Samuel Clemens – Mark Twain – Arrives in Nevada

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | August 12, 2012

Add to History Board Share Print

150 years ago, a footloose Missourian stepped off a stagecoach in Carson City, Territory of Nevada, and so began, inadvertently, one of the greatest careers in the history of literature. Had the Civil War not interrupted Samuel Clemens idyllic days as a Mississippi River steamboat pilot, it’s highly unlikely he ever would have   lit  out for the Territory – and become Mark Twain.  This rare Directory, and the even rarer six-word message on this Calling Card, tells the story, between the lines, of young Sam Clemens’ transformative arrival in the Wild West…

On August 14, 1861, after a twenty-day stagecoach journey across the Great Plains and over the Rocky mountains, a 25 year-old Mississippi riverboat pilot fleeing, mostly, the Civil War, arrived in Carson City, Nevada – population 2000, give or take the gunplay – to be the Assistant Secretary of the Territory. With him was his older brother, Orion, newly-appointed by President Lincoln to be Secretary of the Territory: neither had been there before. Met by a handful of town worthies, a shootout and a windstorm, they then preceded to settle peaceably into a boardinghouse where the walls were made from, and sometimes of, flour stacks. Samuel Langhorne Clemens had, that day, come West. Within a year, he would act just nominally enough as “Assistant Secretary Nevada Territory” to be listed as such in the First Directory of Nevada Territory; seek a fortune mining, mostly by way of speculation; and end up, broke, in Virginia City, there to work the newsbeat of the Territorial Enterprise and so become, soon enough, a writer named Mark Twain.

Virginia City. Old Picture of the Day, http://old-photos.blogspot.co.il.

The Clemens Brothers
This rare early Directory, in which both Clemens’ are listed, records for posterity those two months – beginning October 1, 1861 – when “Samuel Clemens” worked as a dollar-a-day clerk for his brother, during the two-month long opening session of the Nevada Territorial Legislature. Sam found the entire business both amusing and repellent – and thought, typically, his hapless brother, though often Acting Governor in place of the Territory’s frequently absent governor, hadn’t “business talent enough to carry on a peanut stand.” As Orion wrangled with the U.S. government over an extra penknife for the Territorial Legislature, Clemens took off, like everyone else, to strike it rich. With the discovery of the Comstock Lode just two years before blazing before him, what he expected, he confessed later, was “masses of silver lying about the ground glittering in the sun on the mountain summits.” Of course he failed: as a timber baron, a mining tycoon, and even, down on his luck, as a laborer in quartz mine. Then, out of the blue, Clemens got lucky:  he was offered a job at $25 a week as a staff reporter for the Territorial Enterprise, a new eight-page paper in Virginia City. He didn’t know it then, but he had finally struck gold.

At first Clemens signed his Enterprise pieces “Josh”, but early in 1863, he penned an especially satirical and mostly fictional account of a party hosted by a former California governor at which “The Unreliable” – a drunken, gluttonous, criminally-minded dissolute –  behaved as might be expected.  This “Letter from Carson City” was signed, however, with a new pen name: Mark Twain.

Clemens said he lifted the name off a dead friend, the river pilot Isaiah Sellers, who employed it as a pseudonym when writing for New Orleans papers. Sellers, though, was still alive when Clemens first used “Mark Twain” – an inconvenient truth only eclipsed by the absolute lack of evidence that Sellers ever signed anything with that name. But Clemens, it seemed, had been looking for a nom de plume for years. Writing under such unwieldy monikers as W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab and Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass, Sergeant Fathom and Josh, none lasted until “Mark Twain” – clean, crisp and as legions of biographers would come to attest, rife with meaning.

“Mark twain” was, on the surface, a nautical term from Clemens’ hallowed days on the Mississippi River, where it was used to indicate a depth sounding of two fathoms, or twelve feet: a safe distance from the bottom at which a boat might float safely. This would, in fact, soon become the commonly accepted creation story of the most famous pseudonym in literary history. But though there are many theories about Mr. Clemens and Mark Twain, all are based on one bedrock fact: young Sam Clemens lit out for the Territory in the summer of 1861, and came back, six years later, a writer named Mark Twain.

During the last decade of his life, Samuel Clemens wrote a message on the card shown here which may very well be the first and only time he explained, in his own hand, what “Mark Twain” meant:

It means 2 fathoms (12 feet)

This he then signed, as he had thousands of times before, “Yours Truly, Mark Twain.” Clemens, as always, knew how to end a story – one that began some forty-one years before, in a slapdash, boisterous, and wild Western Territory in which, as he wrote home at the time, “thieves murders, desperados, ladies, children, lawyers, Christians, Indians, Chinamen, Spaniards, gamblers, sharpers, cuyotes (pronounced ki-yo-ties,) poets, preachers and jackass rabbits” all dreamed of becoming rich, famous, and free to be themselves.  That one of them did, is the story told here, in a line of print in the First Directory of Nevada Territory and on a little piece of pasteboard with a scant six words.

MARK TWAIN, 1835-1910. American author and humorist.

J. Wells Kelly, First Directory of Nevada Territory (San Francisco: Commercial Steam Presses: Valentine & Co, 1862). Bound, one-quarter morocco with five raised bands and gilt spine title. Rare.

Autograph Note Signed (“Mark Twain”), on his personal Calling Card –  black-bordered, still, for the death of his daughter Susy a half dozen years before –  2 pages, recto and verso, sextodecimo, Riverdale, no date but identified in an unknown hand as September 1902