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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.

Cub Pilot Chronology:

Licensed Pilot Chronology:


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.”


Cincinnati to Cairo: On the Ohio River,

Built: 1857
Tonnage: 415
Clemens' Service: 4 March - 15 March 1857
Pilot: Horace Bixby
Captain: Patrick Yore

March 4, 1857 Wednesday – Commanded by Patrick Yore and piloted by Horace Bixby, the Colonel Crossman (415 tons) left New Orleans with Sam aboard bound for St. Louis.
March 15, 1857: Sunday – The Colonel Crossman arrived in St. Louis.

Built: 1854
Tonnage: 688
Clemens' Service: 29 April - 7 July, 1857
Pilot: Horace Bixby
Co-Pilot: Strother Wiley
Captain: R. C. Young

April 29, 1857: Wednesday – Sam left St. Louis on the Crescent City (688 tons), bound for New Orleans.

May 4? Monday – The Crescent City arrived in New Orleans.

May 8–9? Saturday – The Crescent City left New Orleans bound for St. Louis.

Steamboat: D. A. JANUARY
• Built: 1857
• Tonnage: 440
• Clemens' Service: 16 July - early Aug 1857
• Pilot: Horace Bixby
• Captain: Patrick Yore

Steamboat: JOHN J. ROE
• Built: 1856
• Tonnage: 691
• Clemens' Service: 5 August - 24 September, 1857
• Pilot: Zebulon Leavenworth and/or Sobieski Jolly
• Captain: Mark Leavenworth

• Built: 1854
• Tonnage: 486
• Clemens' Service: 27 September - 26 November 1857
• and 17 February - 5 June 1858
• Pilot: William Brown
• Co-Pilot: George Ealer
• 1st Mate: Abner Martin
• Captain: John Klinefelter
• Fate: 13 June 1858 lost by explosion


November 27 to December 12 Saturday – Sam worked as a night watchman on the freight docks from seven in the evening until seven in the morning. He earned three dollars a night [Neider 100].n


17 February - 5 June 1858


February 6 Saturday – The Pennsylvania, now repaired and refitted, left New Orleans with William Brown as pilot, George Ealer as co-pilot, John Simpson Klinefelter (1810-1885) as Captain. Sam had procured a job for Henry as “mud clerk,” so called because the job required leaping to shore in places where there was no pavement or dock. The job did not pay, but was a way to rise in the ranks. Henry Clemens was nineteen, and would make six trips with his brother Sam [Powers, MT A Life 84].

Steamboat: ALFRED T. LACEY
• Clemens' Service: 11 - 28 July 1858
• Built: 1857
• Pilot: possibly Barton Bowen
• Co-Pilot: possibly George Ealer
• Captain: John P. Rodney
• Fate: burned April 26, 1860 with loss of sixteen lives including Captain A. T. Lacy's daughter

June 11 Friday – Two days behind Henry on the Pennsylvania, Sam left New Orleans bound for St. Louis on the Alfred T. Lacey with Captain John P. Rodney and Sam’s Hannibal friend Barton S. Bowen, pilot [MTL 1: 82n3].

Steamboat: JOHN H. DICKEY
• Built: 1857
• Tonnage: 403
• Clemens' Service: 4 August - 19 October 1858
• Pilot: possibly Samuel Bowen
• Co-Pilot: possibly Strother Wiley
• Captain: Daniel Able
• Fate: Survived the Civil War; dismantled July 8, 1865
Between St. Louis and Memphis:

Steamboat: WHITE CLOUD
• Built: 1857
• Tonnage: 345
• Clemens' Service: 20 - 26 October 1858
• Pilot: probably Samuel Bowen
• Captain: Daniel Able

October 20 Wednesday – The Dickey was laid up for repairs, so Sam and probably Sam Bowen and Captain Able, made the St. Louis to Memphis run on the White Cloud (345 tons).

October 22 Friday – Sam’s article was printed in the St. Louis Missouri Republican using the signature “C” [Branch, “Dickey” 199-200].

• Built: 1858
• Tonnage: 880
• Clemens' Service: 30 October - 8 December 1858
• Pilot: probably Horace Bixby
• Captain: James B. Woods

October 30 Saturday – Sam left St. Louis on the New Falls City (880 tons; built in January of that year, the largest ship Sam served on. Sam took passage on the boat in January as well) Pilot Horace Bixby, Captain James B. Woods.

November 8 Monday – New Falls City arrived in New Orleans.

November 10 Wednesday – New Falls City left for St. Louis.

December 13 Monday – Sam and Horace Bixby left St. Louis on the Aleck Scott (709 tons) under Captain Robert A. Reilly. Sam remarked on the Aleck Scott: I will remark, in passing, that Mississippi steamboatmen were important in landsmen’s eyes (and in their own, too, in a degree) according to the dignity of the boat they were on.

Edgard Branch, the source for Day By Day, had originally dated Clemens' service on the RUFUS J. LACKLAND as 11 July - 3 August 1857. Further research by Michael Marleau, includes a new interpretation of Clemens' personal journals and indicates the 1859 dates are the most likely dates of service for the RUFUS J. LACKLAND.   July 9 – July 30, 1859

These dates were theorized by Branch for June 25, 1859 to July 28, 1859,  not corroborated by Marleau 

Steamboat: EDWARD J. GAY
Built: 1859
Tonnage: 823
Clemens' Service: 2 August - 1 October 1859
Captain: Barton Bowen
Fate: 1863 acquired by Confederacy and taken up Yalobusha River; later burned on 17 July 1863 to prevent capture.

Steamboat: A. B. CHAMBERS
Built: 1855
Tonnage: 410
Clemens' Service: 26 October 1859 - 24 February 1860
Co Pilots: James DeLancey and William Bowen
First mate: Grant Marsh
Captain: George Bowman
Fate: snagged and sank near St. Louis, 24 September 1860

Built: 1857
Tonnage: 865
Clemens' Service: 25 March - 1 or 2 July 1860
Co-Pilot: Wesley Jacobs
Captain: Joseph Edward Montgomery
Fate: boilers exploded May 31, 1866 with loss of eleven lives; towed to Saint Louis, MO and dismantled

Steamboat: ARAGO
Built: 1860
Tonnage: 268
Clemens' Service: 28 July - 31 August 1860
Co-Pilot: Isaiah W. "Bill" Hood
[identification of "Bill" Hood was made by researcher Michael Marleau, Nov. 2006]
Captain: George P. Sloan
Fate: Burned in Dog Tooth Bend, near Commerce, MO on Feb. 6, 1865.

Built: 1857
Tonnage: 493
Clemens' Service: 19 September 1860 - 18 November 1860
and 8 January 1861 - 8 May 1861
Co-Pilots: Horace BixbyWilliam Bowen, Sam Brown
Captains: David DeHaven and James O'Neal

Steamboat: SUNSHINE
Built: 1860
Tonnage: 354
Clemens' Service:
 6 December 1860 - 8 January 1861
Pilot: Capt. George W. Willard in 1860; Absalom Grimes in 1861
Captain: Henry G. Carson
Fate: burned 13 July 1864 in St. Louis by Confederates