A black and white portrait of a man with white hair and a large white mustache. To the right is a Wells, Fargo and Co. check made out to John Mill for $104.50 by Orion Clemens, Secretary of Nevada Territory.
Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, in 1907; an 1861 Wells Fargo check signed by Orion Clemens. Photo Credits: Library of Congress and Wells Fargo Corporate Archives.
November 14, 2019

A ticket to opportunity

A stagecoach ride in 1861 led Samuel Clemens to new opportunities in Nevada, where he started his writing career under the pen name Mark Twain.

In 1861, Samuel Clemens found himself out of work and looking for change. A young man in his 20s, he had spent most of his adult life moving from one place to the next, unsure of where he wanted to go or what he wanted to do. He had worked as a printer’s apprentice. He enjoyed his time as a steamboat pilot, but the Civil War halted water traffic — and his career on the Mississippi River. He also volunteered briefly as soldier for the Confederacy for two weeks — until he got tired of military life and quit.

Meanwhile, Clemens’ brother, Orion, had campaigned for Abraham Lincoln and was about to begin a new job as secretary of the Nevada Territory to Gov. James Nye. He would be responsible for the governor’s correspondence and would become the de facto acting governor when Nye traveled. As he made his plans to travel from Missouri to Nevada, Orion Clemens offered his brother a job as his assistant in Nevada.

A black and white portrait of a man with dark hair and a mustache.
Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, in the 1860s. Photo Courtesy: Library of Congress.

Samuel Clemens jumped at the opportunity, not realizing that his trip by stagecoach would change the direction of his life. On July 26, 1861, the brothers started their trip as they boarded a stagecoach in St. Joseph, Missouri.

Since 1858, the Overland Mail Company had provided the nation’s first transcontinental mail delivery and passenger service by stagecoach. William Fargo and others founded the company to improve America’s communication infrastructure. The startup of its time, the company required vast investments to pay for equipment, staff, and stations every 10-20 miles. Wells Fargo provided much of the financing, in addition to other management support.

Originally, overland stagecoaches traveled day and night on an almost 2,800-mile route from Missouri across the Southwest in under 25 days. When Samuel and Orion Clemens started their voyage, the route had changed. The start of the Civil War caused the federal government to worry about U.S. mail traveling through Texas and other Confederate areas. In 1861, the route shifted to the “central route.” Samuel and Orion Clemens traveled from Missouri across the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Great Basin to arrive in Carson City, Nevada, on Aug. 14.

In Nevada, Samuel Clemens grew tired of working for his brother, so he started writing for the local newspaper about his observations on life and human nature under the pen name Mark Twain.

A black and white photograph. On the right, a stagecoach pulled by four horses is stopped on a road. The driver is visible, but no other passengers are. On the left, a horse and rider pose. In the background are wooden houses and buildings.
The overland stagecoach at Rock Creek, Nebraska, in the early 1860s. Photo Credit: Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California. (Click or tap to enlarge the image. )

Besides connecting Samuel Clemens with new opportunities, the overland stagecoach had another role in his successes. Starting in 1867, he traveled across Europe and the Middle East. He published letters of his foreign explorations and observations in California newspapers, which arrived by mail on overland stagecoaches owned and operated by Wells Fargo from 1866 to 1869. These popular dispatches were later gathered together for the hit book The Innocents Abroad in 1869.

The stagecoach became a central figure in another book of his. After settling down on the East Coast in the 1870s with his wife, Olivia, Samuel Clemens dedicated his reminisces into writing. His book, Roughing It, came out in 1872, detailing his experiences on the overland stagecoach and his early career in the West. He described hardships, dangers, and discomfort, and recounted humorous anecdotes of new people and new places.

His wit captured the imagination of a generation, and he later went on to become one of America’s most celebrated authors.

Illustrations and selections from Mark Twain’s Roughing It, 1872

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