Life in the Old West

True stories, tall tales, memorabilia of the American West

(Life in the Old West Articles, Categories:For your convenience, all the articles and special features on our site can be found by clicking on the “Categories” listed in the right-hand sidebar on each page, from the Site Map, and on the sidebar “Recent Articles” and “Featured Articles” listings.)

Mark Twain’s delightful link to Old West told in ‘Roughing It’

Mark Twain’s delightful link to life in the Old West is told in his tongue-in-cheek memoir, “Roughing It.”

The work tells of his journey and adventures in Nevada Territory from 1861-67. He went there with his older brother, Orion, who was the newly appointed Secretary of the Nevada Territory. This great adventure tale supposedly is based on Twain’s own memories of the trip, plus heavy consultations of Orion’s diary.

At one time, “Roughing It” was pretty standard fare for high school and college students. I remember reading it in high school. If you’ve never had the fun of reading Twain, and if you’re truly interested in the Old West, you need to pick up a copy of “Roughing It” right away. It’s a terrific read, and has passages that will make you smile as well as sections that are guaranteed to make you laugh out loud.

Early in the book, Twain tells of the start of their stagecoach trip from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Carson City, Nevada. In that chapter (chapter two, I believe) Twain has a classic description of one of their fellow stage travelers, George Bemis, and Bemis’s sidearm:

“We had never seen him before. He wore in his belt an old original ‘Allen’ revolver, such as irreverent people called a ‘pepper-box.’ Simply drawing the trigger back, cocked and fired the pistol. As the trigger came back, the hammer would begin to rise and the barrel to turn over, and presently down would drop the hammer, and away would speed the ball.”

“To aim along the turning barrel and hit the thing aimed at was a feat which was probably never done with an “Allen” in the world. But George’s was a reliable weapon, nevertheless, because, as one of the stage-drivers afterward said, “If she didn’t get what she went after, she would fetch something else.” And so she did. She went after a deuce of spades nailed against a tree, once, and fetched a mule standing about thirty yards to the left of it. Bemis did not want the mule; but the owner came out with a double-barreled shotgun and persuaded him to buy it, anyhow.”

“It was a cheerful weapon–the “Allen.” Sometimes all its six barrels would go off at once, and then there was no safe place in all the region round about, but behind it.”

In addition to such tongue-in-cheek numerous accounts of his travels and travel events, Twain’s narrative gives authentic, first-person knowledge about the times and fashions of the Old West during the years of his travels there. For example, those first two chapters telling of his and Orion’s stagecoach adventure in St. Joseph and westward adds this glimpse of the nature of such overland travel: They were required to quickly rummage through their large travel trunks and pick out only 25 pounds of luggage apiece. Everything else had to be shipped back to St. Louis.

I urge you to get a copy of “Roughing It” if you don’t yet have one. It’s a great glimpse by a classic writer into life in the settlements and mining camps of Nevada Territory.

Leave a Reply