Today In History: Mark Twain Becomes Steamboat Pilot

Today In History |

April 9, 1859


Mark Twain is arguably the most famous American author in history. He penned some of the most iconic works of literature ever written, including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, his masterpiece. Before Twain was an author, orator and person of global renown, though, he was a steamboat pilot. And before he was Mark Twain, he was Samuel Clemens.

Clemens was awarded his steamboat pilot's license on April 9, 1859, 23 years old at the time. His career in steamboats began with an assignment by the Keokuk Daily Post, which hired him to write an ongoing series of comedic travel accounts. He grew to love the boat more than he loved his writing and abandoned the assignment.


After getting his piloting license, he piloted a steamboat for two years. The Civil War brought with it, among many other complications, a cessation of steamboat traffic. He returned to writing, this time as Mark Twain, a name derivative of terminology used in steamboating to "mark the twain," or take depth measurements with a rope.

Twain traveled around the country writing for newspapers and then married into a rich coal trading family, settling in Hartford, Connecticut. Tom Sawyer was published in 1875, with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn following ten years later.


Poor investment resulted in financial hardship following Huck Finn. He recouped his losses with more novels and continuing to appear on the lecture circuit. Twain and his family moved to Italy in 1903, where tragedy struck. His wife passed away, leaving a significantly more melancholic Twain behind.

Twain is remembered as one of the wittiest people in the history of letters. He is also credited with being the first true standup comedian, delivering lectures that were written with the aim of producing laughter. He was one of the first authors to write in a colloquial style, phonetically spelling out common vernacular in his characters' dialogue.

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Matt lives in Southern California. He is interested in politics, history, literature and the natural world.