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Add to My Citations To Jane Lampton Clemens
18–21 September 1861 • Carson City, Nev. Terr.
(MTL, 1:56–59, UCCL 00029)
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. . . The level ranks of flame were relieved at intervals by the [standard-bearers ], as we called the tall dead trees, wrapped in fire, and waving their blazing banners a hundred feet in the air. Then we could turn from this scene to the Lake, and see every branch, and leaf, and cataract of flame upon its bank perfectly reflected as in a gleaming, fiery mirror. The mighty roaring of the conflagration, together with our solitary and somewhat unsafe position (for there was no one within six miles of us,) rendered the scene very impressive. Occasionally, one of us would remove his pipe from his mouth and say,—“Superb! magnificent! Beautiful!—but—by the Lord God Almighty, if we attempt to sleep in this little patch [to-night ], we’ll never live till morning!—for if we don’t burn up, we’ll certainly suffocate.” But [he was ]persuaded to sit up until we felt pretty safe as far as the fire was concerned, and then we turned in, with many misgivings. When we got up in the morning, we found that the fire had burned small pieces of drift wood within six feet of our boat, and had made its way to within 4 or 5 steps of us on the South side. We looked like lava men, covered as we were with ashes, and begrimed with smoke. We were very black in the face, but we soon washed ourselves white again.1

John D. Kinney, a Cincinnati boy, and a first-rate fellow, too, who came out with Judge Turner, was my comrade.2 We staid at the Lake four days3—I had plenty of fun, for John constantly reminded me of Sam Bowen when we were on our campaign in Missouri. But first and foremost, for Annie’s, Mollie’s, and Pamela’s comfort, be it known that I have never been guilty of profane language since I have been in this Territory, and Kinney hardly ever [swears. ] 4 But sometimes human nature gets the better of him. On the second day we started to go by land to the lower camp, a distance of three miles, over the mountains, each carrying an axe.5 I don’t think we got lost exactly, but we wandered four hours over the steepest, rockiest and most dangerous piece of country in the world. I couldn’t keep from laughing at Kinney’s distress, so I kept behind, so that he could not see me. After he would get over a dangerous place, with infinite labor and constant apprehension, he would stop, lean on his axe, and look around, then behind, then ahead, and then drop his head and ruminate awhile. Then he would draw a long sigh, and say: “Well—could any Billygoat have scaled that place without breaking his —— neck?” And I would reply, “No,—I don’t think he could.” “No—you don’t think he could—” (mimicking me,) “Why don’t you curse the infernal place? You know you want [ to. I ] do, and will curse [the———thieving] country as long as I live.” Then we would toil on in silence for awhile. Finally I told him—“Well, John, what if we don’t find our way out of this today—we’ll know all about the country when we do get out.” “Oh stuff—I know enough—and too much about the d—d villainous locality already.” Finally, we reached the camp. But as we brought no provisions with us, the first subject that presented itself to us was, how to get back. John swore he wouldn’t walk back, so we rolled a drift log apiece into the Lake, and set about making paddles, intending to straddle the logs and paddle ourselves back home sometime or other. But the Lake objected—got stormy, and we had to give it up. So we set out for the only house on this side of the Lake—three miles from there, down the shore. We found the way without any trouble, reached there before [sundown], played three games of cribbage, borrowed a dug-out and pulled back six miles to the upper camp. As we had eaten nothing since sunrise, we did not waste time in cooking our supper or in eating it, either. After supper we got out our pipes—built a rousing camp fire in the open air—established a faro bank (an institution of this country,) on our huge flat granite dining table, and bet white beans till one o’clock, when John went to bed. We were up before the sun the next morning, went out on the Lake and caught a fine trout for breakfast. But unfortunately, I spoilt part of the breakfast. We had coffee and tea boiling on the fire, in coffee-pots and fearing they might not be strong enough, I added more ground coffee, and more tea, but—you know mistakes will [happen. I] put the tea in the coffee-pot, and the coffee in the [tea-pot]—and if you imagine that they were not villainous mixtures, just try the effect once.

And so [Belle] is to be married on the 1st of Oct.6 Well, I send her and her husband my very best wishes, and—I may not be here—but wherever I am on that night, we’ll have a rousing camp-fire and a jollification in honor of the event.

In a day or two we shall probably go to the Lake and build another cabin and fence, and get everything into satisfactory trim before our trip to Esmeralda about the first of November.7

What has become of Sam Bowen? I would give my last shirt to have him out here. I will make no promises, but I believe if John would give him a thousand dollars and send him out here he would not regret it. He might possibly do very well here, but he could do little without capital.8

Remember me to all my St. Louis and Keokuk friends, and tell Challie and Hallie [Benson ] that I heard a military band play “What are the Wild Waves Saying?” the other night, and it reminded me very forcibly of them.9 It brought Ella Creel and Belle across the Desert too in an instant, for they sang the song in Orion’s yard the first time I ever heard it. It was like meeting an old friend. I tell you I could have swallowed that whole band, trombone and all, if such a compliment would have been any gratification to them.

Love to the young folks,10

[Sam.]

Explanatory Notes | Textual Commentary

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1 In chapter 23 of Roughing It, Clemens confessed to having caused this conflagration at Lake Bigler (Tahoe) while preparing to cook dinner over a camp fire. Some of the details included in the book probably also appeared in the missing portion of this letter.

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2 Kinney (1840–78), described in Roughing It as the “young son of an Ohio nabob” (chapter 22), had been a teller in his father’s Cincinnati bank. He had come overland from St. Louis with George Turner and Horatio M. Jones, the recently appointed chief justice and associate justice of Nevada Territory, arriving in Carson City the second week of September 1861—probably on the tenth or eleventh. (Hence the trip to Lake Bigler described here could not have taken place around “the end of August,” as Mark Twain mistakenly recalled in Roughing It.) In Carson City, Kinney was a real-estate dealer and mining speculator until early in March 1862, when he returned to his father’s bank (see 8 and 9 Mar 62 to Clagett). He twice volunteered for service in the Civil War: before coming to Nevada he enlisted in the Sixth Ohio Infantry, and after returning to Ohio he became a captain in the Seventh Ohio Cavalry (C. S. Williams: 1861, 211; 1863, 220; “Letter from St. Louis,” San Francisco Evening Bulletin, 10 Sept 61, 1; Liberal, 3; Kelly 1862, 83; deeds and PH of Kinney’s military-service records in CU-MARK, courtesy of Michael H. Marleau).

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3 It seems probable that Clemens and Kinney met in Carson City on 12 or 13 September and then went together to Lake Bigler between the fourteenth and seventeenth of the month. Since they spent four days at the lake, a reasonable range of dates for the composition of this letter is 18–21 September.

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4 Kinney must have been a formidable swearer if he reminded Clemens of Samuel A. Bowen. During the Marion Rangers’ June 1861 “campaign in Missouri,” which Clemens surely had described to his family before going West, Bowen swore continually, cursing Clemens, cursing picket duty, and even cursing in his sleep. Joe Bowers, the character based on Bowen in “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed,” exhibits a similar propensity (SLC 1885, 197; working notes for SLC 1885, CU-MARK). Clemens enjoyed teasing his mother and sister about the pledge not to swear which they had extracted from him (see 8 and 9 Feb 62 to JLC and PAM).

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5 The camps mentioned in this letter had been set up and stocked with provisions in August by eleven Carson City friends and retainers of territorial governor James W. Nye (members of the “Irish Brigade” in chapter 21 of Roughing It). These men formed John Nye and Company, named for the governor’s brother, which on 24 August had entered timber claims located on the northeastern shore of Lake Bigler (memorandum of agreement and copartnership, 24 Aug 61, PH in CU-MARK, courtesy of Michael H. Marleau; Mack 1936, 222).

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6 On 9 September Orion replied to a 2 August letter from Mollie, “I think Tom Bohon will do very well for Belle” (CU-MARK). His wife’s younger sister did marry Thomas B. Bohon on 1 October 1861.

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7 In order to locate a claim on timber land it was necessary to build a fence around the property and a house on it—requirements that Clemens and Kinney met by felling “three trees apiece” (the fence) and building a house of brush barely distinguishable from “the surrounding vegetation” (Roughing It, chapter 22). Of course their handiwork was obliterated by the forest fire. Paine asserted that the two men made later trips to Lake Bigler and “located other claims—claims in which the ‘folks at home’ . . . were included” (MTB, 1:180; see also 25 Oct 61 to JLC and PAM). Very possibly one such trip was made between 22 and 28 September. A stay of several days then, coming after the initial four-day visit in the middle of the month, would help account for Clemens’s later impression that he and Kinney spent “two or three weeks” at the lake (Roughing It, chapter 23). Clemens delayed his second trip to Esmeralda until early April 1862.

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8 Sam Bowen was evidently a Union prisoner at this time because of his Southern sympathies (see 11 and 12 May 62 to OC, n. 22). John Henley Bowen (1822–91), Sam’s older brother, had settled in St. Louis and in the 1850s was a commission agent, then a steamboat agent and a representative of the Hannibal and St. Joseph Railroad. He became a successful contractor with the Union army. In “Villagers of 1840–3,” Clemens recalled him as “steamboat agent in St. Louis; army contractor, later—rich” (Inds, 97 and biographical directory).

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9 “What Are the Wild Waves Saying?” was a song for two voices composed in 1850 by Stephen Glover and Joseph E. Carpenter. It derives from Paul Dombey’s wistful query to his sister Florence in Dickens’s Dombey and Son (BBC, 4:1174). The Benson girls were the young daughters of James L. Benson of St. Louis, a flour inspector for the Merchants’ Exchange there. In 1866 Haille Benson (b. 1847)—whose name was sometimes spelled “Hallie”—married William Hyde, then assistant editor of the St. Louis Missouri Republican (Conard, 3:341, 343, 5:59; Scharf, 1:919). No information has been discovered about her sister Chaille (or Challie).

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10 Annie Moffett, Samuel Erasmus Moffett, and Jennie Clemens, aged nine, ten months, and six, respectively.



glyphglyphCopy-text:glyph MTL, 1:56–59.

glyphglyphPrevious publication:glyph L1, 124–127; Paine, 228, and MTB, 1:178 and 180, brief excerpts.

glyphglyphProvenance:glyphAs early as 1917, Paine reported that the beginning of the letter was missing (MTL, 1:56).

glyphglyphEmendations and textual notes:glyph


standard‐ǀbearers • standard‐bearers

to-night • tonight

he was • [sic]

swears. But • swears.—But

to. I • to.—I

the ———— thieving • the————thieving

sundown • sun-ǀdown

happen. I • happen.—I

tea-pot • tea-ǀpot

Belle • Bella

Benson • Renson

Sam • Sam