Missouri is home to the greatest humorist this country has ever produced, or so the experts claim. Samuel Langhorne Clemens was born Nov. 30, 1835, in Florida, Missouri, shortly after an appearance of Halley’s Comet. Samuel was four when his family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a port town on the Mississippi River, which later became the inspiration for Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
Clemens father died of pneumonia when he was 11. The following year Clemens quit school and became a printer’s apprentice. He began working as a typesetter at the Hannibal Journal in 1851 and was allowed to contribute articles and humorous sketches. At 18, he left Hannibal. Joining the International Typographical Union, he worked as a printer in New York City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Cincinnati.
In those days it was not uncommon for children to quit school when a parent died and help support the family. While many of them found ways to return to school and become prominent citizens of the community, Clemens did not. “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” He spent his evenings in libraries where he found a wider range of information than was available in schools. Clemens was truly a self-made man.
Clemens did many things during his lifetime, most of which inspired his writings. As a boy, his one dream was to become a steamboatman. It was also one of his successes.
Taken on as a cub pilot by Horace E. Bixby, it took Clemens two years and $500 to learn the river between St. Louis and New Orleans. As Clemens put it, he had to “…get up a warm personal acquaintanceship with every old snag and one-limbed cottonwood and every obscure wood pile that ornaments the banks of this river for twelve hundred miles; and more than that, must…actually know where these things are in the dark.”
With license in hand, Clemens was soon making a hundred and fifty to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, which was more than captains made.
Riverboat piloting also gave Clemens something he used for the rest of his life--his pseudonym, Mark Twain. A steamboat needed a river depth of two fathoms (12 feet) and the leadsman’s cry for safe water was “mark twain.”
Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008, She has covered the War Between the States, U.S. history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.firstname.lastname@example.org.