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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
III. A Humble Birthplace
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|Florida, Missouri, was a small village in the early thirties--smaller
than it is now, perhaps, though in that day it had more promise, even if
less celebrity. The West was unassembled then, undigested, comparatively
unknown. Two States, Louisiana and Missouri, with less than half a
million white persons, were all that lay beyond the great river.
St. Louis, with its boasted ten thousand inhabitants and its river trade
with the South, was the single metropolis in all that vast uncharted
region. There was no telegraph; there were no railroads, no stage lines
of any consequence--scarcely any maps. For all that one could see or
guess, one place was as promising as another, especially a settlement
like Florida, located at the forks of a pretty stream, Salt River, which
those early settlers believed might one day become navigable and carry
the merchandise of that region down to the mighty Mississippi, thence to
the world outside.
In those days came John A. Quarles, of Kentucky, with his wife, who had
been Patsey Ann Lampton; also, later, Benjamin Lampton, her father, and
others of the Lampton race. It was natural that they should want Jane
Clemens and her husband to give up that disheartening east Tennessee
venture and join them in this new and promising land. It was natural,
too, for John Quarles--happy-hearted, generous, and optimistic--to write
the letter. There were only twenty-one houses in Florida, but Quarles
counted stables, out-buildings--everything with a roof on it--and set
down the number at fifty-four.
Florida, with its iridescent promise and negligible future, was just the
kind of a place that John Clemens with unerring instinct would be certain
to select, and the Quarles letter could have but one answer. Yet there
would be the longing for companionship, too, and Jane Clemens must have
hungered for her people. In The Gilded Age, the Sellers letter ends:
"Come!--rush!--hurry!--don't wait for anything!"
The Clemens family began immediately its preparation for getting away.
The store was sold, and the farm; the last two wagon-loads of produce
were sent to Louisville; and with the aid of the money realized, a few
hundred dollars, John Clemens and his family "flitted out into the great
mysterious blank that lay beyond the Knobs of Tennessee." They had a
two-horse barouche, which would seem to have been preserved out of their
earlier fortunes. The barouche held the parents and the three younger
children, Pamela, Margaret, anal the little boy, Benjamin. There were
also two extra horses, which Orion, now ten, and Jennie, the house-girl,
a slave, rode. This was early in the spring of 1835.
They traveled by the way of their old home at Columbia, and paid a visit
to relatives. At Louisville they embarked on a steamer bound for St.
Louis; thence overland once more through wilderness and solitude into
what was then the Far West, the promised land.
They arrived one evening, and if Florida was not quite all in appearance
that John Clemens had dreamed, it was at least a haven--with John
Quarles, jovial, hospitable, and full of plans. The great Mississippi
was less than fifty miles away. Salt River, with a system of locks and
dams, would certainly become navigable to the Forks, with Florida as its
head of navigation. It was a Sellers fancy, though perhaps it should be
said here that John Quarles was not the chief original of that lovely
character in The Gilded Age. That was another relative--James Lampton, a
cousin--quite as lovable, and a builder of even more insubstantial
John Quarles was already established in merchandise in Florida, and was
prospering in a small way. He had also acquired a good farm, which he
worked with thirty slaves, and was probably the rich man and leading
citizen of the community. He offered John Clemens a partnership in his
store, and agreed to aid him in the selection of some land. Furthermore,
he encouraged him to renew his practice of the law. Thus far, at least,
the Florida venture was not a mistake, for, whatever came, matters could
not be worse than they had been in Tennessee.
In a small frame building near the center of the village, John and Jane
Clemens established their household. It was a humble one-story affair,
with two main rooms and a lean-to kitchen, though comfortable enough for
its size, and comparatively new. It is still standing and occupied when
these lines are written, and it should be preserved and guarded as a
shrine for the American people; for it was here that the foremost
American-born author--the man most characteristically American in every
thought and word and action of his life--drew his first fluttering
breath, caught blinkingly the light of a world that in the years to come
would rise up and in its wide realm of letters hail him as a king.
It was on a bleak day, November 30, 1835, that he entered feebly the
domain he was to conquer. Long, afterward, one of those who knew him
"He always seemed to me like some great being from another planet--never
quite of this race or kind."
He may have been, for a great comet was in the sky that year, and it
would return no more until the day when he should be borne back into the
far spaces of silence and undiscovered suns. But nobody thought of this,
He was a seven-months child, and there was no fanfare of welcome at his
coming. Perhaps it was even suggested that, in a house so small and so
sufficiently filled, there was no real need of his coming at all. One
Polly Ann Buchanan, who is said to have put the first garment of any sort
on him, lived to boast of the fact,--[This honor has been claimed also
for Mrs. Millie Upton and a Mrs. Damrell. Probably all were present and
assisted.]--but she had no particular pride in that matter then. It was
only a puny baby with a wavering promise of life. Still, John Clemens
must have regarded with favor this first gift of fortune in a new land,
for he named the little boy Samuel, after his father, and added the name
of an old and dear Virginia friend, Langhorne. The family fortunes would
seem to have been improving at this time, and he may have regarded the
arrival of another son as a good omen.
With a family of eight, now, including Jennie, the slavegirl, more room
was badly needed, and he began building without delay. The result was
not a mansion, by any means, being still of the one-story pattern, but it
was more commodious than the tiny two-room affair. The rooms were
larger, and there was at least one ell, or extension, for kitchen and
dining-room uses. This house, completed in 1836, occupied by the Clemens
family during the remainder of the years spent in Florida, was often in
later days pointed out as Mark Twain's birthplace. It missed that
distinction by a few months, though its honor was sufficient in having
sheltered his early childhood.--[This house is no longer standing.
When it was torn down several years ago, portions of it were carried off
and manufactured into souvenirs. Mark Twain himself disclaimed it as his
birthplace, and once wrote on a photograph of it: "No, it is too stylish,
it is not my birthplace."]