Forget What You Heard, Nevada is the True Birthplace Of Mark Twain

Forget What You Heard, Nevada is the True Birthplace Of Mark Twain

Leaving Samuel Clemens in Mississippi, and Becoming Mark Twain in Nevada

Quite simply, Mark Twain is one of the American greats. Not only did he establish himself as a wickedly successful writer, but he also defined an entire genre of literature. And by doing so, he swiftly mastered the American dream where so few others succeeded at during his time. He was a forward thinker, ignited change, was equipped with a brazen sense of humor, and represented the type of American life that people simply wanted.

As a master satirist and probably the greatest humorist of all time, the thing about this prolific American writer is that he became Mark Twain in Nevada. When he first arrived to Nevada he was Samuel Langhorne Clemens, but when he left he became Mark Twain… one of the most famous writers in the nation, with his time in Nevada as the lynchpin in his career. It was here where he learned to write, and also continued to base future works off experiences he had during his small-but-mighty stint in the Silver State. He tested his very distinctive satirical style in other states and ultimately failed, but when it came to Nevada, no one could get enough of his wildly controversial stories. He quickly learned just how far he could push a joke here, all the while maintaining a captive audience for decades, if not centuries, to come.

As the father of American literature, sure, Twain could describe Nevada and its array of characters unlike anyone else—a very specific set of experiences that can only be had in Nevada was the perfect combo to inspire, and ultimately bring his talents to surface. Twain may have only spent three years in the Silver State, but his spirit lives on in this sweet little lineup.

mark twain

Nevada Bound, Foraging Through An Unfamiliar Landscape

“People accustomed to the monster mile-wide Mississippi grow accustomed to associating the term “river” with a high degree of watery grandeur. Consequently, such people feel rather disappointed when they stand on the shores of the Humboldt or the Carson and find that a “river” in Nevada is a sticky rivulet which is just the counterpart of the Erie in all respects save that the canal is twice as long and four times as deep. One of the pleasantest and most invigorating exercises one can contrive is to run and jump across the Humboldt River till he is overheated, and then drink it dry.”
-Mark Twain, Roughing It

At a young 26 years old, Mark Twain didn’t know it yet, but his life would drastically take a turn for the better the minute he left Missouri and hit the road for Nevada. After his short lifetime of living in his native Missouri, Mark Twain was ready to shake things up a bit, and his brother Orion’s invitation to move West couldn’t have come at a better time… the spring of 1861 to be exact. Nevada wasn’t a state just yet, but Lincoln nominated Orion to be the Secretary of the Nevada Territory. Moving West during this time frame was risky as there was no real infrastructure. It was truly the Wild West—with an unforgiving journey a pretty serious number of people died on. 

Mark twain traveling

Twain really didn’t have anything else tethering him to Missouri—in fact he was looking for any opportunity out. Orion struck him a deal: if Twain paid for their journey to Nevada he could work as his private secretary. Twain accepted in a hot little second, and on July 18, 1861 they loaded up an overland stagecoach, similar to the one pictured above. Departing from St. Joseph, Missouri to their final destination in Carson City, Nevada, Twain and his brother just so happened to follow the very route Pony Express Riders were taking during this very specific stretch of time.

The familiarities of home quickly vanished. Things weren’t what they seemed, even when it came to something as basic as a river. Despite that Nevada’s Humboldt River is the longest in the state, it too somehow became an unfamiliar novelty. After a colorful 19-day journey, Orion and Twain made it to Carson City on August 14, 1861, dropping in to the Ormsby House in the center of what would later become Nevada’s Capital City.

Setting Up Shop in Nevada’s Capital City

Carson City is Nevada’s state capital today, but Twain and his brother Orion showed up three years prior to Nevada officially becoming a real-deal state. He and Twain worked to set up shop, and a year later brought out his wife, Mollie, and daughter, Jennie.

Nevada State Capitol
Nevada State Capitol

Today, the population of Carson City sits right around 55k, but when Orion and his family first arrived in 1861, the population was only around 2,000 people. A couple of important things had already gone down, including the legendary Comstock Lode—one of the nation’s most prominent silver discoveries of all time. Orion was there to do some serious work as Secretary of State, and with his family—his thus far unknown brother included—he purchased a small home not far from the center of town.

Historic Carson City
Historic Carson City
Orion Clemens' Home
Orion Clemens’ Home

Things were movin’ and shakin’ in the most rough and tumble of ways. Imagine prominent businessmen, Bascos, politicians and cowboys alike making their way through wooden boardwalk-lined streets. The only catch here? Despite being promised a job, there just wasn’t a whole lot going on for Twain… not enough for a full-time gig anyway. So what would you do if you’d arrived to a brand new place, still essentially supported by your big bro for a bit? You’d stretch your wings a bit… explore. And is exactly what Twain did.

Although Orion and Mollie ultimately lived in Carson City for a short time, their home still stands in Carson City’s West Side Historic District. Orion’s home is included in the Kit Carson Trail historic walking tour, because their daughter Jennie became ill with spotted fever and died just two days later. Jennie and her family were well known in the community—she had even fundraised with her church group for the fence that still surrounds the capitol grounds. Legislature even paused over her death, but Orion and Mollie never quite recovered from this loss, as Jennie was their only child.

Orion Clemens' Home Today
Orion Clemens’ Home Today

Her ghost allegedly haunts their downtown Carson City house, and whether you’re a paranormal enthusiast or not, their former home is worth a visit.

Travel Nevada Pro Tip

Any time is a good time to checkout the historic Kit Carson Trail—a walking or driving tour that explores the abundance of 1800s-era Victorian homes, museums and churches original to the Carson City story—but if you want to kick it up a notch, be sure to snag a spot on Carson City’s annual Ghost Walk.

Adjusting To The Way Of The Wild West And Those Pesky Washoe Zephyrs

Wind Surfers Riding the Washoe Zephyrs Today
Wind Surfers Riding the Washoe Zephyrs Today

Along with the “mighty” Humboldt, there was a bit of an adjustment period when it came to Twain’s new life out west. Imagine coming from a densely populated, well established city in Missouri to wide open basin and range with an anything goes sort of mentality. It would be a shift for anyone! With his home base with his brother in Carson, Twain spent his first few weeks checking out his new home.

“A Washoe wind is by no means a trifling matter. It blows flimsy houses down, lifts shingle roofs occasionally, and rolls up tin ones like sheet music, now and then blows a single stagecoach over and spills the passengers; and tradition says the reason there are so many bald people up there is, that the wind blows the hair off their heads while they are looking skyward after their hats.”
-Mark Twain, Roughing It

Washoe City, which was centered one valley to the north was one of the first on the list to explore. Not much of Washoe City still stands today, aside from some mega-mansions like Winter’s Ranch and Bowers Mansion, but one thing is for sure: Twain’s storied gale force winds haven’t gone anywhere. With such wide open western landscapes, it’s no wonder those winds have remained a whooping… and it’s not just those toupee-wearing folks who think so.

Historic Bowers Mansion
Historic Bowers Mansion
Jewel of the Sierra

Tahoe South

“Discovering” the Jewel of the Sierra

“…At last the Lake burst upon us—a noble sheet of blue water lifted six thousand three hundred feet above the level of the sea, and walled in by a rim of snow-clad mountain peaks that towered aloft full three thousand feet higher still! …As it lay there with the shadows of the mountains brilliantly photographed upon its still surface I thought it surely must be the fairest picture the whole Earth affords.” -Mark Twain, Roughing It

Like many places in Nevada, sometimes it’s just easier experienced than explained. If you’ve never made it to the glorious Lake Tahoe, you too might be thinking, “How amazing can it actually be?” But for those who’ve taken a dip in its brisk, crystalline waters know what Mark Twain is talking about… Lake Tahoe is unlike anywhere else on Earth. During his first couple months in Nevada, Twain explored a large area of Tahoe’s shoreline, spending his days documenting the then booming timber industry and camping right on the beach. During the fall of 1861, he and his buddy John Kinney hiked from Carson City all the way over the Carson Range to modern day Glenbrook, ultimately camping at a few Nevada locations as well as Speedboat Beach, which straddles the modern-day California/Nevada border.

His visit to Lake Tahoe was an important one because this was really the lake’s first introduction to the world. Very few people, aside from those working in the exploding logging industry up there, had actually laid eyes on what Twain described to be the most idyllic bliss he’d ever experienced. Kinney and Twain camped at Speedboat for weeks, which was later whimsically described in his American classic Roughing It, where the duo spent perfect autumn afternoons playing cards and basking in the sun on the massive, granite rocks Tahoe is known for. Twain painted quite a romantic picture of Lake Tahoe, even going so far as to saying, “to breathe the same air as the angels, you must go to Tahoe.” He continued to use Tahoe as his gold standard for all other lakes he encountered for the rest of his life, sticking with his belief that no other lake on earth stacked up to Tahoe’s size, depth, clarity and beauty.

Interestingly enough, Tahoe romanced Twain to such an extent that he laid claim to hundreds of acres of timber. It was good to be in the timber biz because during this era all the trees were being used to build a flume to carry water from Lake Tahoe to Virginia City, and help construct homes and other buildings in the entire region. BUT, Twain ultimately decided the timber industry wasn’t for him, and hit the road to try his hand at what most others were doing in Nevada during the time… gold and silver mining.

Gold miners

Trying A Hand At Gold Mining… And Failing 

“I learned then, once and for all, that gold in its native state is but dull, the ornamental stuff, and that only low-born metals excited the admiration of the ignorant with an ostentatious glitter. However, like the rest of the world, I still go on underrating men of gold and glorifying men of mica. Commonplace human nature cannot rise above that.” -Mark Twain, Roughing It

Twain assuredly went on a bit of a hiatus getting his “Nevada legs,” but even he couldn’t avoid getting bitten by the gold bug. Like pretty much everyone else in the whole Western US, he decided to give mining a good ol’ college try. Orion had fully begun his stint as Nevada’s Secretary of “State”, but also purchased tons of mining claims throughout Nevada because they wanted to get rich too. Having narrowly missed the humongous boom at Virginia City, the brothers hoped that one of their mining claims would prove to be successful, so Twain hit the trail in hopes of striking it rich.

Twain assuredly went on a bit of a hiatus getting his “Nevada legs,” but even he couldn’t avoid getting bitten by the gold bug. Like pretty much everyone else in the whole Western US, he decided to give mining a good ol’ college try. Orion had fully begun his stint as Nevada’s Secretary of “State”, but also purchased tons of mining claims throughout Nevada because they wanted to get rich too. Having narrowly missed the humongous boom at Virginia City, the brothers hoped that one of their mining claims would prove to be successful, so Twain hit the trail in hopes of striking it rich.

Unionville Ghost Town
Unionville Ghost Town

Southern Nevada is typically pretty pleasant year round, but northern Nevada? Twain certainly didn’t make it easy on himself by uprooting his plush Capital City life and relocating to the tiny mining camp of Unionville. Located a smidge south of modern day Winnemucca, Twain had a very romantic perception of what life as miner would be like, envisioning fist-sized gold and silver nuggets scattered on top of the ground. Plus, up until this point, Virginia City had totally set the bar as the “norm,” but he failed to remember that their daily oyster and champagne deliveries were the definition of uncommon… no place more opulent existed.

Imagine Twain’s surprise to show up in what he described to be “eleven cabins and a liberty-pole,” in the dead of winter, in rural Nevada. The thing is, Unionville would later become a majorly successful mining town, he just popped into the area before it caught a chance. If he would’ve shown up just a few years later, he probably would’ve been excited to see a “real” town outfitted with several saloons, hotels, stores, a church and even a brewery. Instead, he found intense manual labor and ultimately left, proclaiming he was “allergic to shovels.”

Mark Twain's Unionville Cabin
Mark Twain’s Unionville Cabin

Being the wordsmith he didn’t know he was, Twain so charmingly came to the realization that all that glitters is not gold. Mining proved to be much more difficult than he ever imagined, but this poetic sentiment was his way of moving his own story along. And so he did.

Unionville isn’t exactly on the way to anywhere, which is why Twain’s cabin has likely hung on all these years. Twain’s original cabin—as in, this was his primary residence—still stands in the heart of Unionville. Located in Whitaker Memorial Park, Twain enthusiasts can get up close and personal with this original edifice… just don’t try anything funny because the 19 modern day residents of Unionville keep pretty close tabs on it. Or, if you want a more immersive experience, book an incredible Uncommon Overnighter at the Old Pioneer Garden Country Inn. Run by a mother-son duo for the past 30 years, Mitzi and David totally have Nevada hospitality down pat and if you ask, will give you one unforgettable memorable history lesson over breakfast. Years ago, the B&B acquired a series of historic buildings, one of which was the Hadley House, where Mark Twain was known to eat dinner on the regular. Today, the Old Pioneer Garden uses it as a library room.

Aurora, Nevada During its Boom Years
Aurora, Nevada During its Boom Years

Twain’s Time in Aurora

Twain had one last mining claim to check up on before hanging his pick axe for good. After hit the road from Unionville, Twain moved to a more southern Nevada boomtown in the spring of 1862—Aurora. Even though Aurora was once as famous a place as Bodie, CA (and right next to it, just across the border), no buildings remain today. It’s here, where Twain first picked up the pen. While Twain was repeatedly failing at prospecting, he basically became bored. After spending his days blasting out tunnel’s, he would retreat to his small Aurora cabin. Sure, he was ultimately surviving off money his brother was sending him from Carson City, but hey, he hadn’t given up for good.

And during these very brief six months, Twain’s colorful imagination and unmatched wit took hold of him, and he began penning fictional stories about a hard-luck miner in Aurora. These stories were written under a pen name of “Josh” that he submitted to the editor at the Territorial Enterprise—a very famous newspaper publication in Virginia City. For months, he continued to refine his satirical tone, sending ridiculous, but highly amusing stories of this very unlucky miner. Finally, his wildly distinctive style caught the attention of the editor, who offered him a job at the Territorial Enterprise for $25 per week. So there you have it: Twain’s first success was born out of a town that, in its own way, holds just as much intrigue as any other standing ghost town. But we’re done with gold, let’s get on to the good stuff.

Travel Nevada Pro Tip

This minuscule, one-room cabin where Twain started his legendary writing career was shared with a guy named Calvin H. Higbe. Interestingly enough, Twain went on to dedicate Roughing It, his book chronicling his time in Nevada, to none other than Calvin H. Higbe of Aurora himself. Lock that one away for trivia night!

A Legend Is Born In Virginia City 

During the fall of 1862, Twain arrived in the most famous boomtown in the West, where it didn’t take long for him to figure out how to live life LARGE, fully taking advantage of his proximity to the area’s abundance of lavish qualities. That is, after his outlandish stories of vice, alleged hauntings, and even extravagant, made-up stories altogether caught the attention of everyone in town, if not the region entirely.

Historic Virginia City
Historic Virginia City

It was during this time that he, for the very first time, signed one of this stories, “Yours Dreamily, MARK TWAIN.” Having gone by his birth name, Samuel Clemens, up until this point, that officially means he transformed into one of America’s most famous writers in Virginia City…. Hannibal, Missouri may be the birthplace of Samuel Langhorne Clemens, but Nevada is the birthplace of Mark Twain.

Mark twain signature
Mark twain writing

So where did such a name come from, anyhow? Story has it that it all started when Clemens opened a bar tab at John Piper’s Saloon that he constantly racked up, under the name of, you guessed it, Mark Twain. There are theories that he swiped the name Mark Twain from the oldest steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River (who was also using it as his own pen name.) After he died, Clemens assumed he wouldn’t be using it anymore, and borrowed it… indefinitely.

Some believe the name is punnily rooted from the Mississippi river term “mark the twain at large,” which essentially encompassed measuring the depth of the water, making sure it was at least 12 feet deep and safe for a steamboat to pass through. Either way, Clemens first debuted his shiny new nom de plume in a Territorial Enterprise article in 1863… which stuck from that very
moment forward.

Twain went on to become the editor of the Territorial Enterprise, where he continued to tell outrageous and fiercely entertaining stories, all the while building a serious name for himself. While some were actual reportings (and the mocking of) matters like legislative sessions, his work was equally balanced with made up, tall tales altogether. In addition to writing, Twain also gave live performances at places like Piper’s Opera House, which, along with most other parts of VC, you can still visit today.

In some of his anecdote it became difficult to distinguish fact from fiction—so much in fact that at one point he was even dubbed the “Washoe Giant” for his signature tall tales. Ultimately, this totally worked to his advantage, gaining him more exposure in San Francisco and even East Coast newspapers, but eventually came back to bite him when people began questioning the quality of their “news.” Hot water? You bet, and it this was only the beginning of his dubious storytelling.

Mark twain

Outgrowing His Nevada Britches, Twain Hits The Trail

“Sorry to see you go, Mark, old boy—but we cannot expect to have you always with us. Go then, where duty calls you, and when the highest pinnacle of fame affords you a arresting place remember that in the land of silver and sagebrush there are a host of old friends that rejoice in your success.” -Territorial Enterprise Newspaper

During his time working for the Territorial Enterprise in Virginia City, Twain learned exactly how far he could push a joke in what was already a pretty laid-back audience. I mean think about it… you had miners, prostitutes, bartenders, bandits, and tradesmen who adored Twain’s racy spirit. BUT, those folks were balanced out with hoity toity businessmen, assayers, and politicians who also called this major epicenter home. While the blue collar folks were straight-up amused by Twain poking fun at otherwise serious legislative matters, the folks on the other end of the spectrum didn’t think it was too funny.

Twain soon became a total master of equal parts humor and outrage, which ultimately led to massive tension, a proposition that he be fired from the Enterprise altogether, and even a handful of duels. Yup, like actual high noon, gun slinging shootout type duels. The death of his beloved niece Jennie happened right around this time—in early 1864—and adding insult to injury, Twain made it particularly hard on his brother and sister in law in their social circles as they were directly tied to local politics. But then, he did it again with one particularly saucy story, which ultimately ushered him on to San Francisco, where his writing career only continued to flourish.

Although he left quite a legacy in the Silver State, Twain hit the road in 1864, having spent only three years in Nevada. Although his Nevada pot stirring days had come to a close for good, again, equal parties were happy as they were sad to see Twain go. Truly, he cut his teeth as a literary ace in a historically important era in Nevada while using his time here as a stepping stone in his career, while shaping many attractions and industries for decades to come.

Twain never returned to Nevada, but drew back to his colorful array of experiences in Nevada for the rest of his career, most importantly in Roughing It, which has been referenced many times throughout this story. Be sure to get your hands on a copy of it… reading it is a right of passage for any Western explorer living in, or visiting the Silver State because it sets the stage in ways that no other author can replicate. Better yet, bring it along as you travel along as you retrace Twain’s footsteps throughout the Silver State for a trip you won’t forget.

Mark twain smoking cigar

Read up on more Legendary Nevadans here.