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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XXXIII. The Prospector
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|It was not until early winter that Samuel Clemens got the real mining
infection. Everybody had it by that time; the miracle is that he had not
fallen an earlier victim. The wildest stories of sudden fortune were in
the air, some of them undoubtedly true. Men had gone to bed paupers, on
the verge of starvation, and awakened to find themselves millionaires.
Others had sold for a song claims that had been suddenly found to be
fairly stuffed with precious ores. Cart-loads of bricks--silver and
gold--daily drove through the streets.
In the midst of these things reports came from the newly opened Humboldt
region--flamed up with a radiance that was fairly blinding. The papers
declared that Humboldt County "was the richest mineral region on God's
footstool." The mountains were said to be literally bursting with gold
and silver. A correspondent of the daily Territorial Enterprise fairly
wallowed in rhetoric, yet found words inadequate to paint the measureless
wealth of the Humboldt mines. No wonder those not already mad speedily
became so. No wonder Samuel Clemens, with his natural tendency to
speculative optimism, yielded to the epidemic and became as "frenzied as
the craziest." The air to him suddenly began to shimmer; all his
thoughts were of "leads" and "ledges" and "veins"; all his clouds had
silver linings; all his dreams were of gold. He joined an expedition at
once; he reproached himself bitterly for not having started earlier.
Hurry was the word! We wasted no time. Our party consisted of four
persons--a blacksmith sixty years of age, two young lawyers, and
myself. We bought a wagon and two miserable old horses. We put
1,800 pounds of provisions and mining tools in the wagon and drove
out of Carson on a chilly December afternoon.
In a letter to his mother he states that besides provisions and mining
tools, their load consisted of certain luxuries viz., ten pounds of
killikinick, Watts's Hymns, fourteen decks of cards, Dombey and Son, a
cribbage-board, one small keg of lager-beer, and the "Carmina Sacra."
The two young lawyers were A. W.(Gus) Oliver (Oliphant in 'Roughing It'),
and W. H. Clagget. Sam Clemens had known Billy Clagget as a law student
in Keokuk, and they were brought together now by this association. Both
Clagget and Oliver were promising young men, and would be heard from in
time. The blacksmith's name was Tillou (Ballou), a sturdy, honest soul
with a useful knowledge of mining and the repair of tools. There were
also two dogs in the party--a small curly-tailed mongrel, Curney, the
property of Mr. Tillou, and a young hound. The combination seemed a
It proved a weak one in the matter of horses. Oliver and Clemens had
furnished the team, and their selection had not been of the best. It was
two hundred miles to Humboldt, mostly across sand. The horses could not
drag their load and the miners too, so the miners got out. Then they
found it necessary to push.
Not because we were fond of it, Ma--oh, no! but on Bunker's account.
Bunker was the "near" horse on the larboard side, named after the
attorney-general of this Territory. My horse--and I am sorry you do
not know him personally, Ma, for I feel toward him, sometimes, as if
he were a blood relation of our family--he is so lazy, you know--my
horse--I was going to say, was the "off" horse on the starboard
side. But it was on Bunker's account, principally, that we pushed
behind the wagon. In fact, Ma, that horse had something on his mind
all the way to Humboldt.--[S. L. C. to his mother. Published in
the Keokuk (Iowa) Gate city.]--
So they had to push, and most of that two hundred miles through snow and
sand storm they continued to push and swear and groan, sustained only by
the thought that they must arrive at last, when their troubles would all
be at an end, for they would be millionaires in a brief time and never
know want or fatigue any more.
There were compensations: the camp-fire at night was cheerful, the food
satisfying. They bundled close under the blankets and, when it was too
cold to sleep, looked up at the stars, while the future entertainer of
kings would spin yarn after yarn that made his hearers forget their
discomforts. Judge Oliver, the last one of the party alive, in a recent
letter to the writer of this history, says:
He was the life of the camp; but sometimes there would come a
reaction and he could hardly speak for a day or two. One day a pack
of wolves chased us, and the hound Sam speaks of never stopped to
look back till he reached the next station, many miles ahead.
Judge Oliver adds that an Indian war had just ended, and that they
occasionally passed the charred ruin of a shack, and new graves: This was
disturbing enough. Then they came to that desolation of desolations, the
Alkali Desert, where the sand is of unknown depth, where the road is
strewn thickly with the carcasses of dead beasts of burden, the charred
remains of wagons, chains, bolts, and screws, which thirsty emigrants,
grown desperate, have thrown away in the grand hope of being able, when
less encumbered, to reach water.
They traveled all day and night, pushing through that fierce, waterless
waste to reach camp on the other side. It was three o'clock in the
morning when they got across and dropped down utterly exhausted. Judge
Oliver in his letter tells what happened then:
The sun was high in the heavens when we were aroused from our sleep
by a yelling band of Piute warriors. We were upon our feet in an
instant. The pictures of burning cabins and the lonely graves we
had passed were in our minds. Our scalps were still our own, and
not dangling from the belts of our visitors. Sam pulled himself
together, put his hand on his head as if to make sure he had not
been scalped, and then with his inimitable drawl said: "Boys, they
have left us our scalps. Let's give them all the flour and sugar
they ask for." And we did give them a good supply, for we were
They were eleven weary days pushing their wagon and team the two hundred
miles to Unionville, Humboldt County, arriving at last in a driving snow-
storm. Unionville consisted of eleven poor cabins built in the bottom of
a canon, five on one side and six facing them on the other. They were
poor, three-sided, one-room huts, the fourth side formed by the hill; the
roof, a spread of white cotton. Stones used to roll down on them
sometimes, and Mark Twain tells of live stock--specifically of a mule and
cow--that interrupted the patient, long-suffering Oliver, who was trying
to write poetry, and only complained when at last "an entire cow came
rolling down the hill, crashed through on the table, and made a shapeless
wreck of everything."--['The Innocents Abroad.']
Judge Oliver still does not complain; but he denies the cow. He says
there were no cows in Humboldt in those days, so perhaps it was only a
literary cow, though in any case it will long survive. Judge Oliver's
name will go down with it to posterity.
In the letter which Samuel Clemens wrote home he tells of what they found
"National" there was selling at $50 per foot and assayed $2,496 per
ton at the mint in San Francisco. And the "Alda Nueva," "Peru,"
"Delirio," "Congress," "Independent," and others were immensely rich
leads. And moreover, having winning ways with us, we could get
"feet" enough to make us all rich one of these days.
"I confess with shame," says the author of 'Roughing It', "that I
expected to find masses of silver lying all about the ground." And he
adds that he slipped away from the cabin to find a claim on his own
account, and tells how he came staggering back under a load of golden
specimens; also how his specimens proved to be only worthless mica; and
how he learned that in mining nothing that glitters is gold. His account
in 'Roughing It' of the Humboldt mining experience is sufficiently good
history to make detail here unnecessary. Tillou instructed them in
prospecting, and in time they located a fairly promising claim. They
went to work on it with pick and shovel, then with drill and blasting-
powder. Then they gave it up
"One week of this satisfied me. I resigned."
They tried to tunnel, but soon resigned again. It was pleasanter to
prospect and locate and trade claims and acquire feet in every new ledge
than it was to dig-and about as profitable. The golden reports of
Humboldt had been based on assays of selected rich specimens, and were
mainly delirium and insanity. The Clemens-Clagget-Oliver-Tillou
combination never touched their claims again with pick and shovel, though
their faith, or at least their hope, in them did not immediately die.
Billy Clagget put out his shingle as notary public, and Gus Oliver put
out his as probate judge. Sam Clemens and Tillou, with a fat-witted,
arrogant Prussian named Pfersdoff (Ollendorf) set out for Carson City.
It is not certain what became of the wagon and team, or of the two dogs.
The Carson travelers were water-bound at a tavern on the Carson River
(the scene of the "Arkansas" sketch), with a fighting, drinking lot.
Pfersdoff got them nearly drowned getting away, and finally succeeded in
getting them absolutely lost in the snow. The author of 'Roughing It'
tells us how they gave themselves up to die, and how each swore off
whatever he had in the way of an evil habit, how they cast their
tempters-tobacco, cards, and whisky-into the snow. He further tells us
how next morning, when they woke to find themselves alive, within a few
rods of a hostelry, they surreptitiously dug up those things again and,
deep in shame and luxury, resumed their fallen ways: It was the 29th of
January when they reached Carson City. They had been gone not quite two
months, one of which had been spent in travel. It was a brief period,
but it contained an episode, and it seemed like years.