Mark Twain and His Life
Mark Twain (born Samuel Clemens in 1835) is best known for his novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and for his humorous lectures.
He and Bret Harte were the most-famous American writers
in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri and worked there as a printer's apprentice, typesetter,
and a writer of articles and humor pieces for a newspaper owned by his brother. He later
worked as a printer in the East and as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. His
career as a river pilot ended when the Civil War resulted in an embargo on river traffic.
Twain then traveled to Nevada with his brother Orion, who had been appointed secretary to the
governor of Nevada Territory. He soon developed the "get rich quick" attitude of most of those
who had emigrated to the area. He visited Lake Tahoe (then Lake Bigler) in hopes of developing
a timber claim but started a forest fire by accident with his
He switched to silver mining. After he and a partner had used pickaxes and explosives to dig
a shaft twelve feet, he gave it up as too much work.
Twain then turned to speculating, by buying shares (known as "feet") in
mining claims, a common practice then in the Comstock Lode. After a year of this with no successfunded mostly by his
brother—he got a job working in a silver mill. He lasted a week.
During his mining period he had written some humorous sketches for a Virginia City newspaper, the
Territorial Enterprise. He quit mining and, broke, walked 120 miles to the newspaper, which
had offered him a job.
Twain thrived in this frontier newspaper environment, where there was a thin line between
fact and fantasy, and reporters were constantly playing jokes. He and a writer at a rival paper
became close friends, but ridiculed and insulted each other in print.
He sometimes wrote pieces intended as jokes that were reprinted in other papers as straight
reporting. In one he reported grisly details of a father who had supposedly murdered his
wife and children and committed suicide after being cheated in a stock swindle.
Written by Twain to expose practices in which companies paid inflated dividends with borrowed
money to boost
their stock prices, the story was a hoax. Twain later said that "The only way to get a fact into
a San Francisco journal is to smuggle it in through some great tragedy."
Twain later picked a fight with the publisher of a rival newspaper, ending with Twain
challenging the man to a duel. Just before the appointed hour, Twain practiced some shooting
and realized just how inept he was with a gun. A friend grabbed the gun out of Twain's hand and
shot a sparrow with it. The man he had challenged, arriving, saw the sparrow fall and asked who
had shot it. The friend lied, saying Twain. The publisher then withdrew, later that day sending
a note to Twain, written in a shaky hand, declining the honor of a duel.
Nevada had recently passed a law in which challenging a man to a duel was a crime
punishable by at least two years in prison. Well-known,
Twain feared that he would be made an example, and within a day had fled to San Francisco by
Twain greatly enjoyed the elegant living and bohemian literary culture in San Francisco. He
first lived at the most expensive hotel in town, the Occidental. He'd hoped that the mining
stocks he'd accumulated could be sold at a high enough price that he could retire as a gentleman
of leisure. But when Nevadans voted to became a state, fear of regulation of the mines pricked the bubble,
and Twain's stocks became worthless.
Twain took a job at the Morning Call writing up local items, but found the work not to
his liking. ("It was awful drudgery for a lazy man, and I was born lazy.") He lasted only a
few months. Twain then began writing for the literary magazines in the city, particularly
The Californian, for which Bret Harte was the primary contributor and who became a friend.
Twain and Harte became the leading literary figures in the city and the West.
Twain's friend Steve Gillis—who had been a compositor on the Enterprise and had come
with him to San Francisco, then got him in a scrape. The 95-pound Gillis hit a bartender over the
head with a beer pitcher and was arrested. Twain got him out, promising bail, money he didn't
actually have. When the man later looked like he might die, Gillis jumped bail, fleeing to Nevada.
Twain, also facing a libel suit for writing about police corruption, fled to the Gillis family
cabin at Jackass
Hill in Tuolumne County. (A replica of the cabin can be seen today, known as the "Mark Twain Cabin").
Twain stayed three months. It rained often, and Twain heard stories from the highly educated
Jim Gillis, or perused the cabin's huge library. He did a (very) little pocket mining for gold (see "Clemens' One Mining Venture").
Twain spent some of this time in Angels Camp, where he first heard the "jumping frog" story.
When things cooled off, he returned to San Francisco.
In 1866, Twain became tired of living in one place. On a trip to Sacramento to write about it,
he pitched the idea of writing articles from the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) to the owners of the
Sacramento Union. They agreed, and Twain spent four months there. When he returned,
he gave a lecture in San Francisco on his experiences, which proved lucrative, leading to his
taking the lecture all over California and Nevada.
Twain then went to the Mediterranean, Europe, and the Middle East, writing travel articles,
later collected in his book The Innocents Abroad.
Returning to the United States, Twain settled in the East, living mostly in Connecticut.
In 1872 he published the book Roughing It, an account of his time in the West.
Twain was very interested in science and technology and was a friend of Nikolai Tesla.
Twain himself was an inventor, with three patented inventions. One was a self-adhesive
scrapbook—items could be pasted in it when the pages were moistened—that had some
Twain invested heavily in technology, including the Paige typesetting machine, in which he
put today's equivalent of nearly $8 million. The machine, before being perfected, was made
obsolete by the Linotype. He also owned a publishing company.
Twain died in 1910. His
autobiography, delayed by his order until 100 years after his death, was published in
November 2010 and quickly went on the bestseller lists.
The Jumping Frog
During his three-month stay at the cabin at Jackass Hill owned by his friends, the Gillis brothers,
Twain visited Angels Camp. At a hotel bar in Angels, he met Ben Coon,
who told him the jumping frog story. This was a commonly heard tale,
one version of which had been published in the Sonora Herald in
That night Twain jotted the essentials of the story in his notebook. He thought it might be worth
ten or fifteen dollars. After returning to San Francisco, he told it to
Bret Harte, who encouraged him to write it up. He had trouble with
it, delaying the writing for months, then discarding two attempts. He finished a third in two
days and sent it by steamer to New York. The story,
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, was
in the East in 1865, and reprinted widely to considerable acclaim. It greatly helped his writing career.
Twain's reaction: "To think that after writing many an article a man might be excused for thinking
tolerably good, those New York people should single out a villainous backwoods sketch to
compliment me on!"
Mark Twain's Stories About the Gold Country and the West
The Rawhide Mine.
Twain's story about the Rawhide Mine, near Jamestown.
Clemens' One Mining Venture.
Billy Gillis partnered with Twain to do pocket mining for gold near Jackass Hill, and here writes about it.
How I Escaped Being Killed in a Duel.
Twain challenges the publisher of a rival paper to a duel, then
realizes that his poor shooting ability puts him at great risk.
The following stories are from Twain's book Roughing It. The chapter titles
have been added.
A Timber Claim at Lake Tahoe.
Twain establishes a timber claim on forest land at Lake Tahoe.
Twain Sets a Mountain on Fire.
They relax on their "timber ranch", but Twain goes to fetch a frying pan.
Silver Mining in Esmeralda.
Twain discovers his silver mining claims are worthless, and that the task of
silver mining is nearly impossible.
Working in a Silver Mill.
The less-known experience of silver mining—working
in a mill that extracts silver from the ore.
The Whiteman Cement Mine.
Looking for the famous Whiteman Cement Mine, supposedly rich with gold.
A Visit to Mono Lake.
Doing his laundry in the alkali waters of Mono Lake by tying it to the stern of his boat.
Striking It Rich.
Twain strikes it rich by finding a "blind lead" in a silver mine. The "most curious episode" to
date of his life. He is now a millionaire.
Quirks in the mining regulations and an unread note lead to Twain's losing the rights to
his silver. He was a millionaire for only ten days.
Twain begins work on a newspaper in Virginia City and becomes the City Editor.
Twain makes money by puffing silver stock.
Traveling to San Francisco.
Twain leaves his newspaper job in Virginia City and travels to the big city.
An Earthquake in San Francisco.
Living high in the city based on a bubble in his mining stock, losing everything when the
bubble bursts, then experiencing an earthquake.
Pocket Mining in Tuolumne.
Twain lives for a time in an isolated cabin in the Tuolumne Hills, mining gold from
a pocket mine, one with highly concentrated gold.
Traveling to the Sandwich Islands
Twain heads for Hawaii on the maiden voyage of the propeller ship Ajax and meets