 173., (“The Lytle-Holdcamper List,” ; Cramer, Zadok, The Navigator; containing directions for navigating The Monongahela, Allegheny, Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Cramer, Spear and Eichbaum, S. l. : R. Ferguson Co, Printers, Pittsburgh, Pa. 1817.

6. Miscellany August 8, 1826, p4.; General Clark, 214 tons, built Silver Creek, IN, 1818, New Orleans, LA. The Lytle-Holdcamper List,, p. 80.

7. “The Cumberland river rises in the Cumberland mountains in the south-east part of Kentucky, through which it has a course of nearly two hundred miles. It has a circuit in Tennessee of two hundred and fifty miles; and joins the Ohio in the state of Kentucky. Its principal branches in this state Obed’s river, Carey’s fork, Stone’s, Harpeth, and Red rivers. Most of the tributaries of this and Tennessee rivers rise in the mountains, and are too shallow for boat navigation, except in the time of floods. Occasional floods occur in all seasons of the year, in which flat boats can be floated down to the main river, to await the stage of water, when that, also, shall be navigable to New Orleans.” Flint, Timothy, History & Geography of the Mississippi Valley, Cincinnati, E. H. Flint, 1832, Part 1, p.440; Steam Boat Accident, New York Evening Post, March 6, 1824 p.2; Paraphrased from the Logbook of Isaiah Sellers, in Kruse, Horst. “Mark Twain’s Nom de Plume; Some Mysteries Resolved.” Mark Twain Journal Spring 1992, (Appendix): “Leaves from the Log-Book of an Old Captain”, pp.31-32, From an unknown and undated St. Louis newspaper; An early reference to this logbook is; “Capt. Sellers has informs us that he has kept a regular log of every incident of his life since he has been on the river. What material this memoranda contain for a book! To persons engaged in the steamboat business, this work would be invaluable, while to the people generally it could not fail to be more that ordinarily attractive.”/ The Oldest Steamboat Captain on the Western Rivers, New Orleans Picayune, September 29, 1854, p. 1, from the New York Universe,(n.d.) That year Sellers made a tour of the eastern states and was interviewed in New York City. General Green, 305 tons, Cincinnati, OH, 1820, New Orleans, LA., The Lytle-Holdcamper List, p.80. President, 288 tons, Pittsburgh, PA., 1824, Nashville, TN. The Lytle-Holdcamper List,, p.177

8. Appendix. Some of the year dates recorded are off by a year. General Lafayette is stated as having visited New Orleans in 1826, it was actually 1825; Rambler, 118 tons, Braver PA., 1823, New Orleans, LA. The Lytle-Holdcamper List, p.181

9. Steam Boat Launches, March 16, 1826, Ohio Monitor, Columbus, OH; General Carroll, 260 tons, built Cincinnati, OH, 1826, Nashville, TN.; The Lytle-Holdcamper List, p.80; In Old Time Steamboat Racing, Cincinnati Daily Gazette, January 22, 1874, p.7, from the Pittsburg Commercial, (n. d.); (Racing), two vessels racing on the Mississippi in the early 1840’s were the Rosalie and the Boreas, which was described as a ‘Screamer.” by the writer a member of her crew.; In Chapter 10 of, Lands of the Slave and the Free, Henry A. Murray, London, 1855, “Screecher” and “Burster” were the names of the two vessels racing on the Ohio, in a old tale told to the writer.; Benson, pp. 81-82., from Logbook of Isaiah Sellers, entry for June 6, 1857, under the heading;


the rule for tapen the Bell for the Deck hands to heave the lead wars enterduced by me in the Spring of 1826 on Board of the Steamer Genl. .Carrall, James Gordan Master and George Cares & Isac Adams wars Pilots I was Pilot up the Cumberland River and Starsman in the lower River before that the Pilots would Sing out from the Pilot House heav that Stabord lead and when he was dun with it he wold Sing out by in that lead and Soon though the trip.
In the Spring of 1847, I enterduced the tapin the Bell as a Signal for the Pilot to pass on the wright or left and it wars adopted.
In the Spring of 1852, I proposed to extend it to Day and night and it went with enney opisction.
In the winter of 1852, the Supervist inspectors introduced the Whisel as the Signal for metin and pasen Boats I wars a pose to it, but after a time com over & in favor of the whisal, and hope it will prove yoesfull.
In 1836 I Bilt the first State Room Caben Steam Boat that ever com to St. Louis She wars cald the Prairie and She had a Rail Road in the hold to Carry fright fore and aft it wars yoused on a good meney Boats up to this Day I saw it on the Champion as yet. In 1843, I enterduced the first Iron Racks for the Deck hands to In 1836 I Bilt the first State Room Caben Steam Boat that ever com to St. Louis She wars cald the Prairie and She had a Rail Road in the hold to Carry fright fore and aft it wars yoused on a good meney Boats up to this Day I saw it on the Champion as yet. In 1843, I enterduced the first Iron Racks for the Deck hands to stand in on the gards of the Boats to heav the lead out off and it has him youse eversencs.
stand in on the gards of the Boats to heav the lead out off and it has him youse eversencs. I. Sellers.

10. Items, Rhode Island American, Arial 4, 1826, p.2., New Orleans, Baltimore Gazette and Daily Advertiser, April 11, 1826, p.2, Nashville, New York American, April 10, 1826, p.2,from the National Banner and Nashville Whig, n.d., (Nashville)

11. Nashville, Courier,, 120 tons, List Of Steam-Boats . . .With their Tonnage, Arkansas Weekly Gazette, Little Rock, March 19, 1822, p.2., not listed in The Lytle-Holdcamper List.

12. Benson. p. 81.
13. Jubilee, 207 tons, Pittsburgh, PA. 1827, New Orleans, LA., p. 117, The Lytle-Holdcamper List.; Gould, p. 600, Appendix, p. 32, Another Steam-Boat Accident,, Natchez Southern Galaxy, November 13, 1828, p.3.

14. Miscellany, Boston Traveler, August 8, 1826, p.3, this described trip of the General Clark was taken in 1825; Things On The Mississippi & Ohio., Portland Weekly Advertiser, June 3, 1833, p. 4; An Autumn Trip To The North, No. 1. From New Orleans to St. Louis, New Orleans Picayune, September 21, 1854, p.1; Charles Dibdin, March 1745 – 25 July 1814, was a British musician, songwriter, dramatist, novelist and actor. With over 600 songs to his name, for many of which he wrote both the lyrics and the music and performed them himself, he was in his time the most prolific English singer and songwriter: Demosthenes,384–322 BC, was a prominent Greek rhetorician of ancient Athens: disjecta membra, is Latin for “scattered fragments”.;

15. Twain, Mark, and Warner, Charles Dudley, The Gilded Age, American Publishing Company, Hartford, 1874, pp. 46-47.


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