Today, the Mark Twain Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar Coin remembers when Orion and Sam Clemens arrived in Carson City on August 14, 1861.
From Mark Twain, a biography, the personal and literary life of Samuel Langhorne Clemens by Albert Bigelow Paine, published in 1912:
It was a hot, dusty August 14th that the stage reached Carson City and drew up before the Ormsby Hotel.
It was known that the Territorial secretary was due to arrive; and something in the nature of a reception, with refreshments and frontier hospitality, had been planned.
Governor Nye, formerly police commissioner in New York City, had arrived a short time before, and with his party of retainers (“heelers” we would call them now), had made an imposing entrance.
Perhaps something of the sort was expected with the advent of the secretary of state.
Instead, the committee saw two wayworn individuals climb down from the stage, unkempt, unshorn — clothed in the roughest of frontier costume, the same they had put on at St. Jo — dusty, grimy, slouchy, and weather-beaten with long days of sun and storm and alkali desert dust.
It is not likely there were two more unprepossessing officials on the Pacific coast at that moment than the newly arrived Territorial secretary and his brother.
Somebody identified them, and the committee melted away; the half-formed plan of a banquet faded out and was not heard of again.
Soap and water and fresh garments worked a transformation; but that first impression had been fatal to festivities of welcome.
Carson City, the capital of Nevada, was a “wooden town,” with a population of two thousand souls. Its main street consisted of a few blocks of small frame stores, some of which are still standing.
In Roughing It the author writes:
In the middle of the town, opposite the stores, was a “Plaza,” which is native to all towns beyond the Rocky Mountains, a large, unfenced, level vacancy with a Liberty Pole in it, and very useful as a place for public auctions, horse trades, and mass-meetings, and likewise for teamsters to camp in. Two other sides of the Plaza were faced by stores, offices, and stables. The rest of Carson City was pretty scattering.
One sees the place pretty clearly from this brief picture of his, but it requires an extract from a letter written to his mother somewhat later to populate it.
The mineral excitement was at its height in those days of the early sixties, and had brought together such a congress of nations as only the greed for precious metal can assemble.
The sidewalks and streets of Carson, and the Plaza, thronged all day with a motley aggregation — a museum of races, which it was an education merely to gaze upon.
Jane Clemens had required him to write everything just as it was — “no better and no worse.”
Well [he says], “Gold Hill” sells at $5,000 per foot, cash down; “Wild Cat” isn’t worth ten cents. The country is fabulously rich in gold, silver, copper, lead, coal, iron, quicksilver, marble, granite, chalk, plaster of Paris (gypsum), thieves, murderers, desperadoes, ladies, children, lawyers, Christians, Indians, Chinamen, Spaniards, gamblers, sharpers, coyotes (pronounced ki-yo-ties), poets, preachers, and jackass rabbits.
I overheard a gentleman say, the other day, that it was “the d — dest country under the sun,” and that comprehensive conception I fully subscribe to. It never rains here, and the dew never falls. No flowers grow here, and no green thing gladdens the eye.
The birds that fly over the land carry their provisions with them. Only the crow and the raven tarry with us. Our city lies in the midst of a desert of the purest, most unadulterated and un compromising sand, in which infernal soil nothing but that fag-end of vegetable creation, “sage-brush,” ventures to grow.
… I said we are situated in a flat, sandy desert— true. And surrounded on all sides by such prodigious mountains that when you look disdainfully down (from them) upon the insignificant village of Carson, in that instant you are seized with a burning desire to stretch forth your hand, put the city in your pocket, and walk off with it.
As to churches, I believe they have got a Catholic one here, but, like that one the New York fireman spoke of, I believe “they don’t run her now.”
Carson has been through several phases of change since this was written — for better and for worse. It is a thriving place in these later days, and new farming conditions have improved the country roundabout.
But it was a desert outpost then, a catch-all for the human drift which every whirlwind of discovery sweeps along.
Gold and silver hunting and mine speculations were the industries — gambling, drinking, and murder were the diversions — of the Nevada capital.
Politics developed in due course, though whether as a business or a diversion is not clear at this time.
The Clemens brothers took lodging with a genial Irish woman, Mrs. Murphy, a New York retainer of Governor Nye, who boarded the camp-followers.
This retinue had come in the hope of Territorial pickings and mine adventure — soldiers of fortune they were, and a good-natured lot all together.
One of them, Bob Howland, a nephew of the governor, attracted Samuel Clemens by his clean-cut manner and commanding eye.
“The man who has that eye doesn’t need to go armed,” he wrote later. “He can move upon an armed desperado and quell him and take him a prisoner without saying a single word.”
It was the same Bob Howland who would be known by and by as the most fearless man in the Territory; who, as city marshal of Aurora, kept that lawless camp in subjection, and, when the friends of a lot of condemned outlaws were threatening an attack with general massacre, sent the famous message to Governor Nye:
“All quiet in Aurora. Five men will be hung in an hour.” And it was quiet, and the programme was carried out. But this is a digression and somewhat premature.
Orion Clemens, anxious for laurels, established himself in the meager fashion which he thought the government would approve; and his brother, finding neither duties nor salary attached to his secondary position, devoted himself mainly to the study of human nature as exhibited under frontier conditions.
Sometimes, when the nights were cool, he would build a fire in the office stove, and, with Bob Howland and a few other choice members of the “Brigade” gathered around, would tell river yarns in that inimitable fashion which would win him devoted audiences all his days.
His river life had increased his natural languor of habit, and his slow speech heightened the lazy impression which he was never unwilling to convey.
His hearers generally regarded him as an easy going, indolent good fellow with a love of humor — with talent, perhaps — but as one not likely ever to set the world afire.
They did not happen to think that the same inclination which made them crowd about to listen and applaud would one day win for him the attention of all mankind.
Within a brief time Sam Clemens (he was never known as otherwise than “Sam” among those pioneers) was about the most conspicuous figure on the Carson streets.
His great bushy head of auburn hair, his piercing, twinkling eyes, his loose, lounging walk, his careless disorder of dress, drew the immediate attention even of strangers; made them turn to look a second time and then inquire as to his identity.
He had quickly adapted himself to the frontier mode. Lately a river sovereign and dandy, in fancy percales and patent leathers, he had become the roughest of rough clad pioneers, in rusty slouch hat, flannel shirt, coarse trousers slopping half in and half out of the heavy cow-skin boots.
Always something of a barbarian in love with the loose habit of unconvention, he went even further than others and became a sort of paragon of disarray.
The more energetic citizens of Carson did not prophesy much for his future among them.
Orion Clemens, with the stir and bustle of the official new broom, earned their quick respect; but his brother — well, they often saw him leaning for an hour or more at a time against an awning support at the corner of King and Carson streets, smoking a short clay pipe and staring drowsily at the human kaleidoscope of the Plaza, scarcely changing his position, just watching, studying, lost in contemplation — all of which was harmless enough, of course, but how could anyone ever get a return out of employment like that?
Samuel Clemens did not catch the mining fever immediately; there was too much to see at first to consider any special undertaking.
The mere coming to the frontier was for the present enough; he had no plans. His chief purpose was to see the world beyond the Rockies, to derive from it such amusement and profit as might fall in his way.
The war would end, by and by, and he would go back to the river, no doubt.
He was already not far from homesick for the “States” and his associations there.
The Mark Twain Commemorative Gold Five-Dollar Coin shows with an image of Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), circa 1860s.