In the spring 1857, Missouri native Samuel Langhorne Clemens was still seeking his fortune. While growing up, his father had failed spectacularly in several speculative business ventures and Sam was continuing the family tradition. While earning some money writing for various newspapers, he and his brother Orion bet the farm on several ventures of their own. Their latest failure ended with Sam in Keokuk, Iowa, but he was determined to strike out again to make it rich, this time in South America. Clemens never made it. A chance meeting led to a change of plans -- and career -- for Clemens, and proved to be an important turning point in American literature.
While traveling down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, the first stop on his South American adventure, Clemens met steamboat captain Jerome Bixby. Clemens was struck by the romance of Bixby's occupation, and convinced the old captain to take him on in training as a pilot. For the next two years Clemens served as Bixby's apprentice, learning the twists and turns of more than 2,000 miles of the Mississippi River. In 1859, Clemens earned his own pilots license. He loved being a riverboat pilot more than any other of the many jobs he held over the years. As he wrote in an 1866 letter to his boyhood friend Will Bowen
All men -- kings and serfs alike -- are slaves to other men and to circumstance -- save alone, the pilot -- who comes at no man's back and call, obeys no man's orders and scorns all men's suggestions. The king would do this thing, and would do that: but a cramped treasury overmasters him in the one case and a seditious people in the other. The Senator must hob-nob with canaille whom he despises, and banker, priest and statesman trim their actions by the breeze of the world's will and the world's opinion. It is a strange study, -- a singular phenomenon, if you please, that the only real, independent and genuine gentlemen in the world go quietly up and down the Mississippi river, asking no homage of any one, seeking no popularity, no notoriety, and not caring a damn whether school keeps or not.
During his four years on the Mississippi Clemens continued to write, including a satire of an account by riverboat captain Isaiah Sellers, who wrote under the name "Mark Twain." Clemens eventually adopted the pen name as his own, some sources say in regret over the embarrassment he caused Sellers. "Mark Twain" is a term a leadsman calls out to indicate he's reading two fathoms, or twelve feet, on a leadline, a weighted rope used to measure water depth. Being a riverboat pilot was lucrative -- Clemens earned more than $70,000 a year in today's dollars -- so he convinced his brother Henry to join him. Both worked on various steamboats including the Pennsylvania, which Clemens writes about in Life On The Mississippi. A boiler explosion in June 1858 killed 64 people, including Henry Clemens. Guilt over his brothers death would ever-after plague Clemens.
With the outbreak of war between North and South in 1861, the riverboat trade dried up as commerce came to a standstill and the river became a highway for hostile armies. Clemens headed west to Nevada. He would return to the river in his 1876 novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the non-fiction work Life On The Mississippi, published in 1883, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in 1884.