Mark Twain (1835-1910)
by George Frein

Sam Clemens was born on the frontier when the Mississippi River was thought of as being in the West.  It was still a western river when he piloted steamboats between St. Louis and New Orleans beginning in 1857.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in April 1861, Clemens began to think that the Mississippi was not far enough west to meet his needs.  He joined a small band Confederate militia.  But in two weeks he learned what war was and resigned, “crippling the Southern cause to that extent,” he said.

To keep from being drafted as an experienced steamboat pilot by either the South or the North, Sam took a stagecoach west, through the plains and over the Rockies to Carson City, Nevada Territory.  On the way he learned how to speak “western,” how to tell tall tales, and how to respect outlaws.   

Out in Nevada, Clemens failed at prospecting and at speculating in silver.  He got a part-time job as a clerk  for the Territorial legislature and in a report he sent to the chief newspaper, Territorial Enterprise, on February 3, 1863 he signed himself “Mark Twain” for the first time.  Looking for full-time work, he considered becoming a minister but had to give it up: “I lacked the stock in trade,” he said.  But shortly afterward he told his brother that he had indeed found his true vocation: “I have a call to literature of a low order − namely humorous literature.  It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit.  I should long ago have ceased to meddle with things I was unfitted for and turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite laughter in God’s creatures.”

But even Nevada was not far enough west for Twain and he soon went to California where he wrote for the San Francisco Morning Call and for Bret Harte’s literary magazine the Californian.  The publication of a sketch titled “Jim Smiley and his Jumping Frog” made him, in the words on one Twain scholar, a “charismatic public figure and metaphoric Western hero.”

After the War, Twain found he could go even further west.  He sailed to Hawaii to write about the islands for the Sacramento Union.  His letters to the Union were so popular that when he returned to California, he found himself, he said, “the best known honest man on the Pacific slope.”

To capitalize on his celebrity, Twain began to lecture, first in California and then back East.  Soon he married and began to acquire, at considerable expense to his western ways, the manners and deportment of the respectable society he married into.  He gave up drinking and smoking and swearing.  He even tried to acquire religion.

Just how hard it was for Twain to endure the demands of eastern respectability can be surmised by reading the book he began to write almost as soon as he married and settled down.  The book is Roughing It, an autobiographical account of his adventures out West.  Writing the book became a second stagecoach ride across the western plains, over the mountains, down to the Pacific, and even a sailing voyage to Hawaii.  That he should go west a second time was natural: after all, he was Twain.


Recommended Reading

Loving, Jerome.  Mark Twain: The Adventures of Samuel L. Clemens. University of California Press, 2010.


Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Dover Publications,1994.


Twain, Mark. Roughing It. Signet Classics, 2008.


Twain, Mark.  The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Dover Publications,1998.


George Frein

George Frein is a retired college prof.  He is so completely retired that this past winter he did all his traveling seated by the fireplace in a Collegeville, Minnesota apartment with a book in his lap and more books on the table next to his chair. His fireside-traveling included a long journey over the Rocky Mountains in the company of Mark Twain when the author, going west to Nevada and California, passed through Julesburg in Colorado Territory.  George also climbed through the Rockies in the company of Father Peter John De Smet, one of the most enthusiastic travelers who ever climbed the Rocky Mountains.  In previous winters George has traveled fireside to the South Seas with Herman Melville; to the collective unconscious with Carl Jung; to Washington, D. C. with Abraham Lincoln; to bird sanctuaries from Nova Scotia to Florida with John James Audubon; to cathedrals in France with Henry Adams; to Massachusetts with John Adams and John Winthrop; to Who-ville and Solla Sollew with Dr.Seuss.  Finally, as a break from all this literary traveling, last winter George went to the movies where he traveled to Xanadu with Orson Welles.


Bullet Points

  • Mark Twain, 26 and single, goes west at the beginning of the Civil War, passing through Colorado on his way to Nevada and California, where he spends the war years.


  • Mark Twain, married and living in comfortable, well to do circumstances back East, writes about his time in the West in the book he titles Roughing It.


  • Mark Twain climbs mountains with his closest friend, Rev. Joseph Twitchell, but he does so on a walking tour of Europe.  He writes about it in A Tramp Abroad.


  • Mark Twain writes dozens of books −all sorts of books − most of them travel books.  He travels in the West, in Europe, and finally around the world.



  • “The mountains are imposing in their sublimity and their majesty of form and altitude, from any point of view—but one must have distance to soften their ruggedness and enrich their tintings . . . .” -- Mark Twain on mountains in California.


  • “We plodded on, two or three hours longer, and at last the Lake burst upon us—a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still! It was a vast oval, and one would have to use up eighty or a hundred good miles in traveling around it. As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface I thought it must surely be the fairest picture the whole earth affords.”  --Mark Twain on mountains around Lake Tahoe.


  • “I confess, without shame, that I expected to find masses of silver lying all about the ground. I expected to see it glittering in the sun on the mountain summits. I said nothing about this, for some instinct told me that I might possibly have an exaggerated idea about it, and so if I betrayed my thought I might bring derision upon myself. Yet I was as perfectly satisfied in my own mind as I could be of anything, that I was going to gather up, in a day or two, or at furthest a week or two, silver enough to make me satisfactorily wealthy—and so my fancy was already busy with plans for spending this money.”  − Mark Twain on what he expected to find on mountain tops.



1840s - 50s  Sam Clemens grows up on the frontier in Hannibal, Missouri.

1861            Fights in the Civil War (for two weeks), then goes west over the Rocky Mountains to Nevada.

1866            Mark Twain gives his first lecture in San Francisco.

1867            Sails on the Quaker City to Europe and the Holy Land.

1869            Publishes The Innocents Abroad.

1870            Marries Olivia Langdon.

1871            Moves to Hartford, Connecticut.

1872            Publishes Roughing It, about his time out West.

1873            Publishes The Gilded Age, about his time back East.

1876            Publishes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; Life on the Mississippi (1883); and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) -- all set during the time when the frontier was on the Mississippi.

1891            Ends residence in Hartford and takes his family to Europe.

1894            Publishes The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson -- another novel set on the Mississippi frontier.

1895            Lectures around the world to pay off debts.

1899            Outlines a plan for his autobiography.

1904            Livy dies.

1910            Clemens dies