Sam’s father, John Marshall Clemens, a highly intelligent man, was a mildly successful lawyer, a justice of the peace, and a stern disciplinarian of his children. Sam’s mother, Jane, a Southern belle in her youth, had a natural sense of humor and was greatly affectionate, especially to animals and people down on their luck. The combination of parental personalities would later be found in several of Mark Twain’s characters, and Huckleberry Finn’s concern for the less fortunate is reminiscent of Jane Clemen’s kindness and compassion.
When Sam reached the age of four, the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a small town of about a thousand people. Situated on the West bank of the Mississippi River, roughly eighty miles north of St. Louis, Hannibal was dusty, quiet, and in walking distance of large forests. The surrounding land and waterways provided young Sam countless images for his future writings. The Mississippi River shoreline was constantly occupied with rafts, skiffs, and large steamboats moving up and down the main artery between the North and the South. The tanyard, where Pap Finn would later sleep among the hogs, was found nearby, and downstream was a small cave where Indian Joe would later trap Tom and Becky in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Hannibal would eventually become “St. Petersburg” in Tom Sawyer and the same town was used for the initial setting in Huck Finn.
With its rustic landscape, bustling river traffic, and scores of eager pioneers passing through on their way to fortune in the West, Hannibal introduced Sam to an America that was quickly moving out of the frontier age. More important, the town introduced the young boy to two substantial aspects of American life: the concept of slavery and the reality of death. Although Missouri was a slave state, Hannibal’s northern position resulted in a part slave/part free community. At that time, Sam did not trouble himself with the distinction. His recollections of childhood included his attitude toward slavery, and he later acknowledged that he was unaware of its inhumanity: “I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it.”
The death of the father in 1847 placed the Clemens family in financial difficulty, and Sam had to forego the schooling he had begun and become an apprentice printer to the publisher of the local Missouri Courier. Shortly thereafter, Sam left to work as an apprentice for his brother, Orion. The brothers returned to Hannibal after two years, and Orion took control as proprietor of the Journal. In addition to his apprentice duties, Sam contributed small literary pieces to the Journal, a humble beginning to his future writing career. The success of the brothers was short-lived, however, and after Orion left Hannibal, Sam found work in St. Louis, then New York, and Philadelphia. For a brief period of time, he joined his brother Orion in Keokuk, Iowa, where he again worked as a printer.
In 1856, hoping to find the success that had eluded his father and Orion, Sam conceived a wild scheme of making a fortune in South America. The drive to become rich quickly through promising deals would follow Sam throughout his life. On a riverboat to New Orleans, however, Sam met a riverboat pilot who promised to teach him the trade for five hundred dollars.
Because of his fascination with the river and the grand boats that traveled it, Sam seized the opportunity to become a pilot of the muddy waters. In 1857, he became a cub pilot on the Paul Jones steamboat, eventually receiving his pilot’s license in 1859. After completing his training, he was a riverboat pilot for four years, during which time he became familiar with the towns along the Mississippi River and their various inhabitants.
When the American Civil War broke out in April of 1861, the Mississippi River was effectively closed by both Union and Confederate forces, and Sam was forced to abandon his pilot career. Sam, whose allegiance tended to be Southern due to his heritage, joined the Confederate militia, but after three short weeks, he deserted and headed West. In his Autobiography, Twain remarked that “I resigned after two weeks service in the field, explaining that I was ‘incapacitated by fatigue’ through persistent retreating.” Orion convinced him to join an expedition to the Nevada Territory, a trip that became the subject matter of a later work, Roughing It (1872).