"Life on the Mississippi"
by Mark Twain
edited by Brian Anderson
for the entire text)
Samuel Langhorne Clemens spent a couple of decades
wandering the American west in the mid-1800s, often living rough,
and finding work where he could. In 1857, he traveled down the
Mississippi to New Orleans in the hopes of finding a ship to
take him to Brazil so he could travel up the Amazon. The project
didn’t work out and he ended up apprenticing himself to
a river pilot.
A CUB-PILOT'S EXPERIENCE
WHAT with lying on the rocks four days at Louisville,
and some other delays, the poor old "Paul Jones" fooled
away about two weeks in making the voyage from Cincinnati to
New Orleans. This gave me a chance to get acquainted with one
of the pilots, and he taught me how to steer the boat, and thus
made the fascination of river life more potent than ever for
It also gave me a chance to get acquainted with
a youth who had taken deck passage--more 's the pity; for he
easily borrowed six dollars of me on a promise to return to
the boat and pay it back to me the day after we should arrive.
But he probably died or forgot, for he never came. It was doubtless
the former, since he had said his parents were wealthy, and
he only traveled deck passage because it was cooler.
I soon discovered two things. One was that a vessel
would not be likely to sail for the mouth of the Amazon under
ten or twelve years; and the other was that the nine or ten
dollars still left in my pocket would not suffice for so imposing
an exploration as I had planned, even if I could afford to wait
for a ship. Therefore it followed that I must contrive a new
career. The "Paul Jones" was now bound for St. Louis.
I planned a siege against my pilot, and at the end of three
hard days he surrendered. He agreed to teach me the Mississippi
River from New Orleans to St. Louis for five hundred dollars,
payable out of the first wages I should receive after graduating.
I entered upon the small enterprise of "learning"
twelve or thirteen hundred miles of the great Mississippi River
with the easy confidence of my time of life.
If I had really known what I was about to require
of my faculties, I should not have had the courage to begin.
I supposed that all a pilot had to do was to keep his boat in
the river, and I did not consider that that could be much of
a trick, since it was so wide.
The boat backed out from New Orleans at four in
the afternoon, and it was "our watch" until eight.
Mr. Bixby, my chief, "straightened her up," plowed
her along past the sterns of the other boats that lay at the
Levee, and then said, "Here, take her; shave those steamships
as close as you 'd peel an apple." I took the wheel, and
my heart-beat fluttered up into the hundreds; for it seemed
to me that we were about to scrape the side off every ship in
the line, we were so close. I held my breath and began to claw
the boat away from the danger; and I had my own opinion of the
pilot who had known no better than to get us into such peril,
but I was too wise to express it. In half a minute I had a wide
margin of safety intervening between the "Paul Jones"
and the ships; and within ten seconds more I was set aside in
disgrace, and Mr. Bixby was going into danger again and flaying
me alive with abuse of my cowardice.
I was stung, but I was obliged to admire the easy
confidence with which my chief loafed from side to side of his
wheel, and trimmed the ships so closely that disaster seemed
ceaselessly imminent. When he had cooled a little he told me
that the easy water was close ashore and the current outside,
and therefore we must hug the bank, up-stream, to get the benefit
of the former, and stay well out, down-stream, to take advantage
of the latter. In my own mind I resolved to be a down-stream
pilot and leave the up-streaming to people dead to prudence.
Now and then Mr. Bixby called my attention to
certain things. Said he, "This is Six-Mile Point."
I assented. It was pleasant enough information, but I could
not see the bearing of it. I was not conscious that it was a
matter of any interest to me. Another time he said, "This
is Nine-Mile Point." Later he said, "This is Twelve-Mile
Point." They were all about level with the water's edge;
they all looked about alike to me; they were monotonously unpicturesque.
I hoped Mr. Bixby would change the subject. But no; he would
crowd up around a point, hugging the shore with affection, and
"The slack water ends here, abreast this
bunch of China-trees; now we cross over." So he crossed
over. He gave me the wheel once or twice, but I had no luck.
I either came near clipping off the edge of a sugar plantation,
or I yawed too far from shore, and so dropped back into disgrace
again and got abused.
The watch was ended at last, and we took supper
and went to bed. At midnight the glare of a lantern shone in
my eyes, and the night watchman said:--
"Come! turn out!"
And then he left. I could not understand this
extraordinary procedure; so I presently gave up trying to, and
dozed off to sleep. Pretty soon the watchman was back again,
and this time he was gruff. I was annoyed. I said:--
"What do you want to come bothering around
here in the middle of the night for? Now as like as not I 'll
not get to sleep again to-night."
The watchman said:--
"Well, if this an't good, I 'm blest."
The "off-watch" was just turning in,
and I heard some brutal laughter from them, and such remarks
as "Hello, watchman! an't the new cub turned out yet? He
's delicate likely. Give him some sugar in a rag and send for
the chambermaid to sing rock-a-by-baby to him."
About this time Mr. Bixby appeared on the scene.
Something like a minute later I was climbing the pilot-house
steps with some of my clothes on and the rest in my arms. Mr.
Bixby was close behind, commenting. Here was something fresh--this
thing of getting up in the middle of the night to go to work.
It was a detail in piloting that had never occurred to me at
all. I knew that boats ran all night, but somehow I had never
happened to reflect that somebody had to get up out of a warm
bed to run them. I began to fear that piloting was not quite
so romantic as I had imagined it was; there was something very
real and work-like about this new phase of it.
It was a rather dingy night, although a fair
number of stars were out. The big mate was at the wheel, and
he had the old tub pointed at a star and was holding her straight
up the middle of the river. The shores on either hand were not
much more than half a mile apart, but they seemed wonderfully
far away and ever so vague and indistinct. The mate said:--
"We've got to land at Jones's plantation,
The vengeful spirit in me exulted. I said to
myself, I wish you joy of your job, Mr. Bixby; you 'll have
a good time finding Mr. Jones's plantation such a night as this;
and I hope you never will find it as long as you live.
Mr. Bixby said to the mate:--
"Upper end of the plantation, or the lower?"
"I can't do it. The stamps there are out
of water at this stage. It 's no great distance to the lower,
and you 'll have to get along with that."
"All right, sir. If Jones don't like it
he'll have to lump it, I reckon."
And then the mate left. My exultation began to
cool and my wonder to came up. Here was a man who not only proposed
to find this plantation on such a night, but to find either
end of it you preferred. I dreadfully wanted to ask a question,
but I was carrying about as many short answers as my cargo-room
would admit of, so I held my peace. All I desired to ask Mr.
Bixby was the simple question whether he was ass enough to really
imagine he was going to find that plantation on a night when
all plantations were exactly alike and all the same color. But
I held in. I used to have fine inspirations of prudence in those
Mr. Bixby made for the shore, and soon was scraping
it, just the same as if it had been daylight. And not only that,
but singing-- "Father in heaven, the day is declining,"
etc. It seemed to me that I had put my life in the keeping of
a peculiarly reckless outcast. Presently he turned on me and
"What 's the name of the first point above
I was gratified to be able to answer promptly,
and I did. I said I didn't know.
This manner jolted me. I was down at the foot
again, in a moment. But I had to say just what I had said before.
"Well, you 're a smart one," said Mr.
Bixby. "What's the name of the next point?"
Once more I didn't know.
"Well, this beats anything. Tell me the
name of any point or place I told you."
I studied a while and decided that I couldn't.
"Look here! What do you start out from,
above Twelve-Mile Point, to cross over?"
"You--you--don't know?" mimicking my
drawling manner of speech. “What do you know?"
"I--I--nothing, for certain."
"By the great Cæsar's ghost, I believe
you! You 're the stupidest dunderhead I ever saw or ever heard
of, so help me Moses! The idea of you being a pilot--you!
Why, you don't know enough to pilot a cow down a lane."
Oh, but his wrath was up! He was a nervous man,
and he shuffled from one side of his wheel to the other as if
the floor was hot. He would boil a while to himself, and then
overflow and scald me again.
"Look here! What do you suppose I told you
the names of those points for?"
I tremblingly considered a moment, and then the
devil of temptation provoked me to say:--
"Well--to--to--be entertaining, I thought."
This was a red rag to the bull. He raged and
stormed so (he was crossing the river at the time) that I judge
it made him blind, because he ran over the steering-oar of a
trading-scow. Of course the traders sent up a volley of red-hot
profanity. Never was a man so grateful as Mr. Bixby was: because
he was brim full, and here were subjects who could talk
He threw open a window, thrust his head out, and
such an irruption followed as I never had heard before. The
fainter and farther away the scowmen's curses drifted, the higher
Mr. Bixby lifted his voice and the weightier his adjectives
grew. When he closed the window he was empty. You could have
drawn a seine through his system and not caught curses enough
to disturb your mother with. Presently he said to me in the
"My boy, you must get a little memorandum-book,
and every time I tell you a thing, put it down right away. There's
only one way to be a pilot, and that is to get this entire river
by heart. You have to know it just like A B C."
That was a dismal revelation to me; for my memory
was never loaded with anything but blank cartridges. However,
I did not feel discouraged long. I judged that it was best to
make some allowances, for doubtless Mr. Bixby was "stretching."
Presently he pulled a rope and struck a few strokes on the big
bell. The stars were all gone now, and the night was as black
as ink. I could hear the wheels churn along the bank, but I
was not entirely certain that I could see the shore. The voice
of the invisible watchman called up from the hurricane deck:--
"What 's this, sir?"
I said to myself, I wish I might venture to offer
a small bet that it isn't. But I did not chirp. I only waited
to see. Mr. Bixby handled the engine bells, and in due time
the boat's nose came to the land, a torch glowed from the fore-castle,
a man skipped ashore, a darky's voice on the bank said, "Gimme
de k'yarpet-bag, Mars' Jones," and the next moment we were
standing up the river again, all serene. I reflected deeply
a while, and then said,--but not aloud, --Well, the finding
of that plantation was the luckiest accident that ever happened;
but it could n't happen again in a hundred years. And I fully
believed it was an accident, too.
By the time we had gone seven or eight hundred
miles up the river, I had learned to be a tolerably plucky upstream
steersman, in daylight, and before we reached St. Louis I had
made a trifle of progress in night-work, but only a trifle.
I had a note-book that fairly bristled with the names of towns,
"points," bars, islands, bends, reaches, etc.; but
the information was to be found only in the note-book--none
of it was in my head. It made my heart ache to think I had only
got half of the river set down; for as our watch was four hours
off and four hours on, day and night, there was a long four-hour
gap in my book for every time I had slept since the voyage began.
My chief was presently hired to go on a big New
Orleans boat, and I packed my satchel and went with him. She
was a grand affair. When I stood in her pilot-house I was so
far above the water that I seemed perched on a mountain; and
her decks stretched so far away, fore and aft, below me, that
I wondered how I could ever have considered the little "Paul
Jones" a large craft. There were other differences, too.
The "Paul Jones's" pilot-house was a cheap, dingy,
battered rattle-trap, cramped for room: but here was a sumptuous
glass temple; room enough to have a dance in; showy red and
gold window-curtains; an imposing sofa; leather cushions and
a back to the high bench where visiting pilots sit, to spin
yarns and "look at the river;" bright, fanciful "cuspadores"
instead of a broad wooden box filled with sawdust; nice new
oil-cloth on the floor; a hospitable big stove for winter; a
wheel as high as my head, costly with inlaid work; a wire tiller-rope;
bright brass knobs for the bells; and a tidy, white-aproned,
black "texas-tender," to bring up tarts and ices and
coffee during mid-watch, day and night. Now this was "something
like;" and so I began to take heart once more to believe
that piloting was a romantic sort of occupation after all.
The moment we were under way I began to prowl
about the great steamer and fill myself with joy. She was as
clean and as dainty as a drawing-room; when I looked down her
long, gilded saloon, it was like gazing through a splendid tunnel;
she had an oil-picture, by some gifted sign-painter, on every
state-room door; she glittered with no end of prism-fringed
chandeliers; the clerk's office was elegant, the bar was marvellous,
and the bar-keeper had been barbered and upholstered at incredible
cost. The boiler deck (i. e., the second story of the boat,
so to speak), was as spacious as a church, it seemed to me;
so with the forecastle; and there was no pitiful handful of
deck-hands, firemen, and roust-abouts down there, but a whole
battalion of men. The fires were fiercely glaring from a long
row of furnaces, and over them were eight huge boilers! This
was unutterable pomp. The mighty engines--but enough of this.
I had never felt so fine before. And when I found that the regiment
of natty servants respectfully "sir'd" me, my satisfaction
A DARING DEED.
WHEN I returned to the pilot-house St. Louis was
gone and I was lost. Here was a piece of river which was all
down in my book, but I could make neither head nor tail of it:
you understand, it was turned around. I had seen it when coming
up-stream, but I had never faced about to see how it looked
when it was behind me. My heart broke again, for it was plain
that I had got to learn this troublesome river both ways.
The pilot-house was full of pilots, going down
to "look at the river." What is called the "upper
river" (the two hundred miles between St. Louis and Cairo,
where the Ohio comes in) was low; and the Mississippi changes
its channel so constantly that the pilots used to always find
it necessary to run down to Cairo to take a fresh look, when
their boats were to lie in port a week; that is, when the water
was at a low stage. A deal of this "looking at the river"
was done by poor fellows who seldom had a berth, and whose only
hope of getting one lay in their being always freshly posted
and therefore ready to drop into the shoes of some reputable
pilot, for a single trip, on account of such pilot's sudden
illness, or some other necessity. And a good many of them constantly
ran up and down inspecting the river, not because they ever
really hoped to got a berth, but because (they being guests
of the boat) it was cheaper to "look at the river"
than stay ashore and pay board. In time these fellows grew dainty
in their tastes, and only infested boats that had an established
reputation for setting good tables.
All visiting pilots were useful, for they were
always ready and willing, winter or summer, night or day, to
go out in the yawl and help buoy the channel or assist the boat's
pilots in any way they could. They were likewise welcome because
all pilots are tireless talkers, when gathered together, and
as they talk only about the river they are always understood
and are always interesting. Your true pilot cares nothing about
anything on earth but the river, and his pride in his occupation
surpasses the pride of kings.
We had a fine company of these river-inspectors
along, this trip. There were eight or ten; and there was abundance
of room for them in our great pilot-house. Two or three of them
wore polished silk hats, elaborate shirt-fronts, diamond breastpins,
kid gloves, and patent-leather boots. They were choice in their
English, and bore themselves with a dignity proper to men of
solid means and prodigious reputation as pilots. The others
were more or less loosely clad, and wore upon their heads tall
felt cones that were suggestive of the days of the Commonwealth.
I was a cipher in this august company, and felt
subdued, not to say torpid. I was not even of sufficient consequence
to assist at the wheel when it was necessary to put the tiller
hard down in a hurry; the guest that stood nearest did that
when occasion required--and this was pretty much all the time,
because of the crookedness of the channel and the scant water.
I stood in a corner; and the talk I listened to took the hope
all out of me. One visitor said to another:--
"Jim, how did you run Plum Point, coming
"It was in the night, there, and I ran it
the way one of the boys on the 'Diana' told me; started out
about fifty yards above the wood pile on the false point, and
held on the cabin under Plum Point till I raised the reef--quarter
less twain--then straightened up for the middle bar till I got
well abreast the old one-limbed cotton-wood in the bend, then
got my stem on the cotton-wood and head on the low place above
the point, and came through a-booming--nine and a half."
"Pretty square crossing, an't it?"
"Yes, but the upper bar 's working down
Another pilot spoke up and said:--
"I had better water than that, and ran it
lower down; started out from the false point --mark twain--
raised the second reef abreast the big snag in the bend, and
had quarter less twain."
One of the gorgeous ones remarked:--
"I don't want to find fault with your leadsmen,
but that's a good deal of water for Plum Point, it seems to
There was an approving nod all around as this quiet snub dropped
on the boaster and "settled" him. And so they went
on talk-talk-talking. Meantime, the thing that was running in
my mind was, "Now if my ears hear aright, I have not only
to got the names of all the towns and islands and bends, and
so on, by heart, but I must even get up a warm personal acquaintanceship
with every old snag and one-limbed cotton-wood and obscure wood
pile that ornaments the banks of this river for twelve hundred
miles; and more than that, I must actually know where these
things are in the dark, unless these guests are gifted with
eyes that can pierce through two miles of solid blackness; I
wish the piloting business was in Jericho and I had never thought
At dusk Mr. Bixby tapped the big bell three times
(the signal to land), and the captain emerged from his drawing-room
in the forward end of the texas, and looked up inquiringly.
Mr. Bixby said, "We will lay up here all night, captain."
"Very well, sir.”
That was all. The boat came to shore and was
tied up for the night. It seemed to me a fine thing that the
pilot could do as he pleased, without asking so grand a captain's
permission. I took my supper and went immediately to bed, discouraged
by my day's observations and experiences. My late voyage's note-booking
was but a confusion of meaningless names. It had tangled me
all up in a knot every time I had looked at it in the daytime.
I now hoped for respite in sleep; but no, it reveled all through
my head till sunrise again, a frantic and tireless nightmare.
Next morning I felt pretty rusty and low-spirited.
We went booming along, taking a good many chances, for we were
anxious to "get out of the river" (as getting out
to Cairo was called) before night should overtake us. But Mr.
Bixby's partner, the other pilot, presently grounded the boat,
and we lost so much time getting her off that it was plain the
darkness would overtake us a good long way above the mouth.
This was a great misfortune, especially to certain of our visiting
pilots, whose boats would have to wait for their return, no
matter how long that might be. It sobered the pilot-house talk
a good deal. Coming up-stream, pilots did not mind low water
or any kind of darkness; nothing stopped them but fog. But down-stream
work was different; a boat was too nearly helpless, with a stiff
current pushing behind her; so it was not customary to run down-stream
at night in low water.
There seemed to be one small hope, however: if
we could get through the intricate and dangerous Hat Island
crossing before night, we could venture the rest, for we would
have plainer sailing and better water. But it would be insanity
to attempt Hat Island at night. So there was a deal of looking
at watches all the rest of the day, and a constant ciphering
upon the speed we were making; Hat Island was the eternal subject;
sometimes hope was high and sometimes we were delayed in a bad
crossing, and down it went again. For hours all hands lay under
the burden of this suppressed excitement; it was even communicated
to me, and I got to feeling so solicitous about Hat Island,
and under such an awful pressure of responsibility, that I wished
I might have five minutes on shore to draw a good, full, relieving
breath, and start over again. We were standing no regular watches.
Each of our pilots ran such portions of the river as he had
run when coming up-stream, because of his greater familiarity
with it; but both remained in the pilot-house constantly.
An hour before sunset, Mr. Bixby took the wheel
and Mr. W--stepped aside. For the next thirty minutes every
man held his watch in his hand and was restless, silent, and
uneasy. At last somebody said, with a doomful sigh,--
"Well yonder 's Hat Island--and we can't
All the watches closed with a snap, everybody
sighed and muttered something about its being "too bad,
too bad--ah, if we could only have got here half an
hour sooner!" and the place was thick with the atmosphere
of disappointment. Some started to go out, but loitered, hearing
no bell-tap to land. The sun dipped behind the horizon, the
boat went on. Inquiring looks passed from one guest to another;
and one who had his hand on the door-knob and had turned it,
waited, then presently took away his hand and let the knob turn
back again. We bore steadily down the bend. More looks were
exchanged, and nods and nods of surprised admiration--but no
words. Insensibly the men drew together behind Mr. Bixby, as
the sky darkened and one or two dim stars came out. The dead
silence and sense of waiting became oppressive. Mr. Bixby pulled
the cord, and two deep, mellow notes from the big bell floated
off on the night. Then a pause, and one more note was struck.
The watchman's voice followed. "Labboard lead, there! Stabboard
The cries of the leadsmen began to rise out of
the distance, and were gruffly repeated by the word-passers
on the hurricane deck.
"M-a-r-k three! . . . . M-a-r-k three! .
. . . Quarter-less-three! . . . . Half twain! . . . . Quarter
twain! . . . . M-a-r-k twain!