On 16 February 1857 Clemens took passage for New Orleans on the packet Paul Jones. Probably the “great idea” of the Amazon journey was still alive in his mind as he later claimed , but within two weeks his old ambition to become a Mississippi pilot was rekindled. During daylight watches he began “doing a lot of steering” for Horace E. Bixby, pilot of the Paul Jones, whose sore foot made standing at the wheel painful. Bixby (1826–1912), later a noted captain as well as pilot, recalled after Clemens’s death:
I first met him at Cincinnati in the spring of 1857 as a passenger on the steamer Paul Jones. He was on his way to Central America for his health. I got acquainted with him on the trip and he thought he would like to be a pilot and asked me on what conditions he could become my assistant. I told him that I did not want any assistant, as they were generally more in the way than anything else, and that the only way I would accept him would be for a money consideration. I told him that I would instruct him till he became a competent pilot for $500. We made terms and he was with me two years, until he got his license.
Although Bixby consistently indicated that he and Clemens came to terms either at their first meeting or quite soon after, Mark Twain three times explicitly designated New Orleans as the place where he approached Bixby about becoming his steersman and where they reached an agreement. It is reasonable to assume that, before agreeing to instruct him, Bixby would have used the entire trip to New Orleans to test his ability at handling the wheel.
Sam and Horace Bixby departed New Orleans March 4, 1857 on board the Colonel Crossman with Clemens installed as the new cub and arrived in St. Louis on March 15. While in St. Louis Clemens took steps to secure the $100 that Bixby required as a down payment on his instructional fee. Some forty years afterward, in notes for his autobiography, he reminded himself that he went to his cousin James Clemens, Jr., “to borrow the $100 to pay Bixby—before I got to the subject he was wailing about having to pay $25,000 taxes in N.Y. City—said it makes a man poor! So I didn’t ask him”. Clemens borrowed the money instead from his brother-in-law, William A. Moffett, and rejoined Bixby.
Editorial narrative following 5 August 1856 Dates of the Paul Jones passage discussed in the editorial narrative differ from a more recent evaluation of Sam Clemens' time on the Mississippi River.
From The Life of Mark Twain: The Early Years, 1835-1871, pp 94-5
When Sam reported to his friends and family that he planned to become a pilot on the lower Mississippi, their responses were mixed. Annie Taylor broke off their relationship, perhaps because there was no telling when he would next be in Keokuk, or perhaps because she no longer considered a boatman her social or intellectual equal, though she saved a pair of his letters to the end of her life. His niece Annie Moffett remembered that in St. Louis “everyone was running up and down stairs and sitting on the steps to talk over the news. Piloting in those days was a dramatic and well-paid profession, and in a river town it was a great honor to have a pilot in the family.” His mother, on the other hand, was dismayed. “I gave him up then,” she told an interviewer, “for I always thought steamboating was a wicked business and was sure he would meet bad associates.” According to a joke at the time, rivermen were like the river: shallowest and dirtiest at the mouth. Still, there is no evidence that Jane released Sam from his oaths to avoid gambling and drinking hard liquor—nor, for that matter, that he began to violate either oath.
On page 98, Scharnhorst described the reality of riverboats:
In fact, piloting a steamboat at most times of the year was an extremely hazardous occupation. The boats were hardly the “floating palaces” of legend, but mostly cheaply constructed, wooden, rickety tinderboxes. As Robert Sattelmeyer explains, “Boats were profitable to the extent that they ran risks: carrying too much steam, overloading freight or passengers, running dangerous chutes to save time, venturing into rivers at marginal water levels, and so forth. ... Not surprisingly, the life expectancy of a Mississippi steamboat was four to five years.” Flimsily built with flat bottoms to glide over sandbars, steamboats might sink in as little as three or four feet of water. About a thousand steamboat accidents—on average, one every two weeks—were reported on western rivers between 1811 and 1851, and the remains of some two hundred wrecked steamboats were submerged between St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois, a distance of only about two hundred miles. As Bernard DeVoto notes, of the thousand boats that plied the Mississippi when Sam worked the river, “the soundly built boat was the exception, a product of occasional pride or responsibility; the average boat was assembled from inferior timber and machinery, thrown together with the least possible expense, and hurried out to snare her portion of the unimaginable profits before her seams opened or her boiler heads blew off. Once launched, she entered a competition ruthless and inconceivably corrupt.” Captains and pilots were personally liable to criminal and civil penalties in the event of accidents, including explosions, and unless they owned part of the boat they enjoyed “minimal job security, berths that were usually transient, [and] wages that fluctuated greatly.” For two years after he earned his pilot's license, Sam earned a salary equal to that of the vice president of the United States or an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court while at work, but his periods of employment were punctuated by unpaid layoffs and layovers. His workday was divided into six four-hour shifts—three shifts on duty, the other three devoted to sleep and a little leisure. Riverboat officers were also liable to be punished for their support of unionization, and while in port pilots were subject to the orders of their captains. Gambling and prostitution flourished on the boats and in the towns along the river, and Sam was complicit in “this trade in greed and corruption” during a formative era of his life. Yet he omitted “the squalid venery” of the boating profession, as DeVoto called it, from both his extant private letters of the period and from Life on the Mississippi, his most complete public account of his piloting career.”