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.
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.
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
- Image description 1
An illustration of four men seated on top of a stagecoach. All are wearing hats. Two are wearing jackets, and two are wearing their undershirts. One waves his hand in the air holding a piece of paper or cloth. To the right it says: “Even at this day it thrills me through and through to think of the life, the gladness and the wild sense of freedom that used to make the blood dance in my veins on those fine overland mornings!”
- Image description 2
An illustration of a seated man with a tin cup in hand. To the left it says: “Then he poured for us a beverage which he called ‘Slum gullion,’ and it is hard to think he was not inspired when he named it. It really pretended to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler.”
- Image description 3
An illustration of a stagecoach traveling downhill in a mountain pass. In the distance, the rain of a thunderstorm is visible. To the left it says: “Two miles beyond South Pass City we saw for the first time that mysterious marvel which all Western untraveled boys have heard of and fully believe in, but are sure to be astounded at when they see it with their own eyes, nevertheless — banks of snow in dead summer time.”
- Image description 4
An illustration of a town with a mountain in the distance. A horse and rider stand with two men in front of a simple wooden building that is the governor’s house. Other wooden buildings visible to the left and right. To the right it says: “We were approaching the end of our long journey. It was the morning of the twentieth day. At noon we would reach Carson City, the capital of Nevada Territory. We were not glad, but sorry. It had been a fine pleasure trip; we had fed fat on wonders every day; we were now well accustomed to stage life, and very fond of it …”