In November 1835, Halley's Comet streaked through the sky in a flash of light that delighted crowds around the world. Two weeks later, on 30 November 1835, in the small town of Florida, Missouri, John and Jane Lampton Clemens welcomed their sixth child into the world. They named him Samuel Langhorne Clemens (and twenty-odd years later young Sam would rename himself Mark Twain). Three years after Samuel came into the world, his parents' seventh and last child was born, a son named Henry. A year after that, the family moved to Hannibal, Missouri.
Fans of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn would recognize Hannibal as the inspiration for the boys' fictional hometown of St. Petersburg. Like his boy heroes, Samuel spent his days running around with a group of other local boys, engaging in all sorts of hijinks, mischief, and tomfoolery. Thanks to its place right on the bank of the Mississippi River, the small town was a frequent stop for steamship pilots and their passengers traveling up and down the river. From the time he was old enough to think about it, Samuel Clemens was enamored with the steamboat pilots and hoped to grow up to be one of them.
In 1847, when Samuel was 12, his father died. Jane Clemens was left alone to support the family's four surviving children. As soon as they were old enough, the Clemens children had to work. By the age of 16, Twain had left school for a job as an apprentice to a printer in Hannibal. Within a few years, he was traveling up and down the East Coast as a freelance printer. The river, however, was always in his heart. Samuel returned to Missouri in 1857 to begin a two-year apprenticeship to become a steamboat pilot. He loved the work, as well as the intriguing characters he met along the river. "When I find a well-drawn character in fiction or biography I generally take a warm personal interest in him, for the reason that I have known him before—met him on the river,"7 he wrote later in Life on the Mississippi, his account of the period. The people he met were only happy to feed his appetite for a good yarn, and their stories influenced his writing. He also took from the river the name that would make him famous: "Mark twain" is what a steamboat pilot calls out when the river's two fathoms deep, making it safe to navigate.
A steamboat pilot's salary was great—as a licensed pilot Twain earned $250 per month, the equivalent of about $155,000 per year in today's dollars. It was such a great deal that he convinced his younger brother Henry to become a pilot, too. Henry began training, and in June 1858 Twain confronted the first major tragedy of his life. The boat on which Henry was training exploded, blasting the 20-year-old into the water. He sustained mortal injuries. Upon hearing of the accident, a grief-stricken Samuel rushed to the scene. "He hurried to the Exchange to see his brother," wrote a newspaper reporter who witnessed Samuel's arrival, "and on approaching the bedside of the wounded man, his feelings so much overcame him, at the scalded and emaciated form before him, that he sunk to the floor overpowered. There was scarcely a dry eye in the house; the poor sufferers shed tears at the sight."8 Henry lingered on in the hospital for several days before succumbing to his injuries. Twain was devastated and blamed himself for his brother's death. "The horrors of three days have swept over me—they have blasted my youth and left me an old man before my time," Twain wrote to his sister-in-law. "Mollie, there are gray hairs in my head to-night. Men take me by the hand and congratulate me, and call me 'lucky' because I was not on the Pennsylvania when she blew up! May God forgive them, for they know not what they say."9 Twain was right—the incident truly made him old before his time. Even though he was only in his twenties, his hair started to turn gray. For the rest of his life, Twain always looked older than he really was.
Despite the tragedy, Twain continued to work as a riverboat pilot until 1861. When the Civil War broke out, all traffic along the river was halted, putting Twain out of a job. It was time to find a new adventure.