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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866
XXXII. The Pioneer
by Paine, Albert Bigelow


It was a hot, dusty August 14th that the stage reached Carson City and drew up before the Ormsby Hotel. It was known that the Territorial secretary was due to arrive; and something in the nature of a reception, with refreshments and frontier hospitality, had been planned. Governor Nye, formerly police commissioner in New York City, had arrived a short time before, and with his party of retainers ("heelers" we would call them now), had made an imposing entrance. Perhaps something of the sort was expected with the advent of the secretary of state. Instead, the committee saw two way-worn individuals climb down from the stage, unkempt, unshorn--clothed in the roughest of frontier costume, the same they had put on at St. Jo--dusty, grimy, slouchy, and weather-beaten with long days of sun and storm and alkali desert dust. It is not likely there were two more unprepossessing officials on the Pacific coast at that moment than the newly arrived Territorial secretary and his brother: Somebody identified them, and the committee melted away; the half-formed plan of a banquet faded out and was not heard of again. Soap and water and fresh garments worked a transformation; but that first impression had been fatal to festivities of welcome.

Carson City, the capital of Nevada, was a "wooden town," with a population of two thousand souls. Its main street consisted of a few blocks of small frame stores, some of which are still standing. In 'Roughing It' the author writes:

In the middle of the town, opposite the stores, was a "Plaza," which is native to all towns beyond the Rocky Mountains, a large, unfenced, level vacancy with a Liberty Pole in it, and very useful as a place for public auctions, horse trades, and mass-meetings, and likewise for teamsters to camp in. Two other sides of the Plaza were faced by stores, offices, and stables. The rest of Carson City was pretty scattering.

One sees the place pretty clearly from this brief picture of his, but it requires an extract from a letter written to his mother somewhat later to populate it. The mineral excitement was at its height in those days of the early sixties, and had brought together such a congress of nations as only the greed for precious metal can assemble. The sidewalks and streets of Carson, and the Plaza, thronged all day with a motley aggregation--a museum of races, which it was an education merely to gaze upon. Jane Clemens had required him to write everything just as it was-- "no better and no worse."

Well--[he says]--,"Gold Hill" sells at $5,000 per foot, cash down; "Wild Cat" isn't worth ten cents. The country is fabulously rich in gold, silver, copper, lead, coal, iron, quicksilver, marble, granite, chalk, plaster of Paris (gypsum), thieves, murderers, desperadoes, ladies, children, lawyers, Christians, Indians, Chinamen, Spaniards, gamblers, sharpens; coyotes (pronounced ki-yo- ties), poets, preachers, and jackass rabbits. I overheard a gentleman say, the other day, that it was "the d---dest country under the sun," and that comprehensive conception I fully subscribe to. It never rains here, and the dew never falls. No flowers grow here, and no green thing gladdens the eye. The birds that fly over the land carry their provisions with them. Only the crow and the raven tarry with us. Our city lies in the midst of a desert of the purest, most unadulterated and uncompromising sand, in which infernal soil nothing but that fag-end of vegetable creation, "sage- brush," ventures to grow. . . . I said we are situated in a flat, sandy desert--true. And surrounded on all sides by such prodigious mountains that when you look disdainfully down (from them) upon the insignificant village of Carson, in that instant you are seized with a burning desire to stretch forth your hand, put the city in your pocket, and walk off with it.

As to churches, I believe they have got a Catholic one here, but, like that one the New York fireman spoke of, I believe "they don't run her now."


Carson has been through several phases of change since this was written-- for better and for worse. It is a thriving place in these later days, and new farming conditions have improved the country roundabout. But it was a desert outpost then, a catch-all for the human drift which every whirlwind of discovery sweeps along. Gold and silver hunting and mine speculations were the industries--gambling, drinking, and murder were the diversions--of the Nevada capital. Politics developed in due course, though whether as a business or a diversion is not clear at this time.

The Clemens brothers took lodging with a genial Irishwoman, Mrs. Murphy, a New York retainer of Governor Nye, who boarded the camp-followers.-- [The Mrs, O'Flannigan of 'Roughing It'.]--This retinue had come in the hope of Territorial pickings and mine adventure--soldiers of fortune they were, and a good-natured lot all together. One of them, Bob Howland, a nephew of the governor, attracted Samuel Clemens by his clean-cut manner and commanding eye.

"The man who has that eye doesn't need to go armed," he wrote later. "He can move upon an armed desperado and quell him and take him a prisoner without saying a single word." It was the same Bob Howland who would be known by and by as the most fearless man in the Territory; who, as city marshal of Aurora, kept that lawless camp in subjection, and, when the friends of a lot of condemned outlaws were threatening an attack with general massacre, sent the famous message to Governor Nye: "All quiet in Aurora. Five men will be hung in an hour." And it was quiet, and the programme was carried out. But this is a digression and somewhat premature.

Orion Clemens, anxious for laurels, established himself in the meager fashion which he thought the government would approve; and his brother, finding neither duties nor salary attached to his secondary position, devoted himself mainly to the study of human nature as exhibited under frontier conditions. Sometimes, when the nights were cool, he would build a fire in the office stove, and, with Bob Howland and a few other choice members of the "Brigade" gathered around, would tell river yarns in that inimitable fashion which would win him devoted audiences all his days. His river life had increased his natural languor of habit, and his slow speech heightened the lazy impression which he was never unwilling to convey. His hearers generally regarded him as an easygoing, indolent good fellow with a love of humor--with talent, perhaps--but as one not likely ever to set the world afire. They did not happen to think that the same inclination which made them crowd about to listen and applaud would one day win for him the attention of all mankind.

Within a brief time Sam Clemens (he was never known as otherwise than "Sam" among those pioneers) was about the most conspicuous figure on the Carson streets. His great bushy head of auburn hair, his piercing, twinkling eyes, his loose, lounging walk, his careless disorder of dress, drew the immediate attention even of strangers; made them turn to look a second time and then inquire as to his identity.

He had quickly adapted himself to the frontier mode. Lately a river sovereign and dandy, in fancy percales and patent leathers, he had become the roughest of rough-clad pioneers, in rusty slouch hat, flannel shirt, coarse trousers slopping half in and half out of the heavy cowskin boots Always something of a barbarian in love with the loose habit of unconvention, he went even further than others and became a sort of paragon of disarray. The more energetic citizens of Carson did not prophesy much for his future among them. Orion Clemens, with the stir and bustle of the official new broom, earned their quick respect; but his brother--well, they often saw him leaning for an hour or more at a time against an awning support at the corner of King and Carson streets, smoking a short clay pipe and staring drowsily at the human kaleidoscope of the Plaza, scarcely changing his position, just watching, studying, lost in contemplation--all of which was harmless enough, of course, but how could any one ever get a return out of employment like that?

Samuel Clemens did not catch the mining fever immediately; there was too much to see at first to consider any special undertaking. The mere coming to the frontier was for the present enough; he had no plans. His chief purpose was to see the world beyond the Rockies, to derive from it such amusement and profit as might fall in his way. The war would end, by and by, and he would go back to the river, no doubt. He was already not far from homesick for the "States" and his associations there. He closed one letter:

I heard a military band play "What Are the Wild Waves Saying" the other night, and it brought Ella Creel and Belle (Stotts) across the desert in an instant, for they sang the song in Orion's yard the first time I ever heard it. It was like meeting an old friend. I tell you I could have swallowed that whole band, trombone and all, if such a compliment would have been any gratification to them.

His friends contracted the mining mania; Bob Howland and Raish Phillips went down to Aurora and acquired "feet" in mini-claims and wrote him enthusiastic letters. With Captain Nye, the governor's brother, he visited them and was presented with an interest which permitted him to contribute an assessment every now and then toward the development of the mine; but his enthusiasm still languished.

He was interested more in the native riches above ground than in those concealed under it. He had heard that the timber around Lake Bigler (Tahoe) promised vast wealth which could be had for the asking. The lake itself and the adjacent mountains were said to be beautiful beyond the dream of art. He decided to locate a timber claim on its shores.

He made the trip afoot with a young Ohio lad, John Kinney, and the account of this trip as set down in 'Roughing It' is one of the best things in the book. The lake proved all they had expected--more than they expected; it was a veritable habitation of the gods, with its delicious, winy atmosphere, its vast colonnades of pines, its measureless depths of water, so clear that to drift on it was like floating high aloft in mid-nothingness. They staked out a timber claim and made a semblance of fencing it and of building a habitation, to comply with the law; but their chief employment was a complete abandonment to the quiet luxury of that dim solitude: wandering among the trees, lounging along the shore, or drifting on that transparent, insubstantial sea. They did not sleep in their house, he says:

"It never occurred to us, for one thing; and, besides, it was built to hold the ground, and that was enough. We did not wish to strain it."

They lived by their camp-fire on the borders of the lake, and one day--it was just at nightfall--it got away from them, fired the forest, and destroyed their fence and habitation. His picture in 'Roughing It' of the superb night spectacle, the mighty mountain conflagration reflected in the waters of the lake, is splendidly vivid. The reader may wish to compare it with this extract from a letter written to Pamela at the time.

The level ranks of flame were relieved at intervals by the standard- bearers, as we called the tall, dead trees, wrapped in fire, and waving their blazing banners a hundred feet in the air. Then we could turn from the scene to the lake, and see every branch and leaf and cataract of flame upon its banks perfectly reflected, as in a gleaming, fiery mirror. The mighty roaring of the conflagration, together with our solitary and somewhat unsafe position (for there was no one within six miles of us), rendered the scene very impressive. Occasionally one of us would remove his pipe from his mouth and say, "Superb, magnificent!--beautifull--but--by the Lord God Almighty, if we attempt to sleep in this little patch to-night, we'll never live till morning!"

This is good writing too, but it lacks the fancy and the choice of phrasing which would develop later. The fire ended their first excursion to Tahoe, but they made others and located other claims--claims in which the "folks at home, "Mr. Moffett, James Lampton, and others, were included. It was the same James Lampton who would one day serve as a model for Colonel Sellers. Evidently Samuel Clemens had a good opinion of his business capacity in that earlier day, for he writes:

This is just the country for cousin Jim to live in. I don't believe it would take him six months to make $100,000 here if he had $3,000 to commence with. I suppose he can't leave his family, though.

Further along in the same letter his own overflowing Seller's optimism develops.

Orion and I have confidence enough in this country to think that if the war lets us alone we can make Mr. Moffett rich without its ever costing him a cent or a particle of trouble.

This letter bears date of October 25th, and from it we gather that a certain interest in mining claims had by this time developed.

We have got about 1,650 feet of mining ground, and, if it proves good, Mr. Moffett's name will go in, and if not I can get "feet" for him in the spring.

You see, Pamela, the trouble does not consist in getting mining ground--for there is plenty enough--but the money to work it with after you get it.


He refers to Pamela's two little children, his niece Annie and Baby Sam, --[Samuel E. Moffett, in later life a well-known journalist and editor.] --and promises to enter claims for them--timber claims probably--for he was by no means sanguine as yet concerning the mines. That was a long time ago. Tahoe land is sold by the lot, now, to summer residents. Those claims would have been riches to-day, but they were all abandoned presently, forgotten in the delirium which goes only with the pursuit of precious ores.

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