The Boys’ Life of Mark Twain
by Paine

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Public Domain Books

XX. The Miner

The wonder is that Samuel Clemens, always speculative and visionary, had not fallen an earlier victim. Everywhere one heard stories of sudden fortune–of men who had gone to bed paupers and awakened millionaires. New and fabulous finds were reported daily. Cart-loads of bricks–silver and gold bricks–drove through the Carson streets.

Then suddenly from the newly opened Humboldt region came the wildest reports. The mountains there were said to be stuffed with gold. A correspondent of the “Territorial Enterprise” was unable to find words to picture the riches of the Humboldt mines.

The air for Samuel Clemens began to shimmer. Fortune was waiting to be gathered in a basket. He joined the first expedition for Humboldt–in fact, helped to organize it. In “Roughing It” he says:

“Hurry was the word! We wasted no time. Our party consisted of four persons–a blacksmith sixty years of age, two young lawyers, and myself. We bought a wagon and two miserable old horses. We put eighteen hundred pounds of provisions and mining-tools in the wagon and drove out of Carson on a chilly December afternoon..”

The two young lawyers were W. H. Clagget, whom Clemens had known in Keokuk, and A. W. Oliver, called Oliphant in “Roughing It.” The blacksmith was named Tillou (Ballou in “Roughing It”), a sturdy, honest man with a knowledge of mining and the repair of tools. There were also two dogs in the party–a curly-tailed mongrel and a young hound.

The horses were the weak feature of the expedition. It was two hundred miles to Humboldt, mostly across sand. The miners rode only a little way, then got out to lighten the load. Later they pushed. Then it began to snow, also to blow, and the air became filled with whirling clouds of snow and sand. On and on they pushed and groaned, sustained by the knowledge that they must arrive some time, when right away they would be millionaires and all their troubles would be over.

The nights were better. The wind went down and they made a camp-fire in the shelter of the wagon, cooked their bacon, crept under blankets with the dogs to warm them, and Sam Clemens spun yarns till they fell asleep.

There had been an Indian war, and occasionally they passed the charred ruin of a cabin and new graves. By and by they came to that deadly waste known as the Alkali Desert, strewn with the carcasses of dead beasts and with the heavy articles discarded by emigrants in their eagerness to reach water. All day and night they pushed through that choking, waterless plain to reach camp on the other side. When they arrived at three in the morning, they dropped down exhausted. Judge Oliver, the last survivor of the party, in a letter to the writer of these chapters, said:

“The sun was high in the heavens when we were aroused from our sleep by a yelling band of Piute warriors. We were upon our feet in an instant. The picture of burning cabins and the lonely graves we had passed was in our minds. Our scalps were still our own, and not dangling from the belts of our visitors. Sam pulled himself together, put his hand on his head, as if to make sure he had not been scalped, and, with his inimitable drawl, said ’Boys, they have left us our scalps. Let us give them all the flour and sugar they ask for.’ And we did give them a good supply, for we were grateful.”

The Indians left them unharmed, and the prospective millionaires moved on. Across that two hundred miles to the Humboldt country they pushed, arriving at the little camp of Unionville at the end of eleven weary days.

In “Roughing It” Mark Twain has told us of Unionville and the mining experience there. Their cabin was a three-sided affair with a cotton roof. Stones rolled down the mountainside on them; also, the author says, a mule and a cow.

The author could not gather fortune in a basket, as he had dreamed. Masses of gold and silver were not lying about. He gathered a back-load of yellow, glittering specimens, but they proved worthless. Gold in the rough did not glitter, and was not yellow. Tillou instructed the others in prospecting, and they went to work with pick and shovel–then with drill and blasting-powder. The prospect of immediately becoming millionaires vanished.

“One week of this satisfied me. I resigned,” is Mark Twain’s brief comment.

The Humboldt reports had been exaggerated. The Clemens-Clagget-Oliver- Tillou millionaire combination soon surrendered its claims. Clemens and Tillou set out for Carson City with a Prussian named Pfersdorff, who nearly got them drowned and got them completely lost in the snow before they arrived there. Oliver and Clagget remained in Unionville, began law practice, and were elected to office. It is not known what became of the wagon and horses and the two dogs.

It was the end of January when our miner returned to Carson. He was not discouraged–far from it. He believed he had learned something that would be useful to him in a camp where mines were a reality. Within a few weeks from his return we find him at Aurora, in the Esmeralda region, on the edge of California. It was here that the Clemens brothers owned the 1,650 feet formerly mentioned. He had came down to work it.

It was the dead of winter, but he was full of enthusiasm, confident of a fortune by early summer. To Pamela he wrote:

“I expect to return to St. Louis in July–per steamer. I don’t say that I will return then, or that I shall be able to do it–but I expect to–you bet . . . . If nothing goes wrong, we’ll strike the ledge in June.”

He was trying to be conservative, and further along he cautions his sister not to get excited.

“Don’t you know I have only talked as yet, but proved nothing? Don’t you know I have never held in my hands a gold or silver bar that belonged to me? Don’t you know that people who always feel jolly, no matter where they are or what happens to them–who have the organ of hope preposterously developed–who are endowed with an uncongealable, sanguine temperament–who never feel concerned about the price of corn–and who cannot, by any possibility, discover any but the bright side of a picture–are very apt to go to extremes and exaggerate with a 40-horse microscopic power?

In the bright lexicon of youth,
There is no such word as fail,
and I’ll prove it.”

Whereupon he soars again, adding page after page full of glowing expectations and plans such as belong only with speculation in treasures buried in the ground–a very difficult place, indeed, to find them.

His money was about exhausted by this time, and funds to work the mining claims must come out of Orion’s rather modest salary. The brothers owned all claims in partnership, and it was now the part of “Brother Sam” to do the active work. He hated the hard picking and prying and blasting into the flinty ledges, but the fever drove him on. He camped with a young man named Phillips at first, and, later on, with an experienced miner, Calvin H. Higbie, to whom “Roughing It” would one day be dedicated. They lived in a tiny cabin with a cotton roof, and around their rusty stove they would paw over their specimens and figure the fortune that their mines would be worth in the spring.

Food ran low, money gave out almost entirely, but they did not give up. When it was stormy and they could not dig, and the ex-pilot was in a talkative vein, he would sit astride the bunk and distribute to his hearers riches more valuable than any they would dig from the Esmeralda hills. At other times he did not talk at all, but sat in a corner and wrote. They thought he was writing home; they did not know that he was “literary.” Some of his home letters had found their way into a Keokuk paper and had come back to Orion, who had shown them to an assistant on the “Territorial Enterprise,” of Virginia City. The “Enterprise” man had caused one of them to be reprinted, and this had encouraged its author to send something to the paper direct. He signed these contributions “Josh,” and one told of:

“An old, old horse whose name was Methusalem,
Took him down and sold him in Jerusalem,
A long time ago.”

He received no pay for these offerings and expected none. He considered them of no value. If any one had told him that he was knocking at the door of the house of fame, however feebly, he would have doubted that person’s judgment or sincerity.

His letters to Orion, in Carson City, were hasty compositions, reporting progress and progress, or calling for remittances to keep the work going. On April 13, he wrote:

“Work not begun on the Horatio and Derby–haven’t seen it yet. It is still in the snow. Shall begin on it within three or four weeks– strike the ledge in July.”

Again, later in the month:

“I have been at work all day, blasting and digging in one of our new claims, ’Dashaway,’ which I don’t think a great deal of, but which I am willing to try. We are down now ten or twelve feet.”

It must have been disheartening work, picking away at the flinty ledges. There is no further mention of the “Dashaway,” but we hear of the “Flyaway,” the “Annipolitan,” the “Live Yankee,” and of many another, each of which holds out a beacon of hope for a brief moment, then passes from notice forever. Still, he was not discouraged. Once he wrote:

“I am a citizen here and I am satisfied, though ’Ratio and I are ’strapped’ and we haven’t three days’ rations in the house. I shall work the “Monitor” and the other claims with my own hands.

“The pick and shovel are the only claims I have confidence in now," he wrote, later; “my back is sore and my hands are blistered with handling them to-day.”

His letters began to take on a weary tone. Once in midsummer he wrote that it was still snowing up there in the hills, and added, “It always snows here I expect. If we strike it rich, I’ve lost my guess, that’s all.” And the final heartsick line, “Don’t you suppose they have pretty much quit writing at home?”

In time he went to work in a quartz-mill at ten dollars a week, though it was not entirely for the money, as in “Roughing It” he would have us believe. Samuel Clemens learned thoroughly what he undertook, and he proposed to master the science of mining. From Phillips and Higbie he had learned what there was to know about prospecting. He went to the mill to learn refining, so that, when his claims developed, he could establish a mill and personally superintend the work. His stay was brief. He contracted a severe cold and came near getting poisoned by the chemicals. Recovering, he went with Higbie for an outing to Mono Lake, a ghastly, lifeless alkali sea among the hills, vividly described in “Roughing It.”

At another time he went with Higbie on a walking trip to the Yosemite, where they camped and fished undisturbed, for in those days few human beings came to that far isolation. Discouragement did not reach them there–amid that vast grandeur and quiet the quest for gold hardly seemed worth while. Now and again that summer he went alone into the wilderness to find his balance and to get entirely away from humankind.

In “Roughing It” Mark Twain tells the story of how he and Higbie finally located a “blind lead,” which made them really millionaires, until they forfeited their claim through the sharp practice of some rival miners and their own neglect. It is true that the “Wide West” claim was forfeited in some such manner, but the size of the loss was magnified in “Roughing It,” to make a good story. There was never a fortune in “Wide West," except the one sunk in it by its final owners. The story as told in “Roughing It” is a tale of what might have happened, and ends the author’s days in the mines with a good story-book touch.

The mining career of Samuel Clemens really came to a close gradually, and with no showy climax. He fought hard and surrendered little by little, without owning, even to the end, that he was surrendering at all. It was the gift of resolution that all his life would make his defeats long and costly–his victories supreme.

By the end of July the money situation in the Aurora camp was getting desperate. Orion’s depleted salary would no longer pay for food, tools, and blasting-powder, and the miner began to cast about far means to earn an additional sum, however small. The “Josh” letters to the “Enterprise" had awakened interest as to their author, and Orion had not failed to let “Josh’s" identity be known. The result had been that here and there a coast paper had invited contributions and even suggested payment. A letter written by the Aurora miner at the end of July tells this part of the story:

“My debts are greater than I thought for . . . . The fact is, I must have something to do, and that shortly, too . . . . Now write to the “Sacramento Union” folks, or to Marsh, and tell them that I will write as many letters a week as they want, for $10 a week. My board must be paid.

“Tell them I have corresponded with the “New Orleans Crescent” and other papers–and the “Enterprise.”

“If they want letters from here–who’ll run from morning till night collecting material cheaper? I’ll write a short letter twice a week, for the present, for the “Age,” for $5 per week. Now it has been a long time since I couldn’t make my own living, and it shall be a long time before I loaf another year.”

This all led to nothing, but about the same time the “Enterprise" assistant already mentioned spoke to Joseph T. Goodman, owner and editor of the paper, about adding “Josh” to their regular staff. “Joe” Goodman, a man of keen humor and literary perception, agreed that the author of the “Josh” letters might be useful to them. One of the sketches particularly appealed to him–a burlesque report of a Fourth of July oration.

“That is the kind of thing we want,” he said. “Write to him, Barstow, and ask him if he wants to come up here.”

Barstow wrote, offering twenty-five dollars a week–a tempting sum. This was at the end of July, 1862.

Yet the hard-pressed miner made no haste to accept the offer. To leave Aurora meant the surrender of all hope in the mines, the confession of another failure. He wrote Barstow, asking when he thought he might be needed. And at the same time, in a letter to Orion, he said:

“I shall leave at midnight to-night, alone and on foot, for a walk of sixty or seventy miles through a totally uninhabited country. But do you write Barstow that I have left here for a week or so, and, in case he should want me, he must write me here, or let me know through you.”

He had gone into the wilderness to fight out his battle alone, postponing the final moment of surrender–surrender that, had he known, only meant the beginning of victory. He was still undecided when he returned eight days later and wrote to his sister Pamela a letter in which there is no- mention of newspaper prospects.

Just how and when the end came at last cannot be known; but one hot, dusty August afternoon, in Virginia City, a worn, travel-stained pilgrim dragged himself into the office of the “Territorial Enterprise,” then in its new building on C Street, and, loosening a heavy roll of blankets from his shoulder, dropped wearily into a chair. He wore a rusty slouch hat, no coat, a faded blue-flannel shirt, a navy revolver; his trousers were tucked into his boot-tops; a tangle of reddish-brown hair fell on his shoulders; a mass of tawny beard, dingy with alkali dust, dropped half-way to his waist.

Aurora lay one hundred and thirty miles from Virginia City. He had walked that distance, carrying his heavy load. Editor Goodman was absent at the moment, but the other proprietor, Dennis E. McCarthy, asked the caller to state his errand. The wanderer regarded him with a far-away look and said, absently, and with deliberation:

“My starboard leg seems to be unshipped. I’d like about one hundred yards of line; I think I’m falling to pieces.” Then he added: “I want to see Mr. Barstow or Mr. Goodman. My name is Clemens, and I’ve come to write for the paper.”

It was the master of the world’s widest estate come to claim his kingdom!


Preface  •  I. The Family of John Clemens  •  II. The New Home, and Uncle John Quarles’s Farm  •  IV. Education Out of School  •  V. Tom Sawyer and His Band  •  VI. Closing School-Days  •  VII. The Apprentice  •  VIII. Orion’s Paper  •  IX. The Open Road  •  X. A Wind of Chance  •  XI. The Long Way to the Amazon  •  XII. Renewing an Old Ambition  •  XIII. Learning the River  •  XIV. River Days  •  XV. The Wreck of the “Pennsylvania”  •  XVI. The Pilot  •  XVII. The End of Piloting  •  XVIII. The Soldier  •  XIX. The Pioneer  •  XX. The Miner  •  XXI. The Territorial Enterprise  •  XXII. “Mark Twain”  •  XXIII. Artemus Ward and Literary San Francisco  •  XXIV. The Discovery of “The Jumping Frog”  •  XXV. Hawaii and Anson Burlingame  •  XXVI. Mark Twain, Lecturer  •  XXVII. An Innocent Abroad, and Home Again  •  XXVIII. Olivia Langdon. Work on the “Innocents”  •  XXIX. The Visit to Elmira and Its Consequences  •  XXX. The New Book and a Wedding  •  XXXI. Mark Twain in Buffalo  •  XXXII. At Work on “Roughing It”  •  XXXIII. In England  •  XXXIV. A New Book and New English Triumphs  •  XXXV. Beginning “Tom Sawyer”  •  XXXVI. The New Home  •  XXXVII. “Old Times,” “Sketches,” And “Tom Sawyer”  •  XXXVIII. Home Pictures  •  XXXIX. Tramping Abroad  •  XL. “The Prince and the Pauper”  •  XLI. General Grant at Hartford  •  XLII. Many Investments  •  XLIII. Back to the River, With Bixby  •  XLIV. A Reading-Tour With Cable  •  XLV. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”  •  XLVI. Publisher to General Grant  •  XLVII. The High-Tide of Fortune  •  XLVIII. Business Difficulties. Pleasanter Things  •  XLIX. Kipling at Elmira. Elsie Leslie. The “Yankee”  •  L. The Machine. Good-By to Hartford. “Joan” Is Begun  •  LI. The Failure of Webster & Co. Around the World. Sorrow  •  LII. European Economies  •  LIII. Mark Twain Pays His Debts  •  LIV. Return After Exile  •  LV. A Prophet At Home  •  LVI. Honored by Missouri  •  LVII. The Close of a Beautiful Life  •  LVIII. Mark Twain at Seventy  •  LIX. Mark Twain Arranges for His Biography  •  LX. Working With Mark Twain  •  LXI. Dictations at Dublin, N. H.  •  LXII. A New Era of Billiards  •  LXIII. Living With Mark Twain  •  LXIV. A Degree From Oxford  •  LXV. The Removal to Redding  •  LXVI. Life at Stormfield  •  LXVII. The Death of Jean  •  LXVIII. Days in Bermuda  •  LXIX. The Return to Redding  •  LXX. The Close of a Great Life

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