It was the rainy season, the winter of 1864 and 1865, but there were many
pleasant days, when they could go pocket-hunting, and Samuel Clemens soon
added a knowledge of this fascinating science to his other acquirements.
Sometimes he worked with Dick Stoker, sometimes with one of the Gillis
boys. He did not make his fortune at pocket-mining; he only laid its
corner-stone. In the old note-book he kept of that sojourn we find that,
with Jim Gillis, he made a trip over into Calaveras County soon after
Christmas and remained there until after New Year's, probably
prospecting; and he records that on New Year's night, at Vallecito, he
saw a magnificent lunar rainbow in a very light, drizzling rain. A lunax
rainbow is one of the things people seldom see. He thought it an omen of
They returned to the cabin on the hill; but later in the month, on the
they crossed over into Calaveras again, and began pocket-hunting not far
from Angel's Camp. The note-book records that the bill of fare at the
Camp hotel consisted wholly of beans and something which bore the name of
coffee; also that the rains were frequent and heavy.
January 27. Same old diet--same old weather--went out to the
pocket-claim--had to rush back.
They had what they believed to be a good claim. Jim Gillis declared the
indications promising, and if they could only have good weather to work
it, they were sure of rich returns. For himself, he would have been
willing to work, rain or shine. Clemens, however, had different views on
the subject. His part was carrying water for washing out the pans of
dirt, and carrying pails of water through the cold rain and mud was not
very fascinating work. Dick Stoker came over before long to help.
Things went a little better then; but most of their days were spent in
the bar-room of the dilapidated tavern at Angel's Camp, enjoying the
company of a former Illinois River pilot, Ben Coon,--[This name has been
variously given as "Ros Coon," "Coon Drayton," etc. It is given here as
set down in Mark Twain's notes, made on the spot. Coon was not (as has
been stated) the proprietor of the hotel (which was kept by a Frenchman),
but a frequenter of it.]--a solemn, fat-witted person, who dozed by the
stove, or old slow, endless stories, without point or application.
Listeners were a boon to him, for few came and not many would stay. To
Mark Twain and Jim Gillis, however, Ben Coon was a delight. It was
soothing and comfortable to listen to his endless narratives, told in
that solemn way, with no suspicion of humor. Even when his yarns had
point, he did not recognize it. One dreary afternoon, in his slow,
monotonous fashion, he told them about a frog--a frog that had belonged
to a man named Coleman, who trained it to jump, but that failed to win a
wager because the owner of a rival frog had surreptitiously loaded the
trained jumper with shot. The story had circulated among the camps, and
a well-known journalist, named Samuel Seabough, had already made a squib
of it, but neither Clemens nor Gillis had ever happened to hear it
before. They thought the tale in itself amusing, and the "spectacle of a
man drifting serenely along through such a queer yarn without ever
smiling was exquisitely absurd." When Coon had talked himself out, his
hearers played billiards on the frowsy table, and now and then one would
remark to the other:
"I don't see no p'ints about that frog that's any better'n any other
frog," and perhaps the other would answer:
"I ain't got no frog, but if I had a frog I'd bet you."
Out on the claim, between pails of water, Clemens, as he watched Jim
Gillis or Dick Stoker "washing," would be apt to say, "I don't see no
p'ints about that pan o' dirt that's any better'n any other pan o' dirt,"
and so they kept it up.
Then the rain would come again and interfere with their work. One
afternoon, when Clemens and Gillis were following certain tiny-sprayed
specks of gold that were leading them to pocket--somewhere up the long
slope, the chill downpour set in. Gillis, as usual, was washing, and
Clemens carrying water. The "color" was getting better with every pan,
and Jim Gillis believed that now, after their long waiting, they were to
be rewarded. Possessed with the miner's passion, he would have gone on
washing and climbing toward the precious pocket, regardless of
everything. Clemens, however, shivering and disgusted, swore that each
pail of water was his last. His teeth were chattering and he was wet
through. Finally he said, in his deliberate way:
"Jim, I won't carry any more water. This work is too disagreeable."
Gillis had just taken out a panful of dirt.
"Bring one more pail, Sam," he pleaded.
"Oh, hell, Jim, I won't do it; I'm freezing!"
"Just one more pail, Sam," he pleaded.
"No, sir, not a drop, not if I knew there were a million dollars in that
Gillis tore a page out of his note-book, and hastily posted a thirty-day
claim notice by the pan of dirt, and they set out for Angel's Camp. It
kept on raining and storming, and they did not go back. A few days later
a letter from Steve Gillis made Clemens decide to return to San
Francisco. With Jim Gillis and Dick Stoker he left Angel's and walked
across the mountains to Jackass Hill in the snow-storm--"the first I ever
saw in California," he says in his notes.
In the mean time the rain had washed away the top of the pan of earth
they had left standing on the hillside, and exposed a handful of nuggets-
pure gold. Two strangers, Austrians, had come along and, observing it,
had sat down to wait until the thirty-day claim notice posted by Jim
Gillis should expire. They did not mind the rain--not with all that gold
in sight--and the minute the thirty days were up they followed the lead a
few pans farther and took out--some say ten, some say twenty, thousand
dollars. In either case it was a good pocket. Mark Twain missed it by
one pail of water. Still, it is just as well, perhaps, when one
remembers that vaster nugget of Angel's Camp--the Jumping Frog. Jim
Gillis always declared, "If Sam had got that pocket he would have
remained a pocket-miner to the end of his days, like me."
In Mark Twain's old note-book occurs a memorandum of the frog story--a
mere casual entry of its main features:
Coleman with his jumping frog--bet stranger $50--stranger had no
frog, and C. got him one:--in the mean time stranger filled C.'s
frog full of shot and he couldn't jump. The stranger's frog won.
It seemed unimportant enough, no doubt, at the time; but it was the
nucleus around which was built a surpassing fame. The hills along the
Stanislaus have turned out some wonderful nuggets in their time, but no
other of such size as that.