Vol 1 Section 0016

Pilot’s License – Sgt. Fathom & Captain Isaiah Sellers

 Running Aground and Heroism – Working the River



January 1 Saturday – The Aleck Scott arrived in St. Louis.


January 4 Tuesday The Aleck Scott left for New Orleans.


January 11 Tuesday The Aleck Scott arrived in New Orleans.


January 15 Saturday The Aleck Scott left for St. Louis.

January 27 Thursday The Aleck Scott arrived in St. Louis.

February 1 Tuesday The Aleck Scott left for New Orleans.


February 11 Friday The Aleck Scott arrived in New Orleans


February 16 Wednesday The Aleck Scott left for St. Louis

February 27 Sunday The Aleck Scott arrived in St. Louis

March 1 Tuesday The Aleck Scott left for New Orleans.


March 8 Tuesday The Aleck Scott arrived in New Orleans

March 9 and 11 Friday In New Orleans, Sam began a long letter to sister Pamela Moffett, that he finished on Mar. 11. He wrote of the Mardi Gras, and Maria Piccolomini, an Italian “princess” singer Here, in part:

. . . . [first part not extant]

beginning of Lent, and all good Catholics eat and drink freely of what they please, and, in fact, do what they please, in order that they may be the better able to keep sober and quiet during the coming fast. It has been said that a Scotchman has not seen the world until he has seen Edinburgh; and I think that I may say that an American has not seen the United States until he has seen Mardi-Gras in New Orleans.

I posted off up town yesterday morning as soon as the boat landed, in blissful ignorance of the great day. At the corner of Good-Children and Tchoupitoulas streets, I beheld an apparition!—and my first impulse was to dodge behind a lamp-post. It was a woman—a hay-stack of curtain calico, ten feet high—sweeping majestically down the middle of the street (for what pavement in the world could accommodate hoops of such vast proportions?) Next I saw a girls of eighteen, mounted on a fine horse, and dressed as a Spanish Cavalier, with long rapier, flowing curls, blue satin doublet and half-breeches, trimmed with broad white lace—(the balance of her dainty legs cased in flesh-colored silk stockings)—white kid gloves—and a nodding crimson feather in the coquettishest little cap in the world. She removed said cap and bowed low to me, and nothing loath, I bowed in return—but I could n’t help murmuring, “By the beard of the Prophet, Miss, but you’ve mistaken your man this time—for I never saw your silk mask beforenor the balance of your costume, either, for that matter.” And then I saw a hundred men, women and children in fine, fancy, splendid, ugly, coarse, ridiculous, grotesque, laughable costumes, and the truth flashed upon me—“This is Mardi-Gras!” It was Mardi-gras—and that young lady had a perfect right to bow to, shake hands with, or speak to, me, or any body else she pleased. The streets were soon full of “Mardi-gras,” representing giants, Indians, nigger minstrels, monks, priests, clowns,— every birds, beasts,—everything, in fact, that one could imagine. The “free-and-easy” women turned out en masse—and their costumes and actions were very trying to modest eyes. The finest sight I saw during the day was a band of twenty stalwart men, splendidly arrayed as Comanche Indians, flying and yelling down the street on horses as finely decorated as themselves. It was worth going a long distance to see the performances of the day—but bless me! how insignificant they seemed in comparison with those of the night, when the grand torchlight procession of the “Mystic Krewe of Comus” was added. …[MTL 1: 87-91]. Note: the Krewe was established in 1856; prior to that the celebrations was exclusively Catholic, informal, and not regular. Six Anglo businessmen met in a secret society to improve Mardi Gras, inspired by Milton’s Comus. The torchlight procession was one of their additions.


March 11 Friday In New Orleans, Clemens finished the Mar. 9 letter to his sister:

New Orleans, Friday 11th.

I saw our little Princesses, Countesses, or whatever they are—the Piccolominis—in St. Charles street yesterday. They came down from Memphis in the cars, I believe. Their first concert takes place to-night, and we shall leave this afternoon. So we shall not hear the young lady sing. We had a souvenir of the warbler written on our sla old slate, but some sacrilegious scoundrel rubbed it out. It was “Je suis fachèr qu’il faut que nous allons de ce batteau à la Memphis.” (“I am sorry that we must leave the boat at Memphis.”) To which I replied en mauvais française, “Nous seront nous aussi très fachèr.” (We shall be very sorry, also.) Ben was going to “head” it “The Lament of the Irish Emigrant,” & sell the old slate to Barnum for five hundred dollars. Ben said he had a very interesting conversation with the “old dowager,” Madame Pic. He remarked—“I imagine, Madame, that if it would only drizzle a little more, the weather would soon be in splendid condition for young ducks!” And she replied—“Ah, mio, mio,—une petè—I not can ondersthand not!” “Yes’m, it’s a great pity you can’t ondersthand not, for it has cost you the loss of a very sage remark.” And she followed with a tremendous gush of the musical language. Then Benjamin—“Yes, madame, you’re very right—very right indeed. I acknowlege the justice of your remarks, but the devil of it is, I’m a little in the dark as to what you’ve been saying all the time!”

In eight days from this, I shall be in Saint Louis, but I am afraid if I am not careful I’ll beat this letter there.

My love to all,

Your brother

Sam [MTL 1: 87-91].


The Aleck Scott left for St. Louis.

March 19 Saturday The Aleck Scott arrived in St. Louis


March 21 Monday The Aleck Scott left for New Orleans.


March 27 Sunday The Aleck Scott arrived in New Orleans


March 31 Thursday The Aleck Scott left for St. Louis

April 8 Friday – The Aleck Scott arrived in St. Louis

April 9 Saturday Sam was granted a license as a full steamboat pilot from the Department of Commerce in St. Louis. Until May 1861, Sam had the “best job in the world.” Note: Until copies of Sam’s pilot license surfaced in the late 1930s, it was thought by Paine, DeVoto and others (from Sam’s autobiographical estimates of eighteen months from his apprenticeship under Bixby,) that the date was Sept. 9, 1858. Sam may have recollected being allowed to pilot crafts without passengers prior to the issuance of his license, which would have been lawful at that time [The Twainian, Nov. 1939].

May 4 Wednesday – Now a full pilot, Sam left St. Louis on the Alfred T. Lacey, copiloted by Bart Bowen (brother of Sam and Will Bowen), under Captain John P. Rodney, for New Orleans. “A pilot, in those days, was the only unfettered and entirely independent human being that lived in the earth” [LM; MTL 1: 14].


Isaiah Sellers letter to the New Orleans Picayune:


Vicksburg, May 4, 1859.

My opinion for the benefit of the citizens of New Orleans: The water is higher this far up than it has been since 1815. My opinion is that the water will be four feet deep in Canal Street before the first of next June. Mrs. Turner’s plantation at the head of Big Black Island is all under water, and it has not been since 1815. I. Sellers


The item served as grist for Sam’s “Sergeant Fathom” spoof [MTB 1593].


May 8 Sunday – Sam used the pen name of “Sergeant Fathom” and wrote a piece parodying Isaiah Sellers, the river’s “only genuine Son of Antiquity” [LM, Ch. 50]. Sellers had been a fixture on the Mississippi since Missouri became a state. He wrote “river intelligence” for various newspapers. According to Andrew Hoffman, Sam thought Sellers was “egotistical, long-winded, and incapable of trimming a tale to his audience—the last sin unforgivable in Sam’s eyes” [58]. No story another pilot could tell was beyond being outdone by Sellers. Sam’s fellow pilots had the piece published in the New Orleans Crescent in this month. Sellers was so mortified he never again wrote for a newspaper. Sam later claimed he took the name Mark Twain (which means “two fathoms”—12 feet—or enough for most steamboats to navigate) from Sellers after his death, but no record has ever been found of Sellers using the name, and when Sam first used the name, Sellers was still alive (he died in 1864). An excerpt from Sam’s parody of Sellers:


You can form some conception, by these memoranda, of how high the water was in 1763. In 1775 it did not rise so high by thirty feet; in 1790 it missed the original mark at least sixty-five feet; in 1797, one hundred and fifty feet; and in 1806, nearly two hundred and fifty feet. These were ‘high-water’ years. The ‘high waters’ since then have been so insignificant that I have scarcely taken the trouble to notice them. Thus, you will perceive that the planters need not feel uneasy. The river may make an occasional spasmodic effort at a flood, but the time is approaching when it will cease to rise altogether.

In conclusion, sir, I will condescend to hint at the foundation of these arguments: When me and De Soto discovered the Mississippi I could stand at Bolivar Landing (several miles above “Roaring Waters Bar”) and pitch a biscuit to the main shore on the other side, and in low water we waded across at Donaldsonville. The gradual widening and deepening of the river is the whole secret of the matter [ET&S 1: 126-133].

Powers asserts that Bart Bowen submitted the piece to the New Orleans Crescent [MT A Life 94].


May 10 TuesdayAlfred T. Lacey arrived in New Orleans.


May 14 SaturdayAlfred T. Lacey left for St. Louis.


May 17 Tuesday Sam’s Isaiah Sellers satire “River Intelligence” was published in the New Orleans Crescent, signed by “Sergeant Fathom.” Sellers were so offended he vowed never again to write for the newspapers [ET&S 1: 126]. Sam would use “Sellers” as the name of his main character in the Gilded Age, another know-it-all, if somewhat more sympathetic.


May 21 SaturdayAlfred T. Lacey arrived in St. Louis.

June 25 Saturday – Sam piloted the J.C. Swon, (678 tons) under Captain Isaac H. Jones. Left for New Orleans.

July 1 Friday J.C. Swon arrived in New Orleans

July 3 Sunday J.C. Swon left for St. Louis.

July 6 Wednesday – Sam wrote to John T. “Tom” Moore from Memphis. Moore was a mud clerk on the Roe when Sam was a cub pilot there. The letter appeared in the Arkansaw Traveler July 14, 1883; the original has not been found and its authenticity is in doubt, though many elements argue for it being Sam’s [MTL 1: 91-2, n2; MTB 156]. Note: this may be the same Tom Moore that presented Sam for Masonic membership.

My Dear John:—

I have made many attempts to answer your letter which received a warmth of welcome perspiringly in keeping with the present system of hot weather; but somehow I have failed. Now, however, I screw myself down to the pleasant task. It is a task, let me tell you, and it is only by the courtesy of friendship that I can call it pleasant.

I have been wondering lately what in the name of Mexican cultivation and flatboat morality is to become of people, anyhow. Years, now, I have been waiting for the summers to become cooler, but up to the present moment of agony I see no change. I wish there was some arrangement by which we could have the kind of weather we want; but then I suppose I would call for an arrangement by which we could make a living without work. What a fool old Adam was. Had everything his own way; had succeeded in gaining the love of the best looking girl in the neighborhood, but yet unsatisfied with his conquest he had to eat a miserable little apple. Ah, John, if you had been in his place you would not have eaten a mouthful of the apple, that is if it had required any exertion. I have often noticed that you shun exertion. There comes in the difference between us. I court exertion. I love to work. Why, sir, when I have a piece of work to perform, I go away to myself, sit down in the shade and muse over the coming enjoyment. Sometimes I am so industrious that I muse too long.

No, I am not in love at present. I saw a young lady in Vicksburg the other day whom I thought I’d like to love, but John, the weather is too devilish hot to talk about love; but oh, that I had a cool, shady place, where I could sit among gurgling fountains of perfumed ice-water, an’ be loved into a premature death of rapture. I would give the world for this—I’d love to die such a glorious and luxurient death.



July 9 Saturday J.C. Swon arrived in St. Louis

July 13 Wednesday J.C. Swon left for New Orleans.

July 19 Tuesday J.C. Swon arrived in New Orleans.

July 21 Thursday J.C. Swon left for St. Louis. A sketch, “Soleather Cultivates His Taste for Music,” appeared in the New Orleans Crescent, signed by “Soleather,” attributed by Branch to Samuel Clemens [Branch, “A Chronological”; MTL 1: 93n2]. (See July 11, 1857 entry for Sam’s comments about the Rufus J. Lackand, and a note on Marleau’s recent research disputing these dates)

July 28 Thursday J.C. Swon arrived in St. Louis.

August 1 Monday Sam wrote a piece of fiction intended for newspaper publication titled “The Mysterious Murders in Risse.” It was never published [ET&S 1: 134].

August 2 Tuesday – Sam left St. Louis as pilot of the Edward J. Gray, (823 tons) Bart Bowen, Captain. Here was another majestic boat for Sam to pilot.

August 10 Wednesday The Edward J. Gray arrived New Orleans.

August 12 Friday The Edward J. Gray left for St. Louis.

August 19 Friday The Edward J. Gray arrived St. Louis.

August 24 Wednesday The Edward J. Gray left for New Orleans.

September 1 Thursday The Edward J. Gray arrived New Orleans.

September 3 Saturday The Edward J. Gray left for St. Louis.


September 9 Friday The Edward J. Gray arrived St. Louis.

September 13 Tuesday The Edward J. Gray left for New Orleans.

September 21 Wednesday The Edward J. Gray arrived New Orleans.

September 23 Friday The Edward J. Gray left for St. Louis.

October 1 Saturday The Edward J. Gray arrived St. Louis.

October 2 to 25 Tuesday – Sam stayed “at home awhile” in St. Louis until he learned that he was to pilot the A.B. Chambers [MTL 1: 95n4].

October 13? Thursday – Sam wrote to Elizabeth W. Smith (Aunt Betsy b.1794 or 5) from St. Louis. Smith was not really Sam’s aunt, but a friend of his mother. As he explained it in his Autobiography,

She wasn’t anybody’s aunt in particular, she was aunt to the whole town of Hannibal; this was because of her sweet and generous and benevolent nature and the winning simplicity of her character …She and my mother were very much alive; their age counted for nothing; they were fond of excitement, fond of novelties, fond of anything going that was of a sort proper for members of the church to indulge in…they were always ready for Fourth of July processions, Sunday-school processions, lectures, conventions, camp-meetings, revivals in the church—in fact, for any and every kind of dissipation that could not be proven to have anything irreligious about it—and they never missed a funeral.” Sam used Elizabeth Smith as a model for at least three stories, “Those Extraordinary Twins,” “Hellfire Hotchkiss,” and The Mysterious Stranger [MTL 1: 93-6].

Dear Aunt Betsey:

Ma has not written you, because she did not know when I would get started down the river again—and I could not write, because, between you and I, Aunt Betsey, for once in my life I didn’t know any more than my own mother—she could not tell when she and the coal-tinted white tom-cat might hope to get rid of me, and I was in the same lamentable state of ignorance myself.

You see, Aunt Betsey, I made but one trip on the packet after you left, and then concluded to remain at home awhile. I have just discovered, this morning, that I am to go to New Orleans on the Col. Chambers—“fine, light-draught, swift running passenger steamer—all modern accommodationsand improvements—through with dispatch—for freight or passage apply on board or to”—but—I have forgotten the agent’s name—however, it makes no difference—and as I was saying, or had intended to say, Aunt Betsey, that probably, if you are ready to come up, you had better take the “Ben Lewis,” the best boat in the packet line. She will be at Cape Girardeau at noon on Saturday (day after tomorrow,) and will reach here at breakfast time Sunday. If Mr. Hamilton is Chief Clerk,—very well. I am slightly acquainted with him. And if Messrs. Carter, Gray and Dean Somebody (I have forgotten his other name,) are in the pilot-house—very well again—I am acquainted with them. Just tell Mr. Gray, Aunt Betsey—that I wish him to place himself at your command.

All the family are well except myself—I am in a bad way again—disease, Love, in its most malignant form. Hopes are entertained of my recovery, however. At the dinner-table, I—excellent symptom—I am still as “terrible as an army with banners.”

Aunt Betsey—the wickedness of this world—but I haven’t time to moralize this morning.


Sam. Clemens

P. S.—All send their love [MTL 1: 93-96; see source notes]

October 26 Wednesday Sam left for St. Louis as the pilot of the A.B. Chambers (410 tons), copilots James C. DeLancey and Will Bowen; Captain George W. Bowman.

November 7 Monday A.B. Chambers arrived in New Orleans.

November 9 Wednesday A.B. Chambers left for St. Louis.

November 20 Sunday A.B. Chambers arrived in St. Louis.

November 23 Wednesday A.B. Chambers left for New Orleans.

November 30 Wednesday Sam’s 24th birthday.

December 4 Sunday – A.B. Chambers arrived in New Orleans.

December 8 Thursday A.B. Chambers left for St. Louis.

December 17 Saturday A.B. Chambers arrived in St. Louis.

December 20 Tuesday A.B. Chambers left for New Orleans.

December 22 or 23 Friday The Chambers ran aground five miles south of Commerce, Mo., where the channel flowed between Power’s Island and Goose Island—a notorious trap. It was soon stuck hard with ice piling up around it. Out of wood, the captain ordered Sam and seven others to take a yawl and row up river to fetch a flatboat with wood. Sam’s judgment in directing the craft avoided certain death by any other course [MTL 1: 95n4]. (See this note for the full story as told by Grant Marsh, first mate.)

December 29 ThursdayA.B. Chambers reached Cairo, Illinois.

December 31 SaturdayA.B. Chambers arrived in New Orleans.