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Learn all about the life, times, and writings of one of America's most beloved authors. Come visit with "Tom Sawyer," "Huckleberry Finn," and more!
Samuel Langhorne Clemens
His life, Family, and Writings
By John T. Marck
"Well, I don’t see why I oughtn’t to like it.
Does a boy get a chance to whitewash a fence everyday?"
He was born prematurely on November 30, 1835 in Florida,
Missouri; the fifth surviving child of John and Jane Lampton Clemens. Samuel
Langhorne Clemens, later known to the world as Mark Twain, was born during the
year that Halley’s Comet was still visible in the sky.
Samuel’s Family and Home Life
At the time of his birth, his family lived in a rented house
on South Mill Street, and his father operated a store in partnership with John
Adams Quarles, the husband of his mother’s sister, Martha Ann "Patsy" Quarles.
Twain’s grandparents, Samuel and Pamelia Clemens were slave-holding farmers in
Campbell County, Virginia, before moving to the southern bank of the Ohio River
in Mason County, Virginia, now a part of West Virginia, about 1803.
Upon his grandfather’s death in 1805, his grandmother,
Pamelia, moved the family to Adair County, Kentucky where they lived with her
brother, and in 1809, Pamelia married Simon Hancock. In 1812, Mark Twain’s
father John was working in a Lynchburg ironworks factory, and did well for
himself. When his father’s estate was finally settled in 1821, and after paying
back borrowed money to their stepfather (Hancock), John Clemens’ share included
three slaves. Interested in the study of law, John worked with Cyrus Walker in
Columbia, Kentucky and received his license to practice in 1822. One year later
in 1823, John married Jane Lampton, who was born in Columbia and was a
descendant of early English and Irish settlers in Kentucky, and the daughter of
Benjamin and Margaret Casey Lampton, and a cousin of Walker’s wife.
Upon their marriage, Twain’s parents moved to Gainesboro,
then Jamestown, Tennessee, where they built a large house, and where John
continued to practice law. His parents also operated a store, and purchased
75,000 acres of uncleared land before moving to Three Forks of Wolf River where
they bought 200 acres of farmland and built a log cabin. By June 1835, the
Clemens’ family, along with their one remaining slave named Jenny, to Florida,
Missouri on the Salt River. It would be here that John acquired 120 aces of
government land and built a home for three-hundred dollars, where their son,
Samuel (Mark Twain) would be born.
At the age of one year, Samuel was oftentimes sick, to the
extent that his mother was constantly worried that he may not live. This same
year, 1836, his father John bought a house in town that was owned by Jane’s
grandfather. That next year, her grandfather died, and John dissolved his
partnership with Quarles and started his own store. In 1838, Samuel and his
family move into a new house.
In 1839, Samuel is plagued by frequently walking in his
sleep, which continued for several years. On August 17, this same year, Samuel’s
sister Margaret died of "bilious fever." Following her death, John earned $5000
from a land sale and used this money to purchase $7000 worth of property in
Hannibal, Missouri. At this time Hannibal was a quickly growing port town with
about one thousand residents on the Mississippi River. Hannibal is located about
thirty miles from Florida (Mo.), and about one hundred-thirty miles from St.
Louis by water. That November, John moved his family here, and it would be along
the Mississippi River that Samuel experienced his carefree boyhood adventures
that would later be the basis for his classic writings and fictional character’s
Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
In 1840, Samuel entered school and was taught by Elizabeth
Horr and Mary Ann Newcomb. As he progressed, Samuel attended three other schools
in Hannibal. On May 12, 1842, Samuel’s brother Benjamin died following just a
few days illness, and his brother Orion moved to St. Louis to work as a printer.
Samuel’s propensity to be sickly continued, and this time his doctor treated him
with castor oil, calomel, rhubarb, jalap, and poultices, which were socks full
of hot ashes, as well as various other water treatments. He continues to have
recurring nightmares (no wonder) and still walks in his sleep. Also this same
year, John sold Jenny to another owner. In 1844, during a spring epidemic, one
of Samuel’s closest friends, Will Bowen contracted the measles, and Samuel
deliberately caught it from him, and nearly died.
While walking along the streets of Hannibal one day in 1845,
Samuel watched in horror as a man dies after being shot by a Hannibal merchant
named William Owsley, who was arrested and later acquitted of all charges.
Having financial problems, the Clemens family takes in paying guests for meals,
then is forced to sell off their furniture to pay their bills, and finally moves
in with a pharmacist named Orville Grant who exchanges meals for rent. On March
24, 1847, Samuel’s father John died of pneumonia and by sneaking around, Samuel
watched through a keyhole as Dr. Meredith performed a postmortem examination.
Samuel’s First Journalism Experience and First Writings
That next year at the age of fifteen, Samuel began working at
the Missouri Courier as what was described as a chore boy and printer’s
devil. One day after work Samuel and a friend named Tom Nash went ice skating,
and the ice broke, and Samuel barely made it to shore safely, but Tom fell
through, but was able to get back to shore, but as a result suffered an illness
that eventually caused him to go deaf.
In 1850 Samuel joined the "Cadets of Tennessee," and in doing
so gave up smoking in deference to chewing tobacco, and with the cadets marched
in many parades. His brother Orion returned to Hannibal and began publishing a
weekly newspaper known as the Western Union. In doing so, Samuel left the
Missouri Courier and started to work for his brother as a typesetter and
editorial assistant. Even though Orion promised Samuel $3.50 per week in wages,
there was never any money available to pay him. On January 16, Samuel had his
first sketch published in the Western Union called "The Gallant
That September, Orion purchased the Hannibal Journal ,
but a fire destroyed the office in 1852, so Orion rented new office space and
keep the paper going. Samuel now was beginning to write more humorous sketches
and his, The Dandy Frightening the Squatter," was published in the Boston
Carpet-Bag, and another writing titled "Hannibal, Missouri," was
published in the Philadelphia American Courier that May. That September
9, Samuel signed a sketch, "W. Epaminon-das Adrastus Perkins," which was
his first known use of a pseudonym.
His Writings Continues, and His Steamboat Pilot Life
Samuel continues his writings, and in 1856, moves to
Cincinnati where he worked as a typesetter, while continuing his writings,
"Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass," that were published in the Cincinnati Post.
The next year Clemens left Cincinnati in April by steamboat bound for New
Orleans, whereby he had intended to continue to travel to South American where
he believed he could find fame and fortune. Instead, he became a riverboat
pilot, working under Horace Bixby for an apprentice fee of $300. Clemens worked
on several boats and learned the Mississippi River quite well between New
Orleans and St. Louis. While still working as an apprentice "cub" pilot, Clemens
served on the riverboat Pennsylvania under the pilot William Brown, whom
Clemens believed to be a despot, and whom he hated. Samuel then arranged for a
job for his brother Henry on the riverboat as a purser’s assistant or "mud
clerk." It would be here that Samuel met and fell in love with Laura M. Wright,
who was the fourteen-year-old daughter of a Missouri judge. However, her family
does not approve of the relationship, and intercepts the many letters Samuel
wrote to her. After the pilot, Brown, struck Henry one day, Samuel hit him in
defense of Henry, resulting in Brown leaving temporarily. This caused Samuel to
leave the Pennsylvania, because no replacement pilot was found for Brown,
and Samuel as an apprentice need to work under a licensed pilot. Some time
passed and Brown returned to the riverboat, while Henry remained with the crew.
On June 13, while below Memphis on the Mississippi, a boiler exploded, badly
injuring Henry and killing Brown. On June 15, Samuel arrived in Memphis and was
with his brother when he died on June 21. Samuel, blaming himself for not being
with Henry on board the Pennsylvania is grazed with grief and guilt.
Samuel buried Henry in Hannibal on June 25, then he returned to resume his
apprenticeship steering for two of his friends, Bart and Sam Bowen from
On April 9, 1859, Samuel finally received his pilot’s license
and became steadily employed and was paid well. Working between New Orleans and
St. Louis, and quite at home in these areas along the Mississippi, Samuel also
continued his studies, learning French. In may, 1859, he published a satire of a
senior pilot named Isaiah Sellers, on which later Clemens claimed he first used
the pen name of "Mark Twain." The name or phrase "Mark Twain," was a riverman’s
call meaning two fathoms deep or water that was safe for navigation.
Samuel and the Civil War - Less Than Heroic
In 1861, with the outbreak of the Civil War, the river
traffic was greatly disrupted. Clemens, not wanting to be mistaken by the Union
as a gunboat, returned to Hannibal and helped form the Marion Rangers, which was
a group of Confederate volunteers comprised of many of his old Hannibal
While on the Mississippi, Clemens’s loyalties changed back
and forth, whereby he settled supporting the South. When Governor Claiborne F.
Jackson called for a militia to be formed, Clemens answered the call, and he and
fourteen others formed the Marion Rangers. Although Clemens was made a 2nd
lieutenant, his rank and that of the others was basically meaningless to this
groups of boys who had grown up together.
The Marion Rangers we not exactly heroes by and stretch.
Whenever a rumor surfaced that mentioned the Union troops may be coming, they
assumed a retreating posture. Clemens later wrote that the rangers were "were
hopeless material for war." He was pleased and surprised though how helpful
and friendly the local farmers were to them. Clemens said of this that
hospitably kind and courteous to us as if we had deserved it."
In less than one month after the
rangers were formed, Clemens and his men learned that a Union regiment was
moving their way. Clemens said, "Our boys went apart and consulted, then we
went back and told the other companies present that the war was a disappointment
to us, and we were going to disband."
Upon learning of the disbandment plan, the Rangers were urged
to reconsider, as reinforcements under Confederate General Tom Harris were on
their way to them. Half of the Rangers decided to stay and joined other
regiments and served until the end of the war. However, Samuel and the others
would hear nothing of staying. Clemens later wrote that, I knew more about
retreating than the man that invented retreating."
Later in life, Clemens, now sing his pen name of Mary Twain,
wrote about his short war experiences in an amusing short story titled, "The
Private History of a Campaign That Failed." His story told of the confusion
within the Rangers, and how inexperienced the young boys were, who actually had
no clue what war was about, or really where they loyalties lay.
While The War Raged
With the Civil War continuing in earnest, Clemens traveled to
Carson City in January 1962, then to Aurora that April. In Nevada he dabbled in
mining all the while continuing his writings.
In February, 1863, Clemens wrote three articles and sent them
to the Carson City Enterprise, that were published on the third, fifth
and seventh. These articles were signed Mark Twain, the first known use of the
Later that year, Twain wrote for the San Francisco Morning
Call, as well as the Virginia City Enterprise. Published in the
Enterprise was an article was called "A Bloody Massacre Near Carson,"
which was a fictional hoax about a man killing his family. Other papers picked
up the story, then discovered that is was a hoax, and were furious, refusing to
continue to reprint news stories from the Enterprise. Twain offered to
resign, but the editors, Goodman and De Quille did not accept his resignation
saying that the anger will blow over, although at the same time, the story will
be remembered, favorable from a writing aspect for Twain.
By late 1864, Twain became writing for a newly established
literary magazine calked the Californian. In 1865, he was writing
articles for the Californian, Golden Era, and the Enterprise. It
would be during this time that he wrote and had published "Jim Smiley and His
Jumping Frog," that first appeared in the Saturday Press, and
subsequently was reprinted in all parts of the country.
After the Civil War - His Writings Continue
years that followed the end of the Civil War, Mark Twain continued his writings
and published many articles and books.
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
The Innocents Abroad
Mark Twain’s Autobiography and First Romance
The Gilded Age
By July 1875, Twain completed
one of his masterpieces, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and in early 1876,
made necessary rewrites and revisions to it. Later that summer, Tom Sawyer
was published in England by Chatto & Windus. Twain then began work on another of
his classics, Huckleberry Finn. On December 8, 1876, the American version
of Tom Sawyer is published by the American Publishing Company.
Meanwhile, between 1878 and 1880, Twain began working on "The Prince and the
Pauper," while putting "Huckleberry Finn," to the side, while also
starting another book,
A Tramp Abroad.
Over the next few years, The
Prince and the Pauper is published in December 1881; he began writing
"Life on the Mississippi," in 1882, which was published in May 1883; and
"Huckleberry Finn," is first published in three parts in 1885 by Century
Magazine, then is published in complete book form in the United States on
February16, 1885 by Webster & Co. By March 14, slightly more than one month
later, it sold 39,000 copies.
Other outstanding works that followed are:
The American Claimant
Tom Sawyer Abroad
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court
Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson and the Comedy of Those
Following the Equator
The Mysterious Stranger
Is Shakespeare Dead?
The Last Years of His Life
By the early nineteen hundreds, Mark Twain had traveled
the world, had given numerous talks and lectures, and had written the best of the best in
Having traveled to Bermuda numerous times, he returned there
in 1908 where he met and became friends with several schoolgirls, who were the
daughters of friends. He called them his "angelfish," and thought of the idea of
forming a club called the "Aquarium."
On April 11 this same year, he returned to New York, and
commissioned Tiffany and Co., to make enamel angelfish, and send one to each of
these girls. In 1909, he traveled to Baltimore, Maryland an gave a talk to the
graduation class from St. Timothy’s School. With his health failing, from here
he returned to Bermuda, then went on to Europe. While there Twain wrote very
little if anything for publication, but did continue his work on "Letters
from the Earth," and "The Turning Point of My Life," which was
published in Harper’s Bazar in February 1910.
On January 5, 1910, Twain returned to Bermuda, where he
stayed at the Bay House, in Hamilton, which was the home of the American
vice-consul, William H. Allen, whose daughter was one of his "angelfish." Now
aged 74, Twain, although bothered by often severe chest pains at times, played
golf with Woodrow Wilson, who at this time the president of Princeton
With his health and chest pains increasing in frequency and
annoyance, Twain returned to New York on April 12, 1910 in severe pain. Twain
took notice that Halley’s Comet was again visible in the sky, as it was the day
of his birth.
21, 1910 at 6:30 p.m., Samuel Clemens, the beloved Mark Twain, died at
Stormfield. His funeral was held at the Brick Presbyterian Church, New York, and
Henry Van Dyke gave a short sermon. Mark Twain was buried in Elmira, New
York on April 24, in a family plot.
evaluating the life of Mark Twain what can be said other than he was truly a
great American, the best of the best in he writings, and one of the most beloved
characters and story tellers the world will ever know. He for one is
someone that I would have loved to have met.
The genius of his wit entertained the world not only through
his literature, but through his very popular lecture series. He would always
appear elegantly clad in his trademark white suit that complemented his white
mustache and distinctive hair, along with his cigar.
A man of
serious thinking, this native American never strayed from his homespun humor and
down to earth style and manners.
Copyright © 1990-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article
and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold,
reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written
permission from the author.