by David Ginsburg

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned." Mark Twain

Samuel Clemens was born on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri. It was the day Halley's Comet was seen in the sky. The comet is seen once every seventy-five years.

As a boy, Sam was very mischievous, especially when he was with his friend, Tom Blankenship. Tom lived in a broken-down farm behind Sam's house. Sometimes at night Tom would give a little catcall and Sam would sneak out. Then they would look for treasure or try to find a cure for warts. During the day they included their other friends in their mischief. One time they were rolling boulders down a hill and one just missed a wagon and wagon driver. After that, the boys decided they should stop their mischief.

When Sam was eleven years old his dad died of pneumonia. He stopped going to school and started working as a typesetter to support his family. A typesetter is a person who sets metal letters called type. This is how newspapers were made. After he became a good typesetter, his brother, Orion, came back from St. Louis where he was also a typesetter. Orion bought a newspaper and made Sam his assistant. When Orion was out of town, Sam was in charge. one time when Orion was away, Sam got people to tell him all the gossip. He printed it in the paper. Everyone liked it except for the people he was talking about. Those people came to complain, including one armed with a shotgun! When Orion got back he quickly put an end to Sam's mischief.

For fun Sam liked to write funny short stories and send them to a newspaper. They would get published, so he kept writing. At age seventeen, he went to work as a typesetter for newspapers in St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, and back in St. Louis. Again, he worked with Orion but this time in Iowa where Orion lived. He then worked in Cincinnati for a while. He gained quite an education working on the newspaper. But after ten years of being a printer he wanted to move on.

At age 21 in 1857 he boarded a steamboat to South America. As soon as he was on the Mississippi River he forgot about going to South America and wanted to become a steamboat pilot. Sam went up to the pilot and begged him to teach him how to be a steamboat pilot. Mr. Bixby, the pilot, finally accepted at a cost of $500. Sam was to pay $100 at the start and $400 after he became a pilot. Bixby taught him everything he knew. Later, he was transferred onto another boat called the Pennsylvania. By then his younger brother, Henry, wanted to work on the river too. Sam specially arranged for Henry to work on the Pennsylvania. One day the pilot, Tom Brown, started to hurt Henry because of a tiny mistake. Defending Henry, Sam hit the pilot on the head with a chair, and, as his punishment, got thrown off the boat for the next trip.

Sam told Henry that, in case of an emergency, he should always help the people into the lifeboats rather than himself. He said, you can always swim across the river. Unfortunately, the boilers overheated and exploded. Henry was thrown far from the boat. Taking Sam's advice, he swam back to the boat, unaware that he was badly injured. He helped people onto the lifeboats as Sam instructed. Within six days, Henry died in a room with other seriously injured people. From then on, Sam always blamed himself for his brother's death. Later, Sam got his license and became an official and successful steamboat pilot for about four-and-a-half years. His adventures on the steamboat added flavor to some of his stories such as Life on the Mississippi and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Suddenly the country was thrust into the Civil War and steamboat travel became scarce. So, in 1861, Sam joined a group who were fighting for the South. He was given a mule, a rifle, blankets, a suitcase, a frying pan, a quilt, some rope, boots, and an umbrella. What Sam learned the most while he was fighting was retreating! Sam started to write short funny stories and send them to newspapers. Before long, a newspaper called The Daily Territorial, wanted to hire him as editor for $25 a week. He accepted, and left for Virginia City. When he wrote anything serious, he would sign it with his real name, Samuel Clemens. But when he wrote something funny and fictional, he signed it with his pen name, Mark Twain. "Mark Twain" was a call from a river man meaning "safe water" (twelve feet or two fathoms).

He became well known for a series of hoaxes he devised. One of his biggest hoaxes was when he wrote about some miners who uncovered a three-hundred-year-old petrified man thumbing his nose. People all over started making different versions of the story. Most people thought it was true. It was all over magazines and newspapers, and officials started getting angry and threatened to throw Mark Twain in jail. Twain fled the town and went to San Francisco. He worked for a new newspaper called The Morning Call. Things he said about the government made politicians angry, and he fled again. This time he went to Sacramento Valley where he swapped stories with other men. There he heard an ancient Greek tale about a frog jumping contest in 1664. Mark Twain wrote his own version called "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County." It was printed in newspapers all over and Twain soon became known as "The Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope."

Twain traveled places working for more newspapers and writing lots of stories about his experiences. When Twain was 31 years old he published "Jumping Frog" and other stories in a big book. Then he took a trip to Europe and toured for five months. When he returned in 1867, he wrote a book called Innocents Abroad that was based on his travels.

During his travels, Twain had met Charles Langdon from New York. He showed Twain a portrait of his sister, Olivia. On February 2, 1870, Twain and Olivia got married. They lived in Buffalo for some time, then moved to Connecticut. They built a big house in Hartford. Here Twain lived with his three girls, his dozen cats, and his wife, Olivia.

Lots of Twain's books were published in Hartford but most of them were created near Elmira, New York, on the Langdon's farm. On a hill near the house, they built a study for Twain. It had eight sides that looked like a ship pilot's house on a steamboat. This was where Mark Twain worked.

Twain made a lot of money from writing his books, but he lost money by investing in inventions. So, he went to England where lining was cheaper. He was there for nine years. But then Twain came face to face with a $150,000 debt. So then for a year he went on a worldwide tour giving lectures. He then paid his debts and returned to Connecticut in 1900.

Mark Twain spent his' last years in a house in Connecticut. Everyone respected the man who was a river pilot, typesetter, humorist, much loved author, and more! Twain always had a cat around, and, if you were wondering who the favorites were, they were Blatherskite, Apollinaris, Beelzebub, and last but not least, Buffalo Bill.

On April 20, 1910, Halley's comet was seen in the sky. Twain always said that he had come with the comet and would go with it. True to his word, the next day he died. After his death, some of his books were translated into many foreign languages, and even though he's not around any more, you can always read his books and keep on laughing!


Some stories that were written by Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), such as The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, were actually based on stories of his childhood. Huck was based on Sam's good friend Tom Blankenship and Becky was based on Laura Hawkins, his sweetheart. Tom was based on Twain himself, and Aunt Polly was based on his mother, Jane Clemens. Mark Twain used his experience and knowledge in many of his stories. He used real people and things that really existed and then changed their names.


1. Robert Quackenbush, Mark Twain? What Kind of Name is That?, 1984, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey
2. Charles Michael Daugherty, Samuel Clemens, 1970, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York
3. Sterling North, Mark Twain and the River, 1961, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston/The Riverside Press, Cambridge
4. May McNeer, America's Mark Twain, 1962, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston/The Riverside Press, Cambridge
5. Jean Rikhoff, Writing about the Frontier Mark Twain, 1961, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago
6. Charles Neider, The Complete Short Stories of Mark Twain, 1957, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York

For more information about Mark Twain, visit:
Mark Twain in his Times Home page by the The Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia

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"Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens" written by David Ginsburg, from "Extraordinary People Around the World," by the fifth grade class at Santa Monica Alternative School House.
Picture of Mark Twain courtesy of American T-Shirts.
This page edited by Nancy Nickerson.
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