|Mark Twain had
been in Nevada for some months and had read each day in the local newspapers of the
fabulously rich finds being made in the mountains of Nevada. The thought of easy riches
were calling him, coaxing him to get out and claim his share of the wealth - he had a bad
case of the prospectors "gold fever". He joined up with three other men to head
out for the hills and seek his fortune in the rich Humboldt range of what is now Pershing
County. Every day that went by others were making finds and his chances were
diminishing. It was a mad rush to get going! Here are Twain's own words:
Hurry, was the word! We wasted no time. Our party consisted
of four persons - a blacksmith sixty years of age, two young lawyers, and myself. We
bought a wagon and two miserable old horses. We put eighteen hundred pounds of provisions
and mining-tools in the wagon and drove out of Carson on a chilly December afternoon. The
horses were so weak and old that we soon found that it would be better if one or two of us
got out and walked. It was an improvement. Next, we found that it would be better if a
third man got out. That was an improvement also. It was at this time that I volunteered to
drive, although I had never driven a harnessed horse before, and many a man in such a
position would have felt fairly excused from such a responsibility. But in a little while
it was found that it would be a fine thing if the driver got out and walked also. It was
at this time that I resigned the position of driver, and never resumed it again. Within
the hour, we found that it would not only be better, but was absolutely necessary, that we
four, taking turns, two at a time, should put our hands against the end of the wagon and
push it through the sand, leaving the feeble horses little to do but keep out of the way
and hold up the tongue. Perhaps it is well for one to know his fate at first, and get
reconciled to it. We had learned ours in one afternoon. It was plain that we had to walk
through the sand and shove that wagon and those horses two hundred miles. So we accepted
the situation, and from that time forth we never rode. More than that, we stood regular
and nearly constant watches pushing up behind.
We made seven miles, and camped in the desert. Young Claggett (now member of Congress from
Montana) unharnessed and fed and watered the horses; Oliphant and I cut sage-brush, built
the fire and brought water to cook with; and old Mr. Ballou, the blacksmith, did the
cooking. This division of labor, and this appointment, was adhered to throughout the
journey. We had no tent, and so we slept under our blankets in the open plain. We were so
tired that we slept soundly.
We were fifteen days making the trip - two hundred miles; thirteen, rather, for we lay by
a couple of days, in one place, to let the horses rest. We could really have accomplished
the journey in ten days if we had towed the horses behind the wagon, but we did not think
of that until it was too late, and so went on shoving the horses and the wagon too when we
might have saved half the labor. Parties who met us, occasionally, advised us to put the
horses in the wagon, but Mr. Ballou, through whose iron-clad earnestness no sarcasm could
pierce, said that would not do, because the provisions were exposed and would suffer, the
horses being "bituminous from long deprivation." The reader will excuse me from
translating. What Mr. Ballou customarily meant, when he used a long word, was a secret
between himself and his Maker. He was one of the best and kindest-hearted men that ever
graced a humble sphere of life. He was gentleness and simplicity itself - and
unselfishness, too. Although he was more than twice as old as the eldest of us, he never
gave himself any airs, privileges, or exemptions on that account. He did a young man's
share of the work; and did his share of conversing and entertaining from the general
standpoint of any age - not from the arrogant, overawing summit-height of sixty years. His
one striking peculiarity was his Partingtonian fashion of loving and using big words for
their own sakes, and independent of any bearing they might have upon the thought he was
purposing to convey. He always let his ponderous syllables fall with an easy
unconsciousness that left them wholly without offensiveness. In truth, his air was so
natural and so simple that one was always catching himself accepting his stately sentences
as meaning something, when they really meant nothing in the world. If a word was long and
grand and resonant, that was sufficient to win the old man's love, and he would drop that
word into the most out-of-the-way place in a sentence or a subject, and be as pleased with
it as if it were perfectly luminous with meaning.
We four always spread our common stock of blankets together on the frozen ground, and
slept side by side; and finding that our foolish, long-legged hound pup had a deal of
animal heat in him, Oliphant got to admitting him to the bed, between himself and Mr.
Ballou, hugging the dog's warm back to his breast and finding great comfort in it. But in
the night the pup would get stretchy and brace his feet against the old man's back and
shove, grunting complacently the while; and now and then, being warm and snug, grateful
and happy, he would paw the old man's back simply in excess of comfort; and at yet other
times he would dream of the chase and in his sleep tug at the old man's back hair and bark
in his ear. The old gentleman complained mildly about these familiarities, at last, and
when he got through with his statement he said that such a dog as that was not a proper
animal to admit to bed with tired men, because he was "so meretricious in his
movements and so organic in his emotions." We turned the dog out.
It was a hard, wearing, toilsome journey, but it had its
bright side; for after each day was done and our wolfish hunger appeased with a hot supper
of fried bacon, bread, molasses, and black coffee, the pipe-smoking, song-singing, and
yarn-spinning around the evening camp-fire in the still solitudes of the desert was a
happy, care-free sort of recreation that seemed the very summit and culmination of earthly
luxury. It is a kind of life that has a potent charm for all men, whether city or country
bred. We are descended from desert-lounging Arabs, and countless ages of growth toward
perfect civilization have failed to root out of us the nomadic instinct. We all confess to
a gratified thrill at the thought of "camping out."
Once we made twenty-five miles in a day, and once we made forty miles (through the Great
American Desert), and ten miles beyond - fifty in all - in twenty-three hours, without
halting to eat, drink, or rest. To stretch out and go to sleep, even on stony and frozen
ground, after pushing a wagon and two horses fifty miles, is a delight so supreme that for
the moment it almost seems cheap at the price.
We camped two days in the neighborhood of the "Sink of the Humboldt." We tried
to use the strong alkaline water of the Sink, but it would not answer. It was like
drinking lye, and not weak lye, either. It left a taste in the mouth, bitter and every way
execrable, and a burning in the stomach that was very uncomfortable. We put molasses in
it, but that helped it very little; we added a pickle, yet the alkali was the prominent
taste, and so it was unfit for drinking. The coffee we made of this water was the meanest
compound man has yet invented. It was really viler to the taste than the unameliorated
water itself. Mr. Ballou, being the architect and builder of the beverage, felt
constrained to indorse and uphold it, and so drank half a cup, by little sips, making
shift to praise it faintly the while, but finally threw out the remainder, and said
frankly it was "too technical for him."
But presently we found a spring of fresh water, convenient,
and then, with nothing to mar our enjoyment, and no stragglers to interrupt it, we entered
into our rest.
After leaving the Sink, we traveled
along the Humboldt River a little way. People accustomed to the monster mile-wide
Mississippi, grow accustomed to associating the term "river" with a high degree
of watery grandeur. Consequently, such people feel rather disappointed when they stand on
the shores of the Humboldt or the Carson and find that a "river" in Nevada is a
sickly rivulet which is just the counterpart of the Erie canal in all respects save that
the canal is twice as long and four times as deep. One of the pleasantest and most
invigorating exercises one can contrive is to run and jump across the Humboldt River till
he is overheated, and then drink it dry.
On the fifteenth day we completed our march of two hundred miles and entered Unionville,
Humboldt County, in the midst of a driving snow-storm. Unionville consisted of eleven
cabins and a liberty pole. Six of the cabins were strung along one side of a deep canon,
and the other five faced them. The rest of the landscape was made up of bleak mountain
walls that rose so high into the sky from both sides of the canon that the village was
left, as it were, far down in the bottom of a crevice. It was always daylight on the
mountain-tops a long time before the darkness lifted and revealed Unionville.
We built a small, rude cabin in the side of the crevice and
roofed it with canvas, leaving a corner open to serve as a chimney, through which the
cattle used to tumble occasionally, at night, and mash our furniture and interrupt our
sleep. It was very cold weather and fuel was scarce. Indians brought brush and bushes
several miles on their backs; and when we could catch a laden Indian it was well - and
when we could not (which was the rule, not the exception), we shivered and bore it.
I confess, without shame, that I expected to find masses of silver lying all about the
ground. I expected to see it glittering in the sun on the mountain summits. I said nothing
about this, for some instinct told me that I might possibly have an exaggerated idea about
it, and so if I betrayed my thought I might bring derision upon myself. Yet I was as
perfectly satisfied in my own mind as I could be of anything, that I was going to gather
up, in a day or two, or at furthest a week or two, silver enough to make me satisfactorily
wealthy - and so my fancy was already busy with plans for spending this money. The first
opportunity that offered, I sauntered carelessly away from the cabin, keeping an eye on
the other boys, and stopping and contemplating the sky when they seemed to be observing
me; but as soon as the coast was manifestly clear, I fled away as guiltily as a thief
might have done and never halted till I was far beyond sight and call. Then I began my
search with a feverish excitement that was brimful of expectation - almost of certainty. I
crawled about the ground, seizing and examining bits of stone, blowing the dust from them
or rubbing them on my clothes, and then peering at them with anxious hope. Presently I
found a bright fragment and my heart bounded! I hid behind a boulder and polished it and
scrutinized it with a nervous eagerness and a delight that was more pronounced than
absolute certainty itself could have afforded. The more I examined the fragment the more I
was convinced that I had found the door to fortune. I marked the spot and carried away my
specimen. Up and down the rugged mountainside I searched, with always increasing interest
and always augmenting gratitude that I had come to Humboldt and come in time. Of all the
experiences of my life, this secret search among the hidden treasures of silver-land was
the nearest to unmarred ecstasy. It was a delirious revel. By and by, in the bed of a
shallow rivulet, I found a deposit of shining yellow scales, and my breath almost forsook
me! A gold-mine, and in my simplicity I had been content with vulgar silver! I was so
excited that I half believed my overwrought imagination was deceiving me. Then a fear came
upon me that people might be observing me and would guess my secret. Moved by this
thought, I made a circuit of the place, and ascended a knoll to reconnoiter. Solitude. No
creature was near. Then I returned to my mine, fortifying myself against possible
disappointment, but my fears were groundless - the shining scales were still there. I set
about scooping them out, and for an hour I toiled down the windings of the stream and
robbed its bed. But at last the descending sun warned me to give up the quest, and I
turned homeward laden with wealth. As I walked along I could not help smiling at the
thought of my being so excited over my fragment of silver when a nobler metal was almost
under my nose. In this little time the former had so fallen in my estimation that once or
twice I was on the point of throwing it away.
The boys were as hungry as usual, but I could eat nothing. Neither could I talk. I was
full of dreams and far away. Their conversation interrupted the flow of my fancy somewhat,
and annoyed me a little, too. I despised the sordid and commonplace things they talked
about. But as they proceeded, it began to amuse me. It grew to be rare fun to hear them
planning their poor little economies and sighing over possible privations and distresses
when a gold-mine, all our own, lay within sight of the cabin, and I could point it out at
any moment. Smothered hilarity began to oppress me, presently. It was hard to resist the
impulse to burst out with exultation and reveal everything; but I did resist. I said
within myself that I would filter the great news through my lips calmly and be serene as a
summer morning while I watched its effect in their faces. I said:
"Where have you all been?"
"What did you find?"
"Nothing? What do you think of the country?"
"Can't tell, yet," said Mr. Ballou, who was an old gold-miner, and had likewise
had considerable experience among the silver-mines.
"Well, haven't you formed any sort of opinion?"
"Yes, a sort of a one. It's fair enough here, maybe, but overrated. Seven - thousand
- dollar ledges are scarce, though. That Sheba may be rich enough, but we don't own it;
and, besides, the rock is so full of base metals that all the science in the world can't
work it. We'll not starve, here, but we'll not get rich, I'm afraid."
"So you think the prospect is pretty poor?"
"No name for it!"
"Well, we'd better go back, hadn't we?"
"Oh, not yet - of course not. We'll try it a riffle, first."
"Suppose, now - this is merely a supposition, you know - suppose you could find a
ledge that would yield, say, a hundred and fifty dollars a ton - would that satisfy
"Try us once!" from the whole party.
"Or suppose - merely a supposition, of course - suppose you were to find a ledge that
would yield two thousand dollars a ton - would that satisfy you?"
"Here - what do you mean? What are you coming at? Is there some mystery behind all
"Never mind. I am not saying anything. You know perfectly well there are no rich
mines here - of course you do. Because you have been around and examined for yourselves.
Anybody would know that, that had been around. But just for the sake of argument, suppose
- in a kind of general way - suppose some person were to tell you that two-thousand-dollar
ledges were simply contemptible - contemptible, understand - and that right yonder in
sight of this very cabin there were piles of pure gold and pure silver - oceans of it -
enough to make you all rich in twenty-four hours! Come!"
"I should say he was as crazy as a loon!" said old Ballou, but wild with
"Gentlemen," said I, "I don't say anything - I haven't been around, you
know, and of course don't know anything - but all I ask of you is to cast your eye on
that, for instance, and tell me what you think of it!" and I tossed my treasure
There was an eager scrabble for it, and a closing of heads together over it under the
candle-light. Then old Ballou said:
"Think of it? I think it is nothing but a lot of granite rubbish and nasty glittering
mica that isn't worth ten cents an acre!"
So vanished my dream. So melted my wealth away. So toppled my airy castle to the earth and
left me stricken and forlorn.
Moralizing, I observed, then, that "all that glitters is not gold."
Mr. Ballou said I could go further than that, and lay it up among my treasures of
knowledge, that nothing that glitters is gold. So I learned then, once for all, that gold
in its native state is but dull, unornamental stuff, and that only low-born metals excite
the admiration of the ignorant with an ostentatious glitter. However, like the rest of the
world, I still go on underrating men of gold and glorifying men of mica. Commonplace human
nature cannot rise above that.
True knowledge of the nature of silver-mining came fast
enough. We went out "prospecting" with Mr. Ballou. We climbed the mountainsides,
and clambered among sage-brush, rocks, and snow till we were ready to drop with
exhaustion, but found no silver - nor yet any gold. Day after day we did this. Now and
then we came upon holes burrowed a few feet into the declivities and apparently abandoned;
and now and then we found one or two listless men still burrowing. But there was no
appearance of silver. These holes were the beginnings of tunnels, and the purpose was to
drive them hundreds of feet into the mountain, and some day tap the hidden ledge where the
silver was. Some day! It seemed far enough away, and very hopeless and dreary. Day after
day we toiled, and climbed, and searched, and we younger partners grew sicker and still
sicker of the promiseless toil. At last we halted under a beetling rampart of rock which
projected from the earth high upon the mountain. Mr. Ballou broke off some fragments with
a hammer, and examined them long and attentively with a small eyeglass; threw them away
and broke off more; said this rock was quartz, and quartz was the sort of rock that
contained silver. Contained it! I had thought that at least it would be caked on the
outside of it like a kind of veneering. He still broke off pieces and critically examined
them, now and then wetting the piece with his tongue and applying the glass. At last he
"We've got it!"
We were full of anxiety in a moment. The rock was clean and white, where it was broken,
and across it ran a ragged thread of blue. He said that that little thread had silver in
it, mixed with base metals, such as lead and antimony, and other rubbish, and that there
was a speck or two of gold visible. After a great deal of effort we managed to discern
some little fine yellow specks, and judged that a couple of tons of them massed together
might make a gold dollar, possibly. We were not jubilant, but Mr. Ballou said there were
worse ledges in the world than that. He saved what he called the "richest" piece
of the rock, in order to determine its value by the process called the
"fire-assay." Then we named the mine "Monarch of the Mountains"
(modesty of nomenclature is not a prominent feature in the mines), and Mr. Ballou wrote
out and stuck up the following "notice," preserving a copy to be entered upon
the books in the mining recorder's office in the town.
We the undersigned claim three claims, of three hundred feet each (and one for
discovery), on this silver-bearing quartz lead or lode, extending north and south from
this notice, with all its dips, spurs, and angles, variations and sinuosities, together
with fifty feet of ground on either side for working the same.
We put our names to it and tried to feel that our fortunes were made. But when we talked
the matter all over with Mr. Ballou, we felt depressed and dubious. He said that this
surface quartz was not all there was of our mine; but that the wall or ledge of rock
called the "Monarch of the Mountains" extended down hundreds and hundreds of
feet into the earth - he illustrated by saying it was like a curbstone, and maintained a
nearly uniform thickness - say twenty feet - away down into the bowels of earth, and was
perfectly distinct from the casing rock on each side of it; and that it kept to itself,
and maintained its distinctive character always, no matter how deep it extended into the
earth or how far it stretched itself through and across the hills and valleys. He said it
might be a mile deep and ten miles long, for all we knew; and that wherever we bored into
it above ground or below, we would find gold and silver in it, but no gold or silver in
the meaner rock it was cased between. And he said that down in the great depths of the
ledge was its richness, and the deeper it went the richer it grew. Therefore, instead of
working here on the surface, we must either bore down into the rock with a shaft till we
came to where it was rich - say a hundred feet or so - or else we must go down into the
valley and bore a long tunnel into the mountainside and tap the ledge far under the earth.
To do either was plainly the labor of months; for we could blast and bore only a few feet
a day - some five or six. But this was not all. He said that after we got the ore out it
must be hauled in wagons to a distant silver-mill, ground up, and the silver extracted by
a tedious and costly process. Our fortune seemed a century away!
But we went to work. We decided to sink a shaft. So, for a week we climbed the mountain,
laden with picks, drills, gads, crowbars, shovels, cans of blasting-powder and coils of
fuse, and strove with might and main. At first the rock was broken and loose, and we dug
it up with picks and threw it out with shovels, and the hole progressed very well. But the
rock became more compact, presently, and gads and crowbars came into play. But shortly
nothing could make an impression but blasting-powder. That was the weariest work! One of
us held the iron drill in its place and another would strike with an eight-pound sledge -
it was like driving nails on a large scale. In the course of an hour or two the drill
would reach a depth of two or three feet, making a hole a couple of inches in diameter. We
would put in a charge of powder, insert half a yard of fuse, pour in sand and gravel and
ram it down, then light the fuse and run. When the explosion came and the rocks and smoke
shot into the air, we would go back and find about a bushel of that hard, rebellious
quartz jolted out. Nothing more. One week of this satisfied me. I resigned. Claggett and
Oliphant followed. Our shaft was only twelve feet deep. We decided that a tunnel was the
thing we wanted.
So we went down the mountainside and worked a week; at the end of which time we had
blasted a tunnel about deep enough to hide a hogshead in, and judged that about nine
hundred feet more of it would reach the ledge. I resigned again, and the other boys only
held out one day longer. We decided that a tunnel was not what we wanted. We wanted a
ledge that was already "developed." There were none in the camp.
We dropped the "Monarch" for the time being. Meantime the camp was filling up
with people, and there was a constantly growing excitement about our Humboldt mines. We
fell victims to the epidemic and strained every nerve to acquire more "feet." We
prospected and took up new claims, put "notices" on them and gave them
grandiloquent names. We traded some of our "feet" for "feet" in other
people's claims. In a little while we owned largely in the "Gray Eagle," the
"Columbiana," the "Branch Mint," the "Maria Jane," the
"Universe," the "Root-Hog-or-Die," the "Samson and Delilah,"
the "Treasure Trove," the "Golconda," the "Sultana," the
"Boomerang," the "Great Republic," the "Grand Mogul," and
fifty other "mines" that had never been molested by a shovel or scratched with a
pick. We had not less than thirty thousand "feet" apiece in the "richest
mines on earth" as the frenzied cant phrased it - and were in debt to the butcher. We
were stark mad with excitement - drunk with happiness - smothered under mountains of
prospective wealth - arrogantly compassionate toward the plodding millions who knew not
our marvelous canon - but our credit was not good at the grocer's.
It was the strangest phase of life one can imagine. It was a beggars' revel. There was
nothing doing in the district - no mining - no milling - no productive effort - no income
- and not enough money in the entire camp to buy a corner lot in an eastern village,
hardly; and yet a stranger would have supposed he was walking among bloated millionaires.
Prospecting parties swarmed out of town with the first flush of dawn, and swarmed in again
at nightfall laden with spoil - rocks. Nothing but rocks. Every man's pockets were full of
them; the floor of his cabin was littered with them; they were disposed in labeled rows on
As elsewhere, very few of the prospectors actually struck it rich. Some made wages,
but the majority found nothing, and soon moved on. Twain and his group were a part of that
majority. Yet, even though they found very little, Twain had caught the Gold and silver
"fever" a disease that would not soon release its grip in him. It wasn't long
after he returned from Humboldt that he struck out for Esmerelda, another gold and silver
district in what is now Mineral county.
Mark Twains stories about his experiences prospecting in
the west, including many more humorous tales of his adventures can be found in his book: