Category: river



 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