Young Sam Clemens

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With graphics from the collection of
Dave Thomson

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Samuel Clemens grew up on the banks of the Mississippi River near Hannibal, Missouri with a youthful burning ambition to be a steamboat river pilot. He wrote:

When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.
- Life on the Mississippi

For a few short years from 1857-1861 Clemens realized his dream--a dream which ended with the Civil War between the North and South. The dates Clemens' served as a cub pilot and licensed pilot aboard the steamboats described in this feature are based on the best reconstruction of events possible from Clemens' letters, notebooks, recollections, as well as other historical documents. In time, additional evidence may surface from the historical record to further define and clarify Clemens' movements along the Mississippi River.

In 1882 Clemens returned to the Mississippi River to gather thoughts for a book titled Life on the Mississippi. During his tour around the world in 1895, Clemens delivered at least one speech in Australia recalling his 1882 tour. (See the text of the Yorick Club speech available at this site.)

In June 1902 he paid his final visit to the River when he accepted an honorary degree at the University of Missouri in Columbia and helped dedicate a steamboat named in his honor. In September 1902 he gave an interview to the New York World and reminisced about his first stow away trip in a steamboat.

Mark Twain's First "Vacation"
from an interview in the New York World, 7 September 1902

"Do you know what it means to be a boy on the banks of the Mississippi, to see the steamboats go up and down the river, and never to have had a ride on one? Can you form any conception of what that really means? I think not.

"Well, I was seven years old and my dream by night and my longing by day had never been realized. But I guess it came to pass. That was my first vacation." A pause.

"One day when the big packet that used to stop at Hannibal rung up to the mooring at my native town, a small chunk of a lad might have been seen kiting on to the deck and in a jiffy disappearing from view beneath a yawl that was placed bottom up. I was the small chunk of a lad.

"They called it a life-boat," said Mr. Clemens, "but it was one of that kind of life-boats that wouldn't save anybody. Well, the packet started along all right, and it gave me great thrills of joy to be on a real sure-enough steamboat. But just then it commenced to rain. Now, when it rains in the Mississippi country it rains. After the packet had started I had crawled from beneath it and was enjoying the motion of the swift-moving craft. But the rain drove me to cover and that was beneath the yawl. No. It was not a life boat, for the manner in which that rain came pouring down upon me from the bottom of that yawl made me wonder if I was ever to return home again. To add to the fun the red-hot cinders from the big stacks came drifting down and stung my legs and feet with a remorseless vigor, and if it hadn't been a steamboat that I was on I would have wanted be safe at home in time for supper. Well, it kept on raining and storming generally until toward evening, when, seventeen miles below Hannibal, I was discovered by one of the crew." A very deliberate pause.

"They put me ashore at Louisiana." Another pause.

"I was sent home by some friends of my father's. My father met me on my return." A twinkle in the steel-blue eyes. "I remember that quite distinctly."

Then as an afterthought: "My mother had generally attended to that part of the duties of the household, but on that occasion my father assumed the entire responsibility." Reminiscently: "That was my first vacation and its ending"--he bit his cigar," and I remember both.

On July 4, 2003, Hannibal, Missouri dedicated a new statue to Samuel Clemens which paid tribute to his career as a Mississippi steamboat pilot. The statue was the gift of Fred Schwartz and was based on design recommendations from Mark Twain scholar Dave Thomson. The statue dedication received wide coverage in the local Hannibal Courier Post . A second news story appeared in the July 29, 2003 Courier Post.

Read more about the statue project at the site.

Photo courtesy of
Vicki Dempsey,
Hannibal, Missouri.

Hannibal statue

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