By Brad Dison
Sam was born in Missouri in 1835, the sixth of seven children. His father, John, was an attorney and judge in Hannibal during Sam’s childhood. In 1847, when Sam was 11-years-old, his father died “after a protracted and painful illness,” which was later revealed as pneumonia. In the following year, Sam quit school and went to work for the Hannibal Journal, a newspaper owned by his older brother Orion.
Beginning in 1859, newspapers reported the discovery of the Comstock Lode, a rich gold and silver ore deposit located in the Virginia mountain range in Virginia city, Nevada. The Comstock Lode was the first major discovery of silver ore in the United States. News of the find quickly spread across America and beyond. It created an excitement reminiscence of the California Gold Rush ten years earlier. Droves of prospectors flocked to Virginia City to make their fortune. The population quickly rose from a few hundred and peaked at around 25,000 residents. Businesses in Virginia City flourished and new businesses opened seemingly overnight with much success.
In March of 1861, during a two-hour Executive session, the Senate confirmed numerous nominations for office including Orion’s nomination as the Secretary of the Nevada Territory. Orion’s appointment required him to move to Nevada. Rather than going alone, Orion and Sam decided to move to Nevada together. As Secretary, Orion would work under Nevada’s governor, James W. Nye, and Sam planned to make his fortune as a prospector in the gold and silver mines. It would be an adventure.
Sam and Orion gathered their belongings and began the journey to Nevada. For more than two weeks, Orion and Sam rode in a dusty, bumpy, and swaying Concord stagecoach. Rather than a hard iron suspension, the Concord stagecoach had an improved suspension system which employed leather straps to produce a swinging motion when the coach was in motion. Sam later described the ride on the Concord stagecoach as being like “a cradle on wheels.” Another Concord stagecoach traveler described a “ride [which] will always live in my memory – but not for its beauty spots.” He and the other passengers were “jammed like sardines on the hard seats.” When traveling over rough terrain which required the stagecoach to creep along at a snail’s pace, the passengers would get out of the coach and “foot it” for relaxation. The coachman made frequent stops to exchange horses with fresh ones and the closer they got to Nevada, the more stories they heard about minors becoming wealthy. They trekked over 1700 miles from the Great Plains, over the Rocky Mountains, through Salt Lake City, and eventually arrived at the boomtown of Virginia City.
Almost immediately, Sam began working to unearth his fortune. He toiled for months at the backbreaking labor but never found his fortune. Unlike a lot of prospectors who continued searching in almost a maniacal fashion, Sam was smart enough to know that prospecting was not for him. He needed a job. His experience working for the newspaper owned by his brother enabled him to find employment at Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise newspaper. Two years later, in 1865, Sam had his first significant success as a writer when he published “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” He wrote a book called “Roughing It” based on his experiences in the American West. Sam is most well known for two books based on his own childhood entitled “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” However, we know Sam under a different name. It was in 1863, in Virginia City’s Territorial Enterprise, the job Sam took when his prospecting career failed, where Samuel Clemens first used his pen name, …Mark Twain.
- Palmyra Weekly Whig (Palmyra, Missouri), April 1, 1847, p.3.
- The Daily Exchange (Baltimore, Maryland), March 29, 1861, p.3.
- Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York), March 30, 1876, p.3.
- Reading Times (Reading, Pennsylvania), January 18, 1884, p.2.