Mark Twain / A Young Journalist and a Virginia City Duel

The life and legend of Mark Twain and Mark Twain stories have more twists and turns than a mountain switchback road. The bio of Mark Twain includes the exploits of Samuel Langhorn Clemens, the young riverboat pilot on the Mississippi River and the dangers involved with that 1800’s occupation. In fact, the brother of Samuel Clemens died in the explosion of the steamboat Pennsylvania on June 21,1858 just a short time after Clemens himself left that profession.

A young Mark Twain

It was Samuel Clemens that helped his younger brother gain employment on a steamboat and the guilt was said to have stayed with him for the remainder of his life. Mark Twain adventures carried on after that early steamboat career, ended mostly because of the start of the Civil War, to a life in the wild west of Nevada and the gold mining towns of California.

The Birth of Mark Twain in Virginia City Nevada

Mark Twain adventures were aplenty. Mark Twain made the decision to head west when his older brother Orion accepted a job as secretary to James W. Nye, appointed governor for the Nevada Territory. The group traveled via stagecoach from Missouri to Virgina City Nevada, a two month journey. During this rather uncomfortable trip, Clemens made notes of the journey that would later be put into an interesting story.

After an unsuccessful try at the mining profession, In 1863, Samuel Clemens found himself employed as a journalist working for the territory’s first newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise. The paper was founded in 1858 and for the first two years published out of Genoa Nevada. In 1860, the newspaper relocated to the booming mining town of Virginia City. The younger Samuel Clemens had experience working for Orion’s newspaper as a typesetter and therefore knew a bit about the newspaper business. From his reporters job in Virginia City Nevada would grow many of the Mark Twain adventures we have come to know.

With Samuel Clemens new residence and employment, the rough and tumble atmosphere of a mining town offered quite a lot of subjects to observe and report on. The town was quite different to what Samuel Clemens had been used to. Being a little over twenty miles south of Reno Nevada and at an elevation of 6,100 feet, Virginia City was a booming town with all the characters a booming mining town would attract.

Virginia City Nevada, 1867

At the same time, Samuel Clemens himself was known for his cutting and to the point writing style. One tale is the time Clemens was allegedly mugged in November 1863 in Virginia City and years later reported on it in his publication “Roughing It”. Roughing It by Mark Twain was his first publication after his stint as newspaper reporter. The story of the mugging as I understand it is that the robbery was a joke put on by some of Clemens friends. The reason for the mugging was later said so to to give Clemens something more to write about. The newspaper in Virginia City apparently went along with the prank. When Clemens finally discovered the joke, he reportedly wasn’t amused but he did get back his money and valuables. It was in Virginia City Nevada that the pen name Mark Twain was adopted by Clemens after he used it as a byline on an article he had written. The name stuck and was used continually throughout his life.

The book by Mark Twain, “Roughing It”, is somewhat of an autobiography while he traveled the west in the 1860’s via stagecoach and afterward. The fake mugging incident in Nevada City was mentioned in this publication, still with little amusement on Twain’s part. The book even includes his observations of a trip to the then Kingdom of Hawaii. It was during this time in Virginia City and then later in California that the career of Mark Twain as a writer and humorist was born.

The Duel That Wasn’t in Virginia City

Why did Mark Twain leave Virginia City Nevada and move to San Francisco?

Mark Twain gained somewhat of a reputation in Virginia City for writing about whatever fancied him, including about things that didn’t actually fancy him. The tale about what hastened Twain’s rather speedy departure from Nevada Territory has a bit to do about writing an article after a few drinks. Probably never a good thing to do. Nothing good could come out of something like that. At the time, Twain apparently had been managing the Territorial Enterprise while his editor was out of town.

Hotel Angel, Angels Camp California

The article in question, written by Twain, had to do with charitable money being raised by some of Virginia City’s social elite for Civil War relief organizations and questioning what the money was really used for. At the same time, the somewhat liquored news story questioned whether the rival paper ,The Daily Union, was actually making it’s contribution to the cause. The tale of how the story itself actually made it into print is interesting. Mark Twain had apparently laid it on a desk in the newspaper office and while away it was picked up by the pressman and, thinking it was just waiting to be printed, set it on the press and the rest is history. At this point, like in several Mark Twain stories and tales of yore, there are a few conflicting versions of what occurred next.

The first version, which is detailed in the book, Wild West Shows, edited by Thomas W. Knowles and Joe R. Lansdale, is that the Daily Union’s owner, James L. Laird, was challenged to a duel by Twain. For the record, dueling was against the law in Nevada Territory. The first version according to the above mentioned book has Twain arriving at the dueling site chosen along with his second. The tale goes on to say that Twain couldn’t hit anything, including a barn door, with a sidearm and that his second demonstrated the gun to him by shooting a bird in mid flight. Twain’s second handed the gun back to him at just the same moment that Laird and his second appeared. Laird allegedly asked who it was that shot the bird and Twain’s second replied that it was the man who was then holding the gun. The story ends with Laird refusing to duel Mark Twain.

The second version is different in as much as it states that there was no duel to begin with. It states that James L. Laird never had any intention of dueling Twain and that a duel would not have taken place because it was strictly forbidden by law. and that Laird would not have been present.

1940 Mark Twain U.S. Postage Stamp

What story does fit both versions, and what was true, was that Mark Twain left Virginia City quite fast and relocated west to San Francisco California. Some say that he quit his job and left Nevada to avoid being arrested for proposing a duel. Others contend that he left to further his literary career in California which he surely did. It’s unclear which version is true or perhaps a bit of each is the real story. Again, what we do know is that Mark Twain bid good bye to Virginia City in a rather hasty manner.

The Aftermath

After Virginia City, Mark Twain journeyed to the Kingdom of Hawaii. Upon his return he wrote his book “Roughing It” which told the story of his western adventure. Everything from the stagecoach ride west from Missouri to his Virginia City exploits to his Hawaiian trip were put into this book. Mark Twain then heard a story, it’s said, about a mining camp gambler, while he was staying at the Hotel Angels in Angels Camp California. Mark Twain’s literary career took off not long after when a California publisher printed Twain’s short story, “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog“. This turned into the highly popular 1865 story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County“. All of this was believed to be inspired from the rumors he heard while at the Angels Camp hotel.

A Trip to Calaveras County California and Frogtown

Today, Calaveras County California, located in the old gold mining foothills of the Sierra Nevada range, celebrates an annual event at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds which features a frog jumping contest. In fact, the Fairgrounds are also referred to as “Frogtown“. The old Calaveras County gold mining town of Angels Camp honored Mark Twain with a statue of his likeness just north of the downtown area. The city of Angels Camp California holds a special place in the literary history of California and the literary career of Samuel Clemens, more often referred to as Mark Twain. Angels Camp is located south of Sacramento and about 130 miles east of San Francisco. It’s a beautiful and historic place to visit while vacationing in the California gold country. If you have the opportunity to make a trip to Calaveras County and the old gold mining town of Angels Camp, it’s well worth the time. The Angels camp hotel is still standing and the winners of the annual Jumping Frog contest have plaques embedded in the sidewalk in front of the hotel.

If your western road trip takes you near Virginia City Nevada, the Mark Twain Museum located in the old Territorial Enterprise newspaper building is another great addition to a Nevada trip planner.

(Photos from the public domain)