The monster tract of land which our family own in Tennessee, was purchased by my father a little over forty years ago. He bought the enormous area of seventy-five thousand acres at one purchase. The entire lot must have cost him somewhere in the neighborhood of four hundred dollars. That was a good deal of money to pass over at one payment in those days—at least it was so considered away up there in the pineries and the “Knobs” of the Cumberland Mountains of]Fentress county, East Tennessee. When my father paid down that great sum, and turned and stood in the courthouse door of Jamestown, and looked abroad over his vast possessions, he said: “Whatever befalls me, my [heirs] are secure; I shall not live to see these acres turn to silver and gold, but my children will.” Thus, with the very kindest intentions in the world toward us, he laid the heavy curse of prospective wealth upon our shoulders. He went to his grave in the full belief that he had done us a kindness. It was a woful mistake, but fortunately he never knew it. [MTP]
He further said: “Iron ore is abundant in this tract, and there are other minerals; there are thousands of acres of the finest yellow pine timber in America, and it can be rafted down Obeds river to the Cumberland, down the Cumberland to the Ohio, down the Ohio to the Mississippi] and down the Mississippi to any community that wants it. There is no end to the tar, pitch and turpentine which these vast pineries will yield. This is a natural wine district, too; there are no vines elsewhere in America, cultivated or otherwise, that yield such grapes as grow wild here. There are grazing lands, corn lands, wheat lands, potato lands, there are all species of timber—there is everything in and on this great tract of land that can make land valuable. The United States contain fourteen millions of inhabitants; the population has increased eleven millions in forty years, and will henceforth increase faster than ever; [my] children will see the day that immigration will push its way to Fentress county, Tennessee, and then, with seventy-five thousand acres of excellent land in their hands, they will become fabulously wealthy.” [MTP]
Everything my father said about the capabilities of the land was perfectly true—and he could have added with like truth, that there were inexhaustible mines of coal on the land, but the chances are that he knew very little about the article, for the innocent Tennesseeans were not accustomed to digging in the earth for their fuel. And my father might have added to the list of eligibilities, that the land was only a hundred miles from Knoxville, and right where some future line of railway leading south from Cincinnati could not help but pass through it. But he never had seen a railway, and it is barely possible that he had not even heard of such a thing. Curious as it may seem, as late as eight years ago there were people living close to Jamestown who never had heard of a railroad and could not be brought to believe in steamboats. They do not vote for Jackson in Fentress county, they vote for Washington. A venerable lady of that locality said of her son: “Jim’s come back from Kaintuck and fotch a stuck-up gal with him from up thar; and bless you they’ve got more new-fangled notions, massy on us! Common log house ain’t good enough for them—no indeedy!—but they’ve tuck ’n’ gaumed the inside of theirn all over with some kind of nasty disgustin’ truck which they say is all the go in Kaintuck amongst the upper hunky, and which they calls it plarsterin’!” [MTP]
My eldest brother was four or five years old when the great purchase was made, and my eldest sister was an infant in arms. The rest of us—and we formed the great bulk of the family—came afterwards, and were born along from time to time during the next ten years. Four years after the purchase came the great financial crash of ’34, and in that storm my father’s fortunes were wrecked. From being honored and envied as the most opulent citizen of Fentress county—for outside of his great landed possessions he was considered to be worth not less than three thousand five hundred dollars—he suddenly woke up and found himself reduced to less than one-fourth of that amount. He was a proud man, a silent, austere man, and not a person likely to abide among the scenes of his vanished grandeur and be the target for public commiseration. He gathered together his household and journeyed many tedious days through wilderness solitudes, toward what was then the “Far West,” and at last pitched his tent in the almost invisible little town of Florida, Monroe county, Missouri. He “kept store” there several years, but had no luck, except that I was born to him. He presently removed to Hannibal, and prospered somewhat, and rose to the dignity of justice of the peace, and was candidate for county judge, with a certainty of election, when the summons came which no man may disregard. He had been doing tolerably well, for that age of the world, during the first years of his residence in Hannibal, but ill fortune tripped him once more. He did the friendly office of “going security” for Ira ——, and Ira —— walked off and deliberately took the benefit of the new bankrupt law]—a deed which enabled him to live easily and comfortably along till death called for him, but a deed which ruined my father, sent him poor to his grave, and condemned his heirs to a long and discouraging struggle with the world for a livelihood. But my father would brighten up and gather heart, even upon his death-bed, when he thought of the Tennessee land. He said that it would soon make us all rich and happy. And so believing, he died. [MTP]
We straightway turned our waiting eyes upon Tennessee. Through all our wanderings and all our ups and downs for thirty years they have still gazed thitherward, over intervening continents and seas, and at this very day they are yet looking toward the same fixed point, with the hope of old habit and a faith that rises and falls, but never dies. [MTP]
After my father’s death we reorganized the domestic establishment, but on a temporary basis, intending to arrange it permanently after the land was sold. My brother borrowed five hundred dollars and bought a worthless weekly newspaper, believing, as we all did, that it was not worth while to go at anything in serious earnest until the land was disposed of and we could embark intelligently in something. We rented a large house to live in, at first, but we were disappointed in a sale we had expected to make (the man wanted only a part of the land and we talked it over and decided to sell all or none,) and we were obliged to move to a less expensive one.
See the entry in Day By Day for December 13, 1865:
December 13 Wednesday – Sam wrote from San Francisco to Orion and Mollie. Another hope and
plan to sell the Tennessee Land came to naught. This time Sam had entertained an offer to sell the
land for $200,000 to Herman Camp, an early locator on the Comstock Lode, who wanted to turn it
into a vineyard and make wine. Orion’s “temperance virtue was suddenly on him in strong force.” The
deal fell through and caused great friction between the Clemens brothers [MTL 1: 326].