Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Headed West and Became Mark Twainby Roy Jr. Morris
In the very last paragraph of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the title character gloomily reckons that it’s time “to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.” Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Sally is trying to “sivilize” him, and Huck Finn can’t stand it—he’s been there before.
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In the very last paragraph of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the title character gloomily reckons that it’s time “to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest.” Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Sally is trying to “sivilize” him, and Huck Finn can’t stand it—he’s been there before.
It’s a decision Huck’s creator already had made, albeit for somewhat different reasons, a quarter of a century earlier. He wasn’t even Mark Twain then, but as Huck might have said, “That ain’t no matter.” With the Civil War spreading across his native Missouri, twenty-five-year-old Samuel Clemens, suddenly out of work as a Mississippi riverboat pilot, gladly accepted his brother Orion’s offer to join him in Nevada Territory, far from the crimsoned battlefields of war.
A rollicking, hilarious stagecoach journey across the Great Plains and over the Rocky Mountains was just the beginning of a nearly six-year-long odyssey that took Samuel Clemens from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Hawaii, with lengthy stopovers in Virginia City, Nevada, and San Francisco. By the time it was over, he would find himself reborn as Mark Twain, America’s best-loved, most influential writer. The “trouble,” as he famously promised, had begun.
With a pitch-perfect blend of appreciative humor and critical authority, acclaimed literary biographer Roy Morris, Jr., sheds new light on this crucial but still largely unexamined period in Mark Twain’s life. Morris carefully sorts fact from fiction—never an easy task when dealing with Twain—to tell the story of a young genius finding his voice in the ramshackle mining camps, boomtowns, and newspaper offices of the wild and woolly West, while the Civil War rages half a continent away.
With the frequent help of Twain’s own words, Morris follows his subject on a winding journey of selfdiscovery filled with high adventure and low comedy, as Clemens/Twain dodges Indians and gunfighters, receives marriage advice from Brigham Young, burns down a mountain with a frying pan, gets claim-jumped by rival miners, narrowly avoids fighting a duel, hikes across the floor of an active volcano, becomes one of the first white men to try the ancient Hawaiian sport of surfing, and writes his first great literary success, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
Lighting Out for the Territory is a fascinating, even inspiring, account of how an unemployed riverboat pilot, would-be Confederate guerrilla, failed prospector, neophyte newspaper reporter, and parttime San Francisco aesthete reinvented himself as America’s most famous and beloved writer. It’s a good story, and mostly true—with some stretchers thrown in for good measure.
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Read an Excerpt
BEFORE SAM AND ORION COULD GET TO NEVADA, they first had to reach St. Joseph, Missouri, the jumping-off point for the western frontier. On July 18, they went down to the St. Louis levee and boarded the Sioux City, a ramshackle packet boat, for a six-day trip up the Missouri River, the same river Sam Clemens had nearly been drafted to navigate for the Union Navy. Orion had left his wife, Mollie, and their five-year-old daughter, Jennie, with Mollie’s parents in Keokuk; they would rejoin him in Carson City once he got properly situated.
The Missouri, the longest river on the North American continent, is a notoriously winding and treacherous waterway. Its three-thousand-mile course traces an elliptical loop from just above St. Louis to Fort Benton, Montana, a bluff-lined, ever-changing river that makes the Mississippi look tame in comparison. “The Big Muddy,” as it was—and still is—called by travelers with no particular fondness for its turbid, dingy-brown appearance, was “unpoetic and repulsive—a stream of flowing mud studded with dead tree trunks and broken by bars,” in the words of New York Tribune reporter Albert Richardson. It rose twice yearly, in April and June, when the snowmelt from the Nebraska prairies and the Rocky Mountains uprooted trees and sent them flying like javelins through the silt-thick water. “I have seen nothing more frightful,” French explorer Jacques Marquette observed in 1673, and in his travels he had seen a lot of frightening things.
In many ways, the Missouri was more dangerous than the Mississippi. Except for its annual flood time, the Missouri baked down during the summer to a trickle of quicksand-studded shallows beneath glowering treeless bluffs. Many pilots relied too readily on “a wad of steam” to get them through the occasional rapids or over sandbars. The consequences could be deadly; dozens of Missouri River steamers blew up each year from boiler explosions. On Good Friday, April 9, 1852, the paddle wheeler Saluda exploded near Lexington, Missouri. Ill-fated Captain Francis Belt, leaning against the ship’s bell when the mishap occurred, found himself tumbling head over heels down a bluff several hundred yards inland, the bell clanging madly as it rolled downhill alongside him. The ship’s safe, with a watchdog still chained to it, and an unlucky clerk who happened to be passing by, were flung two hundred yards ashore, and a local butcher had the abject misfortune to be dismembered by a flying boiler flue. In all, the bodies of more than one hundred Saluda crewmen and passengers were eventually recovered up and down the Lexington wharf, making it the worst single disaster in the river’s disaster-strewn history.
The current trip was somewhat less perilous. Indeed, it was “so dull and sleepy,” recalled Twain, “that it has left no more impression on my memory than if its duration had been six minutes instead of that many days.” Perhaps not, but he remembered enough about the trip to jab his professional judgment a decade later. The river, he said, presented “a confused jumble of savage-looking snags, which we deliberately walked over with one wheel or the other; and of reefs which we butted and butted, and then retired from and climbed over in some softer place; and of sand-bars which we roosted on occasionally, and rested, and then got out our crutches and sparred over.” The boat might as well have traveled to St. Joseph by land, said Twain, since “she was walking most of the time, anyhow.” The boat’s captain bragged that she was “a bully boat,” needing only more shear and a bigger wheel to make her perfect. Twain, with his jaundiced pilot’s eye, thought the boat actually needed a pair of stilts, but he “had the deep sagacity not to say so.” Richardson, who had made a similar voyage upriver four years earlier, had no such compunction. “Navigating the Missouri, at low water,” he wrote, “is like putting a steamer upon dry land, and sending a boy ahead with a sprinkling pot.”
The brothers arrived safely in St. Joseph on July 24 and went immediately to the business office of the Central Overland California & Pike’s Peak Express stagecoach line, where Sam purchased tickets for the pair of them, at $150 apiece. Counting boat fare, he was now four hundred dollars out of pocket, with only a vague promise from his brother—he knew all about those—to put him on the government payroll once they reached Nevada. In choosing as their carrier the COC&PP, as it was known, the brothers had opted for the northernmost of the five established routes to the West Coast. (The Oregon Trail, which their route followed, diverged at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, and continued through the upper Northwest, but did not go through all the way to the coast.) Their itinerary followed the Little Blue River from Kansas into Nebraska, passing through Fort Kearny, then shadowed the Platte River to Cottonwood before cutting across the edge of Colorado and back into Nebraska to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, down to Fort Bridger, then to Salt Lake City, Utah, across the Great Salt Lake, and finally a straight shot across Nevada to Carson City. The trip was scheduled to take seventeen days and average a hundred miles per day. Passengers were expected to sleep sitting up inside the coach. It was a wearying prospect, but there was no other option; the first transcontinental railroad line would not be completed for another decade.
The fact that the stage line pulled into so many different forts along the way reflected the smoldering unrest, not yet a full-blown prairie fire, that was kindling within the various Plains Indian tribes whose ancestral homelands were being trampled daily by numberless thousands of white travelers. (On one day alone in August 1850, soldiers at Fort Laramie counted some 39,506 travelers rumbling westward aboard 9,927 wagons.) Among the tribes claiming territory abutting the COC&PP route were the Cheyennes, Pawnees, Poncas, Arapahos, Utes, Paiutes, and Gosiutes. Most had attended the great 1851 peace parley at Fort Laramie, where representatives of the American government, in return for the right to build roads and army posts on their land, had promised to pay the tribes annuities of fifty thousand dollars each for the next fifty years. The parsimonious U.S. Senate soon cut the number down to ten years.
It took less than three years for trouble to flare. In August 1854, a young Miniconjou Sioux warrior named High Forehead, summering with his tribesmen outside Fort Laramie, shot a stray cow that had wandered into their camp and (according to the Indians) run amok. The cow belonged to a passing party of Danish immigrants, who complained to the fort’s overworked commander, Lieutenant Hugh Fleming. Against his better judgment, Fleming sent Second Lieutenant John L. Grattan to investigate. Grattan, fresh out of West Point, was given to bragging that with ten good men he could defeat the entire Cheyenne nation. As it developed, he never got the chance (these were Sioux, anyway). On the morning of August 19, he rode out to arrest High Forehead. The warrior demurred. By the time negotiations had concluded, Grattan and his entire thirty-man force lay dead, Grattan’s body by grim coincidence bristling with twenty-four arrows—one for each year of his abruptly terminated life.
Sam Clemens may have heard about the Grattan massacre—he was in St. Louis at the time—and he certainly knew a garbled version of a second Indian massacre that had taken place two years later near Fort Kearny and involved a particularly luckless territorial secretary named Almon Whiting Babbitt. It was Babbitt’s remarkable misfortune to be attacked twice by Cheyennes within the space of thirteen days. He survived the first attack by managing to be absent when a war party set upon his supply train and killed various of his companions. Forewarned but not forearmed, the secretary was attacked again two weeks later, apparently by a different group of Cheyennes. This time he was killed. In his subsequent account of the episode in Roughing It, Mark Twain mislocated Babbitt’s attack by a good hundred miles and added: “I was personally acquainted with a hundred and thirty-three or four people who were wounded during that massacre, and barely escaped with their lives. . . . One of these parties told me that he kept coming across arrow-heads in his system for nearly seven years after the massacre.” According to Twain, Babbitt survived the massacre by crawling away on his hands and knees for forty hours, a singular feat since Babbitt was dead at the time.
With images of Indians dancing in his head (a drawing on page three of Roughing It shows the sleeping author innocently dreaming of Indians, wagon trains, buffalo hunts, steamboats, and gold mining, all lit by the rising sun), Sam climbed aboard a Concord stagecoach with Orion for the first leg of their journey. The Concord, named for the New Hampshire city where it was produced by the Abbot-Downing Company, was “a great swinging and swaying . . . cradle on wheels.” It weighed more than a ton, stood eight feet high, and could accommodate as many as twenty-one passengers—nine seated inside and a dozen more hanging precariously from the roof. Drawn by six horses, the Concord’s chief innovation was its flexible leather thoroughbraces, a pair of stiff, three-inch-thick leather strips that acted as primitive shock absorbers and produced the coach’s characteristic rocking motion. A conductor rode beside the driver, functioning more or less as his counterpart did on a railroad train, overseeing the driver, passengers, and bags of mail entrusted to his care. The body of the stagecoach was painted English vermilion, with scenic pictures decorating the outside door panels and the likenesses of well-known actresses painted on the footboards or driver’s seat much as pinup art would grace the nose cones of air force bombers in World War II.
Trading, no doubt, on Sam’s noticeable jumpiness, the “facetious” driver of their stage immediately brought up the subject of Indians. The interior of the coach was loaded down with twenty-seven hundred pounds of mail, “a perpendicular wall” of mailbags that jostled the brothers’ knees inside the passenger compartment; the rest was stowed in the front and rear boots. Some of the mail, said the driver, was intended for Salt Lake City, some for Carson City, and some for San Francisco, but most of it was set aside “for the Injuns, which is powerful troublesome ’thout they get plenty of truck to read.” Earlier that same month, the stage line had undertaken a contract with the federal government to make daily mail deliveries between St. Joseph and Salt Lake City, a task that was greatly complicated by Confederate depredations in southern Missouri, which caused some twelve tons of undelivered mail to pile up at the company’s St. Joseph office. To lighten their loads, many of the drivers had taken to abandoning mailbags on the side of the road, particularly those containing nonpersonal mail such as Harper’s Weekly, Atlantic Monthly, and Godey’s magazines, thus depriving culture-starved frontier matrons of the latest fashion news from the East. Sometimes the drivers disguised themselves as Indians and set fire to the bags to give their stories the plausible appearance of truth.
At this point in his life, the only authentic Native American that Sam Clemens had met personally was his old Hannibal neighbor “Injun Joe” Douglas, an Osage Indian who had survived a scalping from some less than fraternal Pawnees as a teenager and had been brought to Hannibal for his own safety by some sympathetic drovers. The real Injun Joe was a pleasant enough person (he even bought ice cream for the local children), but that did not stop Mark Twain from making him the memorably murderous villain of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the slayer of grave-robbing Doctor Robinson and the perjured accuser of town drunk Muff Potter. For all his various misdeeds, subsequently punished by the author when “I starved him entirely to death in the cave,” Injun Joe was a mere piker compared to the literally hair-raising Indians in Twain’s unfinished 1884 novel, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, which takes place in the same Platte River valley that their stagecoach was just now in the act of crossing.
Intended as a direct sequel to Huckleberry Finn, the eighteen-thousand-word manuscript picks up with Huck and Tom, accompanied by Jim, “lighting out for the Territory”—in this case, Nebraska—where they join a Missouri family named Mills that is bound for Oregon. Along the Platte River, they camp with a small group of Oglala Sioux warriors. Initially friendly, the Indians suddenly attack and kill all the men in the party except Huck and Tom, who escape, and Jim, who is taken prisoner along with the two Mills girls. The book meanders on, with Huck and Tom searching for their friends with late-arriving frontiersman Brace Johnson, the older girl’s fiancé. The specter of miscegenational rape is hinted at throughout the story, which may be why Twain was unable to finish it. By then he was the father of three young girls himself, and he could not bring himself to carry the book through to its logical and tragic conclusion: the rape and murder of the Mills girls by their captors.
Given his famous disdain for statistics, it probably would not have mattered to Clemens that fewer than four hundred of the nearly thirty thousand deaths suffered by western emigrants between 1842 and 1859 came at the hands of hostile Indians. Cholera alone killed ten times that many—to say nothing of dysentery, tuberculosis, smallpox, measles, mumps, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and scurvy, the latter caused by insufficient fruits and vegetables in the travelers’ diet. Accidental shootings, drownings (one historian has estimated that nearly as many travelers drowned in the various rivers as were killed by Indians), wagon mishaps, falls, lightning strikes, tornadoes, whirlwinds, blizzards, quicksand, wild animal attacks, snakebites, starvation, exhaustion, exposure, and sometimes sheer “melancholy” were steady—if less colorful—killers on the trail. Four hapless immigrants were killed by a falling oak tree in 1849; another was scalded to death in the hot springs at Truckee, Nevada. “To enjoy such a trip,” said one anonymous overlander a few years earlier, “a man must be able to endure heat like a salamander, mud and water like a muskrat, dust like a toad, and labor like a jackass. . . . It is a hardship without glory, to be sick without a home, to die and be buried like a dog.” Luckily, perhaps, as another traveler noted: “The air of the plains is glorious, pure and dry. There is no odor to a dead body here, as it does not decay but simply dries up.”
The brothers saw their first live Indians on July 29, four days into the trip and 370 miles out of St. Joseph, near Fort Kearny. Twain, oddly, does not mention the sighting in Roughing It, but Orion took note of the event at the time, reporting to his wife that they had visited the camp, priced some “beautifully dressed” buffalo robes—the Indians wanted between three and six dollars—and seen the burial scaffold, eight feet high, of an Indian child. At this point of their journey, the Indians were almost certainly Pawnees, which was good luck for Sam and Orion since the Pawnees were unwavering allies of the white man and sworn enemies of the Sioux and Cheyenne, with whom they were contesting ownership of the rapidly dwindling Plains. (Not for nothing was one of the principal Sioux chiefs named Pawnee Killer.) The Pawnee men wore their hair in a distinctive high, bristling scalp lock, not unlike a mid-seventies punk rocker, and other Indians called them the Horn People. With typical Indian humility, they called themselves the Men of Men. They were particularly avid astronomers, worshipping the morning and evening stars and annually sacrificing a captured virgin to the morning star, until a reform-minded chief named Petalesharo put an end to the practice, presumably because it was upsetting the white men.
Sam and Orion were also lucky in the timing of their trip. The trail passed just south of the area claimed by the fierce Santee Sioux, who were within a few months of going on the warpath in Minnesota and massacring upwards of 250 white men, women, and children in the worst such incident in western history. The brothers also passed within one hundred miles of the future site of an even more infamous massacre, the rubbing out in June 1876 of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and 263 of his men in the 7th Cavalry at the Little Bighorn. Santee were there that day, too.
Indians aside, the first leg of the stagecoach trip brought the brothers “an exhilarating sense of emancipation from all sorts of cares and responsibilities, that almost made us feel that the years we had spent in the close, hot city, toiling and slaving, had been wasted and thrown away.” Forgetting the fact that he had spent most of the last four years on the wide-open Mississippi River, as the captain of all he surveyed from the three-story-high pilothouse of a steamboat, Sam acted as though he had been delivered from one of Charles Dickens’s poorhouses or William Blake’s dark satanic mills. It was a bit of a stretch, but no matter. The brothers, for the time being at least, were free. “Our perfect enjoyment took the form of a tranquil and contented ecstasy,” noted Twain. “The cradle swayed and swung luxuriously. . . . As we lay and smoked the pipe of peace and compared all this luxury with the years of tiresome city life that had gone before it, we felt that there was only one complete and satisfying happiness in the world, and we had found it.”
In many ways, Sam and Orion were mismatched traveling partners. Ten years apart in age, they had never played together as children; Sam and the lost Henry were much closer playmates. After their father’s death, Orion had become the family breadwinner, a role he was congenitally unsuited to fill. The three brothers had worked together on Orion’s newspapers and at his printing company, but never as equals—Orion was always the boss. When Sam became a riverboat pilot the interpersonal balance of power tipped, but thanks to the outbreak of the war, Sam had a short reign on top. Now, once again, the older brother was dominant, and Sam could only look on with the usual mixture of affection, exasperation, and wonder at Orion’s frangible nature. “He was the only person I have ever known in whom pessimism and optimism were lodged in exactly equal proportions,” Twain would write. “Except in the matter of grounded principle, he was as unstable as water. You could dash his spirits with a single word; you could raise them into the sky again with another one. . . . He was always truthful; he was always sincere; he was always honest and honorable. But in light matters—matters of small consequence, like religion and politics and such things—he never acquired a conviction that could survive a disapproving remark from a cat.” Given the obvious differences in their natures and the contrasting similarities they bore to their parents, it was almost as if their mother and father were traveling with them on opposite sides of the stage.
For reasons of filial mercy and artistic necessity—he couldn’t very well make Orion the butt of his jokes—Mark Twain invented a third passenger on their stagecoach, a Falstaffian character named George Bemis. Like them, Bemis came armed, in his case with a comically impractical Allen pistol, known as a “pepper-box” for its unique appearance. With six revolving barrels, the unwieldy Allen did resemble a pepper shaker, more or less, and it was about as effective as a handgun. “To aim along the turning barrel and hit the thing aimed at,” said Twain, “was a feat which was probably never done with an ‘Allen’ in the world. . . . It was a cheerful weapon—the ‘Allen.’ Sometimes all its six barrels would go off at once, and then there was no safe place in all the region round about, but behind it.” Demonstrating the weapon for his fellow travelers, Bemis nails a deuce of spades to a tree and accidentally shoots a mule standing thirty yards to the left. “Bemis did not want the mule,” remembered Twain, “but the owner came out with a double-barreled shotgun and persuaded him to buy it, anyhow.”
In Roughing It, Bemis provides comedy relief, or at any rate comedic companionship, during the first part of the brothers’ journey west. At one point he is conked on the head by Orion’s half-ton unabridged dictionary, which “tilted Bemis’s nose up till he could look down his nostrils.” On another occasion, he joins an impromptu buffalo hunt, only to be chased for two miles by an enraged bull, which follows him up the only tree still standing within sight of nine counties. Bemis, in his recounting, says he lassoed the bull when it drew too near to his tree limb, and fired off his Allen, which missed the bull but scared it enough to send it into convulsions and allowed him to escape. When Twain expresses doubt about the story, Bemis forces him to admit that the story must be true, since he (Bemis) is missing his lariat, his horse, and the bull buffalo—thus proving his point.
At South Pass City, Utah, astride the Continental Divide, the travelers meet the resident postmaster, who combines within his person the offices of hotel keeper, blacksmith, mayor, constable, city marshal, and principal citizen. “Bemis said he was ‘a perfect Allen’s revolver of dignities,’” Twain recalled. When last seen, a drunken Bemis has taken to his bed in Salt Lake City, still wearing his boots and “talking loosely, disjointedly and indiscriminately, and every now and then tugging out a ragged word by the roots that had more hiccups than syllables in it.” A victim of “valley tan,” a local whiskey made from wheat and considered by one authority to be “the vilest whisky I remember tasting,” Bemis is heard no more. Like the fool in King Lear, he simply disappears from the play.
When not communing with the imaginary Bemis, the brothers kept a close eye on the real-life flora and fauna outside the stagecoach windows. For comfort’s sake, they stripped down to their cotton underwear—it was truly a man’s world inside the coach—and reclined on the mailbags, smoking their pipes and dodging periodically “the uneasy Dictionary” when it “made an assault” upon them. Side by side, wrote Twain, they “leveled an outlook over the world-wide carpet about us for things new and strange to gaze at. Even at this day it thrills me through and through to think of the life, the gladness and the wild sense of freedom that used to make the blood dance in my being on those fine overland mornings!” The countryside went from gently rolling plains to flat, horizonless prairie broken only by the hardy sagebrush, or “greasewood,” which made for a smokeless campfire “and consequently no swearing.” As a comestible, however, Twain found the sagebrush “a distinguished failure. Nothing can abide the taste of it but the jackass and his illegitimate child the mule. But their testimony to its nutritiousness is worth nothing, for they will eat pine knots, or anthracite coal, or brass filings, or lead pipe, or old bottles, or anything that comes handy, and then go off looking as grateful as if they had had oysters for dinner.”
Orion’s maddening habit of whistling drove the fidgeting Sam to frequent transports of imagined murder. “His diabolical notions of time and tune [are] worse than the itch,” Sam wrote to their mother. “Providence has ordained that he shall whistle when he feels pleasant—notwithstanding the fact that the barbarous sounds he produces are bound to drive comfort away from everyone else within hear-shot of them. I have to sit still and be tortured with his infernal discords, and fag-ends of tunes which were worn out and discarded before ‘Roll on—Sil-ver Moo-oon’ became popular, strung together without regard to taste, time, melody, or the eternal fitness of things.”
Orion’s whistling aside, it was “a fine pleasure trip,” and the brothers “supped daily on wonders.” Near Big Sandy Creek in Nebraska, they saw their first jackrabbit, or “jackass rabbit,” as Twain called it. The stage driver encouraged them to make the unoffending animal “hump himself,” or take off running, and the brothers opened fire with their pistols. “It is not putting it too strong to stay that the rabbit was frantic,” wrote Twain. “He dropped his ears, set up his tail, and left for San Francisco at a speed which can only be described as a flash and a vanish! Long after he was out of sight we could hear him whiz.”
Besides jackrabbits, they also saw wolves, antelopes, prairie dogs, and coyotes. The coyote—he continually misspelled it “cayote”—afforded Twain an opportunity for a fine set piece of descriptive writing. The coyote, he said, “is a long, slim, sick and sorry-looking skeleton, with a gray wolf-skin stretched over it, a tolerably bushy tail that forever sags down with a despairing expression of forsakenness and misery, a furtive and evil eye, and a long, sharp face, with a slightly lifted lip and exposed teeth. He has a general slinking expression all over. The cayote is a living, breathing allegory of Want. He is always hungry. He is always, poor, out of luck and friendless. The meanest creatures despise him, and even the fleas would desert him for a velocipede. He is so spiritless and cowardly that even while his exposed teeth are pretending a threat, the rest of his face is apologizing for it.” The coyote’s only companions are lizards, jackrabbits, ravens, and “his first cousins, the desert-frequenting . . . Indians.” Like them, “he will eat anything [he] can bite. . . . He does not mind going a hundred miles to breakfast, and a hundred and fifty to dinner, because he is sure to have three or four days between meals, and he can just as well be traveling and looking at the scenery as lying around doing nothing and adding to the burdens of his parents.”
The brothers were often hungry themselves, owing to the gruesome fare provided to passengers at COC&PP way stations. Stagecoaches would stop every ten or twelve miles to change horses, but passengers could alight only every forty or fifty miles to relieve and refresh themselves at a station. The stations, so familiar to future generations of motion picture and television shows, were a jumble of long, low adobe huts connected to wooden barns and stables. Watering troughs and hitching posts stood in front of the main building, which doubled as a dining room and bunkhouse for the station keeper and assorted hostlers, blacksmiths, and hangers-on. To Twain, the station men were “unspeakably picturesque” in their invariable outfits of buckskin leggings, blue-and-yellow pants, high-heeled boots, and Spanish spurs. Long navy revolvers were worn on leather belts, the handles reversed for easy drawing; horn-handled bowie knives projected from their boots. The station men scarcely noticed the interchangeable travelers, reserving their attention for the stagecoach driver—“a great and shining dignitary, the world’s favorite son, the envy of the people, the observed of the nations.”
The driver, for his part, considered the station men “a sort of good enough low creatures, useful in their place, and helping to make up a world, but not the kind of beings which a person of distinction could afford to concern himself with.” When he did deign to speak to them, uttering a joke “old as the hills, coarse, profane, witless, and inflicted on the same audience, in the same language, every time his coach drove up there—the varlets roared, and slapped their thighs, and swore it was the best thing they’d ever heard in all their lives.” The meals at the stations were no better than the jokes. Served at a communal table where the conversation typically boiled down to a muttered “Pass the bread, you son of a bitch,” the fare consisted of “a disk of last week’s bread, of the size and shape of an old-time cheese,” a slice of rancid bacon bought cheap from the army after it had been condemned as unfit to serve to enlisted men, a cruet of fly-specked vinegar, and a uniquely western beverage called “slumgullion,” which “pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.” Once, Twain asked for coffee instead, rendering the station keeper momentarily speechless. “At last, when he came to, he turned away and said, as one who communes with himself upon a matter too vast to grasp: ‘Coffee! Well, if that don’t go clean ahead of me, I’m damned.’”
British explorer Sir Richard Burton, co-discover of the source of the Nile, infiltrator of Mecca, and translator of The Arabian Nights, made a similar stagecoach trip west eleven months before Sam and Orion, and he too found the station food virtually inedible, the coffee simmered “till every noxious principle was duly extracted from it,” the bacon “rusty,” the antelope steak “cut off a corpse suspended for the benefit of flies outside,” and the bread prepared with sour milk, carbonate of soda, or alkali, “which communicates to the food the green-yellow tinge, and suggests many of the properties of poison.”
Burton’s itinerary mirrored the brothers’ route. Like them, he had boarded a Central Overland stage in St. Joseph, bound initially for Salt Lake City. And, like Sam, Burton was leaving behind a conflict, in his case a nasty row with his erstwhile exploring partner John Hanning Speke over which man had actually discovered the headwaters of the Nile at Lake Victoria. (Opinions still vary.) Speke beat Burton back to London and took the lion’s share of the credit for himself, and a depressed, demoralized Burton abandoned England for a cross-country tour of America. “It’ll be a most interesting experiment,” Burton noted in his journal. “I want to see whether after a life of 3 or 4 months, I can drink and eat myself to the level of the aborigines.” To guard against such aborigines, Burton wore a brace of Colt revolvers on his hips, with extra bullets stuffed into the oversized pockets of an English tweed shooting jacket and a bowie knife jammed into his boot.
Armed, too, with letters of introduction from Secretary of War John B. Floyd to the commanders of the various forts along the way, Burton hoped to join the army in hostile encounters with the Indians. To his disappointment, the main tribes in the area—the Comanches, Kiowas, and Cheyennes—had lapsed into a temporary period of quiet, and Burton had to settle for turning his sharp brown eyes to an anthropological study of the Indians, whom he found quite similar to the desert Bedouins of North Africa. “Both have the same wild chivalry, the same fiery sense of honor, and the same boundless hospitality,” he wrote. “The blood feud and the vendetta are common to the two. Both are grave and cautious in demeanor and formal in manner—princes in rags or paint. The Arabs plunder pilgrims; the Indians, bands of trappers. And both rob according to certain rules.” At one point Burton tried unsuccessfully to get a Sioux warrior to show him how to scalp someone, but the Indian “refused indignantly.” A glass of whiskey would have changed his mind, thought Burton, “but I was unwilling to break through the wholesome law that prohibits it.”
Another prominent mid-century figure who traversed the Plains at about the same time did not share Burton’s admiration, however tempered, of the Indians. New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, who a few years earlier had famously urged his fellow Americans, “Go West, young man, and grow up with the country,” took his own advice in 1859 and crossed the country in a stagecoach. En route from Quincy, Illinois, to the jumping-off point at St. Joseph, Greeley passed through Hannibal, which he found “a bustling, growing village,” although he advised the residents to get a better wharf before he returned. Much of what Greeley saw disappointed him, particularly the Native Americans he passed along the way. “The Indians are children,” Greeley wrote. “Their arts, wars, treaties, alliances, habitations, crafts, properties, commerce, comforts, all belong to the very lowest and rudest ages of human existence.” Indian men, he said, were “squalid and conceited, proud and worthless, lazy and lousy,” while their women were “degraded and filthy” and treated no better than a beast of burden by their husbands. Summing up, Greeley wrote: “I could not help saying, ‘These people must die out—there is no help for them.’ . . . [T]hey will strut out or drink out their miserable existence, and at length afford the world a sensible relief by dying out of it.”
The Indians were not alone in disappointing Greeley. “There are too many idle, shiftless people in Kansas,” he informed his readers. “They live a little and lie a little.” The Mormons, although hardworking and abstemious, “assumed that [they] were God’s peculiar, chosen, beloved people, and that all the rest of mankind are out of the ark of safety and floundering in heathen darkness. I am not edified by this sort of preaching.” As for California, Greeley found the Indians living there “generally idle and depraved, while the white men who come in contact with them are often rascals and ruffians.” The state was sorely lacking in “virtuous, educated, energetic women” and the chances of young men “making their pile . . . have nearly ceased to exist.”
Even the majestic countryside failed to impress the sophisticated New Yorker. The Great Plains were “nearly destitute of human inhabitants,” Greeley wrote, and the wind blew incessantly for fifty miles in either direction, threatening to literally blow the wheels off wagons. “The broad landscape remains treeless, cheerless, forbidding,” he shuddered. Farther west, the Humboldt River in northern Nevada was “the meanest river of its length on earth. . . . Its water, for at least the lower half of its course, is about the most detestable I ever tasted. I mainly chose to suffer thirst rather than drink it.” On the first point, at least, Mark Twain would agree: in Roughing It, he would describe the Humboldt as “a sickly rivulet,” only one-fourth as deep as the Erie Canal. It was not completely useless, however, since “one of the pleasantest and most invigorating exercises one can contrive is to run and jump across the Humboldt River till he is overheated, and then drink it dry.”
Like Greeley and Burton before them, Sam and Orion spent the vast majority of their time inside the stagecoach. On the open road, the coach changed drivers once a day, or every seventy-five miles, and conductors every 250 miles, which was the limit of their fiefdom in a “division,” or area of responsibility. The Clemens brothers rarely got to know their drivers, but they did on occasion become friendly with the conductors, who were as regal in bearing and absolute in power as a mogul, sultan, or king, and “in whose presence common men were modest of speech and manner, and in the glare of whose greatness even the dazzling stage-driver dwindled to a penny dip.” There were, Twain estimated, sixteen to eighteen conductors on the overland route, one coming and one going at all times.
Overseeing the entire 1,900-mile operation was another larger-than-life character, Ben Holladay. Known without exaggeration as “the Stagecoach King,” the Kentucky-born Holladay had immigrated to Missouri as a teenager and variously operated a tavern, a drugstore, and a dirt-floor hotel before entering the transportation business. Mortgaging his property, he bought a handful of wagons and mules and began running goods to and from the Mississippi River to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Eventually taking control of the Central Overland stage line, Holladay cornered the market on passenger traffic between the Mississippi and Salt Lake City, bullion deliveries from California and Nevada, and U.S. mail delivery everywhere in between. After the outbreak of the Civil War closed the more southerly Oxbow Route, operated by his chief competitor, John Butterfield, between St. Louis and San Francisco, Holladay enjoyed a virtual monopoly for the next five years. During that time, his stage line raked in an estimated $200,000 per month in cargo and passenger fees, along with an additional two million dollars in total payments from the federal government for mail deliveries.
One brief but romantic part of Holladay’s empire was the hell-for-leather mail delivery system that came to be known as the Pony Express. Although it operated for only eighteen months before being rendered obsolete by the transcontinental telegraph, the Pony Express captured—and still captures—the American imagination as a vivid and breathless chapter of the western experience. Begun in April 1860 by Holladay’s predecessor, William H. Russell, head of Russell, Majors & Waddell freight company, the Pony Express was intended to answer the national demand for swifter, more dependable coast-to-coast mail service. Prior to 1860, there were only two ways for mail to reach the West Coast: the southwesterly Oxbow Route, which took three weeks, and a land-sea route from New York City to San Francisco, via the Isthmus of Panama, which took twice that long. Russell proposed to cut the time to thirteen days by means of an interlocking relay system of horseback riders dashing cross-country at breakneck speed over the central route between Sacramento and St. Joseph. Each rider would cover between seventy-five and a hundred miles on his run, with quicksilver stops to change horses every dozen or so miles. The fee per letter was five dollars per half ounce, not including the ten-cent postage stamp required by the U.S. Treasury Department. The mail was carried in a specially designed four-pouch container called a mochila (Spanish for “rucksack”), which fit over the saddle horn and could be transferred from one horse to another in a matter of seconds. A small bugle, soon discarded, was carried by the riders to announce their impending approach.
Russell placed an ad for potential riders in leading newspapers throughout the West. The ad itself became legendary: “Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” Hundreds of adventure-seeking young men who met all or part of the qualifications quickly responded, including a teenager named William F. Cody, still a few years’ shy of acquiring his indelible nickname, Buffalo Bill. Deliveries commenced on April 3, 1860, starting out of St. Joseph. From the beginning, the riders’ heroic feats of bravery, stoicism, and devotion to duty spread across the country more quickly than the mail they delivered. One such feat involved the aptly named “Pony Bob” Haslam, an express rider making the Nevada run between Friday’s Station and Fort Churchill. On May 11, 1860, Haslam set out on his route, only to discover that all the stations had been abandoned by their panicky keepers or destroyed by marauding Paiute Indians, who had killed and scalped several unlucky station employees. By the time he reached Smith’s Creek Station on early May 12, Haslam had ridden 190 miles in eighteen hours. After grabbing a few hours’ sleep, he was back in the saddle for the return trip; in thirty-six hours, he covered an astonishing 380 miles. It was all in a day’s work for Haslam, who once rode 120 miles in Utah Territory with his jaw broken by an Indian arrow and one arm shattered by a bullet.
Despite such superhuman accomplishments, the Pony Express was already on its last legs, so to speak, when Sam and Orion set out for Nevada. The overland telegraph was leapfrogging them along the way; telegraph stations already had been established as far west as fifty miles beyond Fort Kearny. Another crew was busily stringing wire eastward from Carson City, the brothers’ ultimate destination. On the sixth day of their trip, 580 miles out of St. Joseph outside Scott’s Bluff Pass, Nebraska, they got their first and only look at a Pony Express rider. Before then, Twain wrote, “We had had a consuming desire, from the beginning, to see a pony-rider, but somehow or other all that passed us and all that met us managed to streak by in the night, and so we heard only a whiz and a hail, and the swift phantom of the desert was gone before we could stick our heads out of the window.” Now, in full daylight, they heard their driver cry, “Here he comes!” and they saw, in the distance, a black speck rising and falling as it approached them from the opposite direction. It was a brief encounter: “A whoop and a hurrah from our upper deck, a wave of the rider’s hand, but no reply, and man and horse burst past our excited faces, and go winging away like a belated fragment of a storm! So sudden is it all, and so like a flash of unreal fancy . . . we might have doubted whether we had seen an actual horse and man at all.”
Other adventures real or imagined broke up the monotony of their trip. One rainy, ink-black night, the brothers jolted awake from a restless sleep to hear their stage driver cry out: “Help! Help! Help! I’m being murdered! Will no man lend me a pistol?” Seconds later they heard two pistol shots, followed by confused voices, trampling feet, heavy, dull thumps, and the driver groaning, “Don’t, gentlemen, please don’t—I’m a dead man!” The next morning, when they asked the conductor about the disturbance, he shrugged it off, hinting darkly that some of the many outlaws who infested the area had been “laying for” the now-missing driver. The hair-raising experience was likely a hoax, one of the “play killings” that drivers and conductors performed on occasion to frighten tenderfeet such as the Clemenses. On one occasion, however, Orion reported an actual violent altercation between their conductor and four drunken stagecoach drivers at a station in the Black Hills near La Prele, Nebraska Territory. The conductor had come up to Orion and asked to borrow his pistol, “but before I could hand it to him, one of the men got up and commenced cursing him. Another then came up and knocked the conductor down, cutting a bad gash in his upper lip, and telling him he would have killed him if he had had his boots on.” Neither Orion nor Sam, probably wisely, tried to intervene.
A very real outlaw whom they did encounter on their journey was Joseph A. Slade, trail master for the stage line between Julesburg, Colorado, and Rocky Ridge Station, Nebraska. Jack Slade, perfectly named for a gunfighter, was already a legend around those parts. Originally from Carlyle, Illinois, the wastrel son of a former congressman, Slade had run off to the West at the age of thirteen after killing a man with a rock during an argument. He subsequently served in the Mexican War and drove freight wagons for several years before becoming a division superintendent for the COC&PP in 1859. By all accounts, Slade was an efficient and fearless superintendent, contending with both outlaws and Indians along his route. One of the former, his predecessor at Julesburg, was a bearish French-Canadian fur trader named Jules Beni, who had given (oddly) his first name to the settlement on the South Platte River where the overland road branched off to Denver. Beni, feeling perhaps underappreciated as a city father, shot the unarmed Slade several times with a double-barreled shotgun but made the fatal mistake of not finishing him off when he had the chance. After recovering from his wounds, Slade sought revenge, taking care not to repeat Beni’s mistake. He shot and killed his rival, either dispatching him instantly with two rounds to the head or else tying him to a fence post and potshotting him at his leisure, depending on who was telling the story. Either way, he cut off one of his victim’s ears afterward and wore it as a watch fob, to the horrified fascination of local children to whom he displayed it frequently as a curiosity, talisman, and object lesson.
By the time Sam sat down to share a cup of coffee with the famous badman at Rocky Ridge Station, he had comically inflated the real Slade into an outsized bogeyman for the purposes of underlining their argument over a last cup of coffee. “Slade was about to take it when he saw that my cup was empty,” wrote Twain. “He politely offered to fill it, but . . . I politely declined. I was afraid he had not killed anybody that morning and might be needing diversion.” Slade insisted that Sam take the coffee, “but it gave me no comfort, for I could not feel sure that he would not be sorry, presently, that he had given it away, and proceed to kill me to distract his thoughts from the loss.”
Twain, of course, survived the confrontation, but Slade eventually met a bad end. Three years later, having moved to Montana, he was hanged by his fellow vigilantes for repeated but nonspecific disturbances of the peace, usually after he had been drinking. His sympathetic biographer, transplanted Englishman Thomas J. Dimsdale, noted that Slade was usually a courteous gentleman, but that “those who met him when maddened with liquor and surrounded by a gang of armed roughs, would pronounce him a fiend incarnate. From Fort Kearny west, he was feared a great deal more than the Almighty.” Buffalo Bill Cody, not in attendance for the execution, testified later that he had worked for Slade for two years as a Pony Express rider and stage driver and knew him to be “kind, generous, and concerned for the welfare of his employees.” By then, it was a little late for character references.
The peripatetic Richard Burton, who encountered the gunman about the same time that Clemens did, also found him to be gallant and solicitous. Burton could not say the same for Slade’s common-law wife, Virginia, whom the Englishman considered “cold and disagreeable,” perhaps because she, a former dance hall girl in frontier saloons, was more or less immune to his flashing Old World charm and required Burton and his fellow male travelers to sleep in a barn at the station. Orion Clemens remembered Slade more clearly than his brother, leaving behind a good physical description: “He had gray eyes, very light straight hair, no beard, and a hard-looking face seamed like a man of 60,” wrote Orion. “His face was thin, his nose straight and ordinarily prominent—lips rather thinner than usual—otherwise nothing unusual.”
On their way across Nebraska, the brothers just missed running into another soon to be notorious gunslinger, James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Less than a week before Sam and Orion departed St. Joseph, the twenty-four-year-old Hickok, not yet dubbed “the Prince of the Pistoleers,” had been involved in a deadly shootout at Rock Creek Station, near Beatrice, Nebraska, the circumstances of which remain murky to this day. As with many such incidents, then and later, it began with a woman, in this case the sometime girlfriend of a nearby rancher named Dave McCanles. Hickok, a humble stock tender at the time, was a romantic rival for the favors of the complaisant local girl, one Sarah Shull, notwithstanding the nickname McCanles had hung on Hickok—Duck Bill—an unflattering reference to Hickok’s protruding upper lip.
When McCanles and two henchmen showed up at the station on the afternoon of July 12, 1861, threatening to “clean up on the people at the station,” Hickok somewhat unvalorously hid behind a curtain in the bedroom and shot McCanles through the curtain and heart, respectively, when McCanles peeked into the station. Hickok then wounded McCanles’s two companions, who were quickly dispatched with axes and hoes by other station workers before they could get away. Somehow, the sordid little frontier murders grew into a heroic account of derring-do in which the gallant Hickok single-handedly killed ten desperadoes, while himself suffering a fractured skull, thirteen knife wounds, and fourteen bullet wounds in the process. It was a reputation Hickok would spend the rest of his life—almost exactly fifteen years—attempting to live down, or live up to, before he was shot in the back of the head by a skulking assassin in a Deadwood, South Dakota, saloon while holding the poker hand ever afterward known as Dead Man’s Hand—two aces, two eights, and the queen of hearts.
Passing unscathed around the Black Hills into Utah, the brothers entered Mormon country. They were beyond the reach of marauding Indians, at least the formidable Sioux and Cheyenne, but the Mormons were no walk in the park themselves. In the summer of 1857, disguised as Indians, members of the sect had waylaid a wagon train of 140 Missouri and Arkansas emigrants at Mountain Meadows in southern Utah, tricked them into surrendering their weapons, and killed everyone in the party except for seventeen infants deemed too young to identify their attackers. It was long-delayed revenge for the rough treatment the Mormons had endured at the hands of the Clemenses’ fellow Missourians two decades earlier, which had occasioned their trek westward in the first place.
Resettled in Utah after an epic 1,400-mile odyssey from the Midwest, the Mormons and their indomitable leader, Brigham Young, had built a new Zion, initially called Deseret, on the alkali flats around the Great Salt Lake. Resisting the demands of the federal government that they stop practicing polygamy (Young alone had seventeen wives), the Mormons forced normally languid President James Buchanan to send in the army and remove Young from his official post as territorial governor, although Young retained his grip on power. Fully half of the Mormons’ territory was carved away and shaped into Nevada Territory, a vivisection that had only become official in March 1861. Tensions remained high on both sides, although the new president, Abraham Lincoln, promised to leave the Mormons alone if they would leave him alone while he turned his attention to his fellow Christians in the South.
Orion’s only official duty before taking his seat in Nevada was to meet with Brigham Young in Salt Lake City and ascertain his willingness to be left alone. A meeting was arranged for August 5, and Sam tagged along to see firsthand the notorious defier of federal and biblical authority. The night before, the brothers had shared supper with one of the so-called Destroying Angels, or Sons of Dan, a Mormon paramilitary group “set apart by the church to conduct permanent disappearances of obnoxious citizens.” Richard Burton had seen tangible evidence of the Danites’ destructive ability when he was shown the remains of two suspected horse thieves who had been gunned down and left to hang as a warning to other potential miscreants. “This wild, unflinching, and unerring justice, secret and sudden, is the rod of iron which protects the good,” Burton noted approvingly.
Twain, for his part, was not as impressed. Their host “was murderous enough, possibly to fill the bill of a Destroyer,” he recalled, “but could you abide an Angel in an unclean shirt and no suspenders? Could you respect an Angel with a horse-laugh and a swagger like a buccaneer?” As for Young, whom Burton considered “no common man,” Twain found him “quiet, kindly, easy-mannered, dignified, [and] self-possessed.” When he tried to draw him out on questions of governmental authority, Young “merely looked around at me . . . as I have seen a benignant old cat look around to see which kitten was meddling with her tail.” Young’s second in command, Heber C. Kimball, was more forthcoming, telling the brothers bluntly that he would like to see the North and the South give each other “a grubbing. It’s my opinion,” he continued, “you won’t see peace any more; the United States will go all to pieces, and the Mormons will take charge of and rule all the country.” Kimball could not say precisely when that time would come, but he ended with a blunt personal warning to Orion: “You are going to have trouble in Nevada.” He did not say from which direction such trouble would come. In private, Kimball relished the American war. “Now the yoke is off our neck and on theirs,” he said.
The remainder of the brothers’ two-day visit was spent taking in the sights around Salt Lake City. The cosmopolitan, well-traveled Burton, who had toured cities from London to Cairo, found the Mormon capital “a vast improvement upon its contemporaries in the valleys of the Mississippi and the Missouri.” Two decades later, Burton’s fellow Anglo-Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, would include Salt Lake City on his triumphal speaking tour of America. To Wilde, the Mormon Tabernacle “looked like a soup-kettle . . . an enormous affair about the size of Covent Gardens that holds with ease fourteen Mormon families.” Twain was less interested in local architecture than in the controversial practice of polygamy, which he described in delighted detail in Roughing It: “Some portly old frog of an elder, or a bishop, marries a girl—likes her, marries her sister—likes her, marries another sister—likes her, takes another—likes her, marries her mother—likes her, marries her father, grandfather great grandfather, and then comes back hungry and asks for more.”
Quoting a made-up source named “Johnson,” Twain depicted a comically set-upon Brigham Young, whose squadron of wives had given him an uncountable number of children, so many that Young could not remember all their names or faces, and simply assumed that any child he passed on the street was one of his. To accommodate all seventy-two of his wives, said Twain, the Mormon leader had constructed a ninety-six-foot-wide bed for them to sleep in, but the sound of their combined snoring proved deafening. “Take my word for it,” says Young, “ten or eleven wives is all you need—never go over it.” Twain, for his part, endorsed polygamy, at least for the Mormons. Seeing the “poor, ungainly and pathetically homely” women thronging the streets of Salt Lake City, the author judged that “the man that marries one of them has done an act of Christian charity which entitles him to the kindly applause of mankind . . . and the man that marries sixty of them has done a deed of open-handed generosity so sublime that the nations should stand uncovered in his presence and worship in silence.”
Twain was less impressed by the Book of Mormon, which he considered nothing less than “chloroform in print.” If Mormon founder Joseph Smith had actually written the book, said Twain, “the act was a miracle—keeping awake while he did it.” Having learned, however unwillingly, much of the Bible as a boy in his Methodist mother’s lap, Twain found the Mormon version of Christianity “a prosy detail of imaginary history, with the Old Testament for a model; followed by a tedious plagiarism of the New Testament.” The Mormon Bible, he concluded, “is rather stupid and tiresome to read, but there is nothing vicious in its teachings.” Twain’s somewhat mixed view of Mormons was more tolerant than that of U.S. Army Colonel Patrick Connor, an Irish Catholic immigrant who was charged with protecting overland mail routes during the Civil War. The Mormons, said Connor, were nothing less than “a community of traitors, murderers, fanatics, and whores.” Connor’s opinion, by no means a minority in the rest of the Union, did not prevent him from making common cause with the Saints to slaughter more than 250 Shoshone men, women, and children at Bear River, Utah, on January 29, 1863—one of the worst, if least remembered, massacres in western history.
Having completed their visit, the brothers left Salt Lake City and crossed the southern edge of the Great Salt Lake, sixty-eight miles of “concentrated hideousness” littered with animal bones and suffused with alkali dust that burned their eyes and made their noses bleed for the entire twenty-two hours it took them to make the journey. At the mouth of Rocky, or Egan, Canyon, 250 miles west of the Mormon capital, they encountered the forlorn Gosiute Indians, a literally dirt-poor tribe whose very name meant “parched earth.” Owing perhaps to the miseries he and Orion had just encountered, Sam had little patience with the tribe, whose members he considered “the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen.”
The Gosiutes, relatives of the Paiutes and Shoshones, were the epitome of what other Indians called “Sit-arounds,” meaning they sat around reservations and begged for handouts of food and liquor. In the Gosiutes’ case, such behavior was understandable—they inhabited some of the least salubrious real estate in North America, land they shared exclusively with insects and rodents. To Twain, they were “a silent, sneaking, treacherous looking race . . . having no higher ambition than to kill and eat jackass rabbits, crickets and grasshoppers, and embezzle carrion from the buzzards and cayotes . . . manifestly descended from the self-same gorilla, or kangaroo, or Norway rat . . . the Darwinians trace them to.” Army Captain James H. Simpson, exploring a wagon route through the area, shared that sentiment, watching with disgusted fascination as one hospitable Gosiute woman gutted a rat, squeezed out its intestines, and “threw the animal, entrails and all, into the pot.” Simpson quickly found that he had lost his appetite.
Contradicting Twain’s initial impression that “one would as soon expect the rabbits to fight as the Goshoots [sic],” tribesmen did occasionally attack stray stagecoaches and way stations, and two years’ after the Clemenses’ visit they went on the warpath briefly against the U.S. Army before suing for peace. Their chief role in Roughing It is to disabuse the credulous Clemens of his romantic image of Indians, which he traces back to his boyhood reading of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels. As a direct, if delayed, result of his encounter with the Gosiutes, Mark Twain in 1895 would publish one of his funniest and most devastating essays, “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” in which he indicted the author of The Last of the Mohicans, The Deerslayer, and the rest of the Leatherstocking Tales for breaking eighteen of the nineteen accepted rules for fiction writing. Some of these rules concerned the art of writing, particularly in a clear, vernacular style—an art that Twain majored in, so to speak, while Cooper took it as a Saturday morning elective. As for Cooper’s celebrated depiction of Indians, “The difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious.” Horace Greeley concurred. “The poetic Indian—the Indian of Cooper and Longfellow—is only visible to the poet’s eye,” he wrote. “To the prosaic observer, the average Indian of the woods and prairies is a being who does little credit to human nature—a slave of appetite and sloth, never emancipated from the tyranny of one animal passion save by the more ravenous demands of another.”
The brothers were nearing the end of their journey, but they still had one more desert to cross, the Great American Desert, also known as the Forty-Mile Desert. (“They are called deserts because there is no water in them,” Orion helpfully explained to his prairie-born wife in a letter describing their cross-country trip.) Beginning at Dry Sandy Springs and concluding at the appropriately named Ragtown, where earlier pilgrims had left behind their ruined clothing, the desert was “one prodigious boneyard,” noted Twain, its roadway littered with the sand-blasted bones of horses and oxen. The entire basin, wrote journalist Samuel Bowles, was “a region whose uses are unimaginable, unless to hold the rest of the globe together, or to teach patience to travelers, or to keep close-locked in its mountain ranges those mineral treasures that the world did not need or was not ready for until now.”
The day before reaching Ragtown, Sam and Orion had passed telegraph builders working their way east and had sent a message to Governor Nye announcing their imminent arrival. They did not wait for a reply—just as well, since none was forthcoming. On the morning of August 14, twenty days after departing St. Joseph, they got their first look at their destination. It was not overly impressive. Carson City, said Twain, was an “assemblage of mere white spots in the shadow of a grim range of mountains overlooking it.” Still, like the Israelites in Canaan and the Mormons in Utah, they too had reached the promised land—smack in the middle of a broiling desert. There was no milk and honey, and no harem of compliant wives, waiting for them at the end of their journey, but for the time being, at least, it would have to do.
© 2010 Roy Morris, Jr.
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