Samuel L. Clemens, aka “Mark Twain”, was a traveler, a man of the world. His best selling book, “The Innocents Abroad”, was a travelogue of sorts. He coined the phrase “The Gilded Age”, using it for the title of his first novel, a time of great disparity in wealth in the United States, as well as the rest of the world. But Twain, too, had a taste for the “good life” and strove to acquire wealth. He married into wealth. He married for love as well, to be fair to all parties. His desire for wealth was not aimed at merely accumulating. No, he spent lavishly and perhaps unwisely in some cases.
By 1895 the “Gilded Age” was long gone, the so called “Panic of 1893” saw the collapse of many financial empires and found Sam in a position of trying to make good on bad investments. "Following the Equator" tells of his journey to relieve himself of these debts incurred because of some of the unwise choices he made as well as his sense of personal responsibility for his business interests.
It starts in Paris, France and ends in England. The section from Paris to Victoria, British Columbia occupies little more than a few paragraphs. I have attempted to flesh out his trip from Elmira, New York to the Pacific Ocean examining the route taken and sampling historical and geographic vignettes from along the route.
The gilded age is the source of many American myths of becoming rich and successful by persistence and hard work. Tales of great estates and financial empires built but little said of their failing. Our histories are full of stories of these empires but one must dig deep to find the true costs of these adventures. Much of Sam's journey across the northern tier of this country took place on “The Great Northern Railroad”, an empire of one J.J. Hill. Official history provides a mere inkling of the damage done by the construction of Hill's empire, environmentally and to the remaining Native American peoples. The transcontinental railways to the south had already played havoc on the peoples living in their paths. The Great Northern Railroad continued this process and has been characterized as “one of the most Indian-subsidized railroads in America” (Michael Malone, from a biography of JJ Hill).
The starting point of this lecturing-trip around the world was Paris, where we had been living a year or two. We sailed for America, and there made certain preparations. This took but little time. Two members of my family elected to go with me. Also a carbuncle. The dictionary says a carbuncle is a kind of jewel. Humor is out of place in a dictionary. We started westward from New York in midsummer, with Major Pond to manage the platform-business as far as the Pacific. It was warm work, all the way, and the last fortnight of it was suffocatingly smoky, for in Oregon and British Columbia the forest fires were raging. We had an added week of smoke at the seaboard, where we were obliged to wait awhile for our ship. She had been getting herself ashore in the smoke, and she had to be docked and repaired. We sailed at last; and so ended a snail-paced march across the continent, which had lasted forty days.
As a riverboat pilot Sam had a well paid occupation and could afford most anything he wanted. But the Civil War interfered and he headed west making a series of choices both good and bad. At one point, penniless, he found himself hiding out in the abandoned gold fields of the western Sierra Nevada mountains. It's rather ironic that a deadpan tale of a jumping frog in Calaveras County should be the springboard to money, fame and long lived critical acclaim. Much of this deriving from his travels, first to the Sandwich Islands aka Hawaii, then to Europe and the Holy Land. Followed by more stories, sketches, tales, assorted stretchers and a couple of novels.
Sam's journey from Elmira begins in territory long “liberated” from native Americans, the territory of the Holland Purchase. The Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois, were party to the Treaty of Big Tree, essentially giving native land to “whites”, By 1840 all the land of the Holland Purchase had been sold off to private investors and other settlers.
Traveling west, Sam entered territory once controlled by the Ojibwe or Chippewa people. The U.S. Government attempted to move these people to land west of the Mississippi but ended up by confining them to reservations around Lake Superior. The “White Man” retains a romanticized image of these people through Longfellow's “The Song of Hiawatha”, a tangled mixture from the Finnish Kalevala, stories of the Iroquois trickster Manabozho, capped by the name of an Iroquois chief who had nothing to do with anything in the poem but who was one of the founders of the Iroquois league. Walt Disney did not invent the process with Pocohontas.
Traveling farther west through the Dakotas and Montana, the homeland of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes, concessions to Hill through his lobbying efforts played a large role in their dislocation. The Great Northern did not receive land grants but bought its lands from the Federal government and sold lots to farmers and other investors along its route through North Dakota and Montana. Hill operated recruiting agencies for potential farmers, in Germany and Scandinavia.
The last Native American buffalo hunt was held in 1885. In 1887 they'd signed a treaty surrendering 17,500,000 acres of land and moved into the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. The Dawes Act, also called the General Allotment Act authorized the President of the United States to survey American Indian tribal land and divide it into allotments for individual Indians. Those who accepted allotments and lived separately from the tribe would be granted United States citizenship. The act also provided what the government would classify as "excess" those Indian reservation lands remaining after allotments, and sell those lands on the open market, allowing purchase and settlement by non-Native Americans.
Natives were forced from their homes and their lands parceled out. They had been cheated out of their lands, forced onto reservations and suffered attempts at “Americanization”. Most did not survive. By 1890 there were fewer than 250,000 Native Americans.
Sam Clemens and his party next traveled into what was the territory of the Blackfeet Indians, the Niitsítapi. As with all the other plains tribes, these people often had hostile relationships with the encroaching white settlers. Nevertheless they remained largely out of the Great Plains Indian Wars. They rejected request made by the Lakotas, Cheyenne and Arapaho to join in the fight against the U.S. Army. Despite this they suffered what has been described as the “greatest slaughter of Indians ever made by U.S. Troops”, the Marias massacre, January 23, 1870. If there is anything that can be described as positive to come from this it is that President Ulysses S. Grant ended any discussion of returning control of Indians affairs to the army. The corruption of the civilian Indian agents had become common knowledge. Consequently, Grant appointed Quakers and persons of other religious affiliation to Indian Agent posts.
So, there were few if any Native Americans for Sam to meet. He and his party traveled on into the Rockies to another part of J.J. Hill's empire, the mining towns of Helena and Anaconda.
By 1888, about 50 millionaires lived in Helena, more per capita than in any city in the world. They had made their fortunes from gold. About $3.6 billion (in today's dollars) of gold was taken from Last Chance Gulch over a 20-year period, most of it before 1868. This large concentration of wealth was the basis of developing fine residences and ambitious architecture in the city and its Victorian neighborhoods. It also attracted a thriving red light district. Among the well-known local madams was Josephine "Chicago Joe" Airey, who built a thriving business empire between 1874 and 1893, becoming one of the largest and most influential landowners in Helena.
In 1888, a large lead smelter was built on the banks of Prickly Pear Creek in the Helena Valley by the Helena and Livingston Lead Smelting Company. In 1898, three years after Sam's visit, the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) purchased the 160 acre site and operated the smelter until 2001. East Helena grew up around that enterprise. For over a century, the smelter processed 70,000 tons of lead bullion a year, and provided a livelihood for thousands of families. It also produced untold tons of toxic contaminants.
August 5th, 1895, Sam Clemens and party departed Helena for Missoula, Montana aboard the Northern Pacific Railroad accompanied by Senator Sanders. August 6th, they traveled from Missoula to Spokane, Washington. Attached to the train were two special cars bearing an excursion party consisting of the new receiver of the Northern Pacific Railroad and his friends, one of whom was the United States Supreme Court Judge who had appointed this receiver. An invitation was sent in to Mark to ride in their car but as it came for him alone and did not include the ladies he declined.
In Spokane, Sam sees "squaws" prowling about back doors & windows begging & foraging — “a nuisance once familiar to me”.
“... Mark and I walked about this remarkable city with its asphalt streets, electric lights, nine story telegraph poles and commercial blocks that would do credit to any Eastern city. There were buildings ten stories high with the nine top stories empty and there were many fine stores with great plate glass fronts marked 'To Rent'. In the afternoon our entire party drove about the city in an open carriage. Our driver pointed out some beautiful suburban residences and told us who occupied them. 'That house', he said as we drove by a palatial establishment, 'is where Mr Brown lives. He is receiver for the Spokane Bank, which failed last year for over $2,000,000'. You all know about that big failure, of course. 'The receiver lives there.' Pointing out another house he said 'That man living up in that big house is receiver for the Great Falls Company. It failed for nearly a million. The president and directors of that company are most all in the State prison. And this here house, that we are coming to now, is where the receiver of the Washington Gas and Water Company lives, etc.'”
Mark said to the ladies, “If I had a son to send West, I would educate him for a receiver. It seems to be about the only thriving industry”.
In Spokane, the Clemens party again boarded the Great Northern Railroad and headed for the Pacific Ocean. They traveled through what would later be recognized as “The Channeled Scablands”, a heavily eroded landscape caused by multiple flooding on a massive scale. They crossed the Cascade mountain range using the original switchbacks over Stevens Pass. Leavenworth was a thriving town because of the railroad. This would change following the opening of the second Cascade tunnel, still in use today.
The Native Americans were pretty much all gone from along the railroad route. The towns along the way were all enjoying a degree of economic prosperity, primarily because the Great Northern Railroad was still in the process of construction. Sam Clemens' party did suffer one difficulty in this region. From Canada to Portland, Oregon, the landscape was enveloped in smoke from forest fires. Mark Twain did not escape this until he was on the Pacific heading for the Equator. But he was not without smoke there for Major Pond wrote that he bought three thousand Manilla cheroots and four pounds of Durham smoking tobacco. He hoped he could make the three thousand cheroots last four weeks. In truth it seems he bought only 500.