In the summer of 1861, a twenty-five-year-old man named Samuel Clemens agreed to take a job working for his brother Orion, and they travelled to Carson City, Nevada to begin a new chapter of life. Soon after arriving, Samuel lost interest in working underneath his brother, and shifted his focus to striking it rich as a miner. But by the time Samuel arrived on the scene in 1861, the silver rush in the area had been flooded by men with similar dreams, and his attempt at mining success failed.
A natural born writer, Samuel looked for work as a newspaper correspondent, and was instead offered an editor position at the Virginia City Daily Territorial Enterprise. Samuel wrote humorous and satirical letters for the paper that were often picked up by other newspapers, and it was in a letter published on February 3, 1863 where Clemens first signed his name as “Mark Twain”, and would continue to write under the famous pen name.
His continual publishing of humorous pieces full of political satire caught the attention of a group called the Third House, and Twain became involved in their raucous gatherings that featured roasts of both friends and enemies. Although he was admired by the Third House, Twain’s satirical writing in Nevada wasn’t well received by all, and a fictional letter that he wrote describing a man who kills his wife and nine children caused outrage among some who believed it to be true. Despite this misstep, the Enterprise paper refused to accept his resignation, and his reputation as a political and social commentator continued to grow.
With this expanding influence and reach, Twain found himself in another spot of trouble in the spring of 1864, when he was locked in a war of words with another newspaper called the Virginia City Daily Union. The tense exchanges between Twain and a Union editor names James Laird ended up with one of the men challenging the other to a duel. History gives us conflicting reports on exactly who challenged who, but the men agreed to meet and face off with pistols. Being a terrible marksman, Twain went to shooting practice with Steve Gillis, his duelling second who’s job it was to try to mediate the affair. During their target practice, Twain performed terribly, while Steve reportedly shot the head right off of a bird. When Laird and his own second arrived to duel, they believed that Twain had been the expert marksman, and Laird called off the duel. Soon after, Twain was challenged to another duel by the husband of a woman who one of his controversial satirical posts had offended, but Twain once again avoided doing any actual duelling by sending Steve Gillis to deliver a letter to the husband stating that Twain was moving to California, and had no time to deal with the people he had offended.
Twain did indeed leave for California with Steve Gillis. The Enterprise paper he spent his years in Nevada writing for wished him a fond farewell, but others were happy to see him go. Twain’s style that mixed newspaper reporting with humor and made-up facts were seen by some as dangerous, and might be evidence that Mark Twain’s time in Nevada was the original instance of the “fake news” we hear so much about today.
Mark Twain returned to Nevada for later visits, but it was this early period that really helped shape his writing style and influenced him become the man who would go on to be called one of the great American writers. This time particularly inspired the stories in his book Roughing It, and reading them will give you even more insight into the influence of Nevada on Mark Twain.