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c. 1815 - 1899

Strother Wiley
Illustration of Strother Wiley
from first edition of

Strother Wiley was one of the most colorful steamboat pilots to enter into Mark Twain's writings. He is featured in Chapters 8, 14, and 17 of Life on the Mississippi. Wiley, a native of Virginia, was known for his colorful stories and his fiddle playing. He enjoyed immense respect of his fellow pilots and in 1857 became the first president of the St. Louis and New Orleans Pilots' Association. On 24 January 1875 an article titled "Pilot Wylie" appeared in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise written by Twain's former cohort Dan De Quille. The article may have been based upon Twain's tall tales regarding Strother Wiley. For a more complete picture of the life and career of Strother Wiley, see Edgar Branch's article in Mark Twain Journal, Fall 1986 titled "A Proposed Calendar of Samuel Clemens's Steamboats 15 April 1857 to 8 May 1861, with Commentary."

Clemens' comments: Two weeks ago I was writing several anecdotes about Strother Wiley's delicious impertinences to steamboat captains (to go in No. 6 or 7) & wondering if he were still alive & if we might have the good luck to go to New Orleans with him (he is brim full of river reminiscences,) & behold he turns up in a letter to me from St. Louis yesterday.
- Letter from Samuel Clemens to William Dean Howells, February 1875

He was a gifted pilot, a good fellow, a tireless talker, and had both wit and humor in him. He had a most irreverent independence, too, and was deliciously easy-going and comfortable in the presence of age, official dignity, and even the most august wealth. He always had work, he never saved a penny, he was a most persuasive borrower, he was in debt to every pilot on the river, and to the majority of the captains. He could throw a sort of splendor around a bit of harum-scarum, devil-may-care piloting, that made it almost fascinating - but not to everybody. He made a trip with good old Captain Y. once, and was "relieved" from duty when the boat got to New Orleans. Somebody expressed surprise at the discharge. Captain Y. shuddered at the mere mention of Stephen. Then his poor, thin old voice piped out something like this:

"Why, bless me! I wouldn't have such a wild creature on my boat for the world - not for the whole world! He swears, he sings, he whistles, he yells - I never saw such an Injun to yell. All times of the night - it never made any difference to him. He would just yell that way, not for anything in particular, but merely on account of a kind of devilish comfort he got out of it. I never could get into a sound sleep but he would fetch me out of bed, all in a cold sweat, with one of those dreadful war-whoops. A queer being - very queer being; no respect for anything or anybody. Sometimes he called me 'Johnny.' And he kept a fiddle and a cat. He played execrably. This seemed to distress the cat, and so the cat would howl. Nobody could sleep where that man - and his family - was. And reckless? There never was anything like it. Now you may believe it or not, but as sure as I am sitting here, he brought my boat a-tilting down through those awful snags at Chicot under a rattling head of steam, and the wind a-blowing like the very nation, at that! My officers will tell you so. They saw it. And, sir, while he was a- tearing right down through those snags, and I a-shaking in my shoes and praying, I wish I may never speak again if he didn't pucker up his mouth and go to whistling! Yes, sir; whistling 'Buffalo gals, can't you come out to-night, can't you come out to-night, can't you come out tonight'; and doing it as calmly as if we were attending a funeral and weren't related to the corpse. And when I remonstrated with him about it, he smiled down on me as if I was his child, and told me to run in the house and try to be good, and not be meddling with my superiors!"

Considering a captain's ostentatious but hollow chieftainship, and a pilot's real authority, there was something impudently apt and happy about that way of phrasing it.
- Life on the Mississippi

Index | Intro | Cub Pilot | Licensed Pilot | River Tour 1882 | 1902 Farewell | Steamboat Men | Glossary

Strother Wiley is featured in:

reference book
Mark Twain A to Z, The Essential Guide to His Life and Writings
edited by R. Kent Rasmussen
available from amazon.com

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