Mark Twain–Perils of a Steamboat Pilot

Mark Twain–Steamboat Pilot 1857-1861

What’s in a Name?

Samuel Clemens’ (Mark Twain) first attempts at writing found his pen names to be descriptive, comic illusions, such as; “Son of Adam, “ “Josh,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgras,” “Rambler,” and finally a pen name of “Mark Twain.” “Mark Twain” was a riverboat term measuring two fathoms (12 feet) in depth: mark (measure) twain (two) which meant a safe navigational depth to travel measured at twelve feet or—“safe water.” He became familiar with the term during his years as a steamboat pilot and as an apprentice on the Mississippi River (1857-1861). In 1861, things changed with the onset of the Civil War, which made commercial passage on the Mississippi River an impossibility– you might say that Mark Twain was a steamboat pilot up a stream without a paddle wheel.

Samuel Clemens Pens Mark Twain in Nevada

Coincidently at the time,  Orion, Samuel’s brother, was rewarded for his campaign support in the 1860 election of President Lincoln, as he was appointed secretary to the territory of Nevada. Orion left Hannibal, Missouri to fulfill his duties as secretary for Carson City, Nevada with Samuel in tow. Upon his arrival, Samuel found employment with a newspaper as a journalist in Virginia City, Nevada, it was there that Samuel Clemens first penned his famous pseudo- name “Mark Twain.” In retrospect, it was during his time as a steamboat pilot and young boy that his mind and imagination were cultivated and developed on his road to becoming a successful writer. How did Mark Twain learn his craft?

Steamboat Funk

As steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River, he had full autonomy and decision making responsibility for the safety of his boat and passengers. From those lessons learned, he valued autonomy and self-expression; and in addtion, one might say that his time on the Mississippi River served as incubator for  his creativity and future career as a writer and humorist.
He observed that his  steamboat passengers were a traveling show of carnival acts; he wrote about them  using his  wicked imagination and sense of exaggeration.   Furthermore, he  created interesting stories with his amazing ability to bring his cast of characters to life with their own distinctive voices.  Finally,  he crafted a thoughtful portrait of the steamboat and the  river using an interplay between the contrasting qualities of good and evil.

During the interplay of these themes, he introduced many dangerous obstacles that faced the steamboat pilot in a sort of figurative tug of war with the pull of the rope being his sense of humor.
His understood the ways of the  river by listening to ghost tales and personal accounts that passengers shared; he would later embellish their stories using a mosaic of colorful and descriptive language and dialogue.

Such tales told of steamboat pilots and their floating palaces with tiers and filigree that made them as beautiful as a wedding cake.

Steamboat Travel:  Risky Business

By contrast, he heard and learned that these paddle wheelers were a dangerous means of transportation. Many steamboat pilots and their boats went to their death from recklessness, showboating speed, and commercial greed that made many boats mayflies of mortality. Aside from such reasons for causing the death of the boats; there were other dangerous hazards on the river that even an experienced steamboat pilot had difficulty trying to avoid: snags, sandbars, collisions, fires, and boiler explosions.

Steamboats Speeding


A steamboat’s cargo-cotton, hay, and turpentine


Smokestacks on open decks discharged the exhaust of open furnaces that belched cinders onto the wooden decks that contained cargo of cotton, turpentine, or hay. If a fire started on deck and spread to the boilers, a calamitous explosion ensued that hurled boat fragments and human bodies hundreds of feet into the air. When these fragments didn’t land back on deck or in the river, the victims’ bodies or body parts flew clear to shore and sometimes crashed through the roof of a building. One contemporary account said, “…shot like a cannonball through the solid wall of a house.”

1867, U.S.S. Quaker City, traveling to Holy Land.

“The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book—a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice.  And it was not a book to be read once and thrown to the aside, for it had a new story to tell everyday.” —Mark Twain, “Life on the Mississippi.”

Sam the Man

Samuel Clemens was superstitious and occasionally sentimental, but at the same time, he was intellectual, practical, and ultimately wiser than the many of the Americans who read his works. It was his inner voice which spoke to the consciousness of the nation. His outspoken voice was against social injustice.  Currently, we are a country that struggles with issues of prejudice, bigotry, and hatred. Mark Twain’s  humorous stories and his use of figurative language provided a delicate voice  for hope.  He hoped to start a conversation about  social injustice in America that  would be heard  around the country in the name of peace and harmony.

His humorous stories are desperately needed today to  build   bridges of enlightenment between races and  cultures; this may be accomplished by  engaging the people of our nation in  a back and forth narrative. A narrative of  humorous stories with moral endings to support ideas   of  tolerance and understanding.  The resulting laughter  could help to make America great again, when Americans can laugh  at themselves!

After the Civil War, Samuel Clemens called for Americans to mend their fences and stand united as a people. In summary, he wrote of his own personal history; while at the same time, he wrote about our country’s past, present, and unpredictable future .

Post Script:

Henry Clemens died aboard the steamboat– Pennyslvania.

Henry Clemens, Sam’s younger brother, died June 21, 1858 as a result of injuries received in the explosion of the PENNSYLVANIA on June 13, 1858. Sam related the incident in Chapter 20 of Life on the Mississippi. After an altercation with Pilot William Brown, Sam left the PENNSYLVANIA in New Orleans on June 5. Henry continued on in his capacity as a “mud clerk” with the PENNSYLVANIA and was on board when the boat exploded.

In his book, “Innocents Abroad”, he wrote “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

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