Ronni Hannaman: Scandalous ‘Mark Twain’ was born in Carson City, Nevada

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Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born in Florida, Missouri on Nov. 30, 1835.

Mark Twain was born in Carson City, Nevada on Feb. 3, 1863.

Though most know this is one and the same person, the name Mark Twain and his writings, tall tales, and witticisms are known throughout the world while Samuel Clemens has been reduced to a trivia question.

So, how did Samuel Clemens become known as Mark Twain? As with all writings of Mark Twain, there’s much humor to the story.

Twain began his literary career writing letters to the editor of the Territorial Enterprise. On Jan. 31, 1863, published in the Feb. 3 edition, he humorously detailed the 48-hour party he attended at the home of former California Gov. J. Neely Johnson. It was quite the party with plenty of libations. Not known as a teetotaler, Twain could have been feeling the after effects of his non-stop partying when he signed the letter “yours dreamily,” using his new pen name Mark Twain. Thus, his new persona and career was born.

Samuel Clemens arrived in Carson City by stagecoach in July 1861, accompanying his lawyer brother Orion who had just been appointed the Nevada Territorial Secretary by President Abraham Lincoln. Orion asked Samuel to serve as his secretary.

At that time, the population of Carson City was 2,000 souls. The home Orion built, and in which the 25-year-old Samuel Clemens first lived, still stands today at 502 N. Division St., within the west side historic district.

Finding little to do as secretary, the restless and energetic Samuel decided to keep himself amused by writing, becoming an unsuccessful miner, and creating havoc wherever he went. His book, “Roughing It,” tells of his adventures in Nevada – the wild west. It was during this time in 1861 he admitted to starting a wildfire at Lake Tahoe by leaving a small campfire unattended. Although he writes of watching a very big fire from his boat on the lake, no one knows for certain how many acres were burned.

During his time in Carson City, Samuel was quite the controversial character creating many admirers – and enemies – as a result of his writings and storytelling which could be highly exaggerated. It was difficult to separate fact from fiction since there was generally a kernel of truth. His attempt at humor was not always appreciated.

Writing for the Territorial Enterprise brought Samuel fame. He covered the Nevada Constitutional Convention in Carson City in 1863 and was one of the “eccentric group of journalists, lawyers, bohemians and businessmen who mocked the legislative process.” The group was described as “bawdy, raucous, and satirical.”

He was elected as the honorary tongue-in-cheek President of the Convention by this eccentric group and tried to use his influence to move the capital to Virginia City where he then lived. He did not succeed, even though all sorts of dirty tricks were played as was the nature of Samuel.

Samuel created much havoc in Carson City, embarrassing his brother and wife. One of the residents challenged him to a duel over his writings and verbal insults when criticizing the popular U.S. Sanitary Commission, the private relief agency created by Congress to support the wounded soldiers of the U.S. Army that was the object of fund-raising by women’s groups all over the country. Seeing his popularity wane, he knew his time and influence here had come to an end.

Now better known as Mark Twain, he quit the Territorial Enterprise and on Sunday, May 29, 1864, he and a friend climbed into a stagecoach to travel to San Francisco where he embarked on his international journeys and speaking tours.

He flourished as an author and lecturer returning to Carson City and Virginia City in October 1866 and again in April 1868 where he was once again welcomed, and his discretions forgiven. He was, after all, now famous.

During his adventures in Carson City, Virginia City, and most of Northern Nevada, Twain learned many lessons that launched his career serving him well. It was here he became a “journalist,” critic, entertainer, lecturer, and writer.

He did not publish his first book, “Innocents Abroad” until 1869, followed by the works to which so many children are introduced to him: “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” published in 1876, and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in 1885. Over his lifetime, he published 28 books always using the name Mark Twain – the name that became his while living and writing in Carson City.

Mark Twain died in Redding, Connecticut on April 21, 1910. As he wrote the year prior to his death, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.’” Haley’s Comet was seen the next day.

Note: Niece Jenny Clemens, daughter of Orion and Molly Clemens who died at the young age of 9 in 1864, is buried in Carson City’s Lone Mountain Cemetery as is the famous stagecoach driver Hank Monk who Twain writes about in “Roughing It.”

Ronni Hannaman, Carson City Chamber of Commerce


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