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‘New’ Mark Twain Tale Depicts Mother Lode Miners

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Berkeley, CA — Brought to light nearly 150 years after Mark Twain began writing about the Mother Lode, a tale of two Tuolumne County miners has provided the opportunity to give Mark Twain a posthumous byline as we share his “latest” story.

Twain’s piece (read full text below) is a sample from what will be the forthcoming collection of Mark Twain’s San Francisco Letters to the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise and other California Newspapers, 1865-1866.

The editors of the Mark Twain Papers (MTP) at the University of California at Berkeley, The Bancroft Library, note that this “new” treasure trove of material was not somehow rediscovered in a single cache. Rather, it is the result of some 40-plus years’ worth of scholars’ painstakingly research and reassembly of newspaper excerpts and scrapbook clippings, more recently aided by recent developments in searchable online data; a kind of literary archeology.

Following the publishing of the third and final volume of the complete Mark Twain’s Autobiography, which is scheduled to appear later this year, Twain’s San Francisco 1865-1866 writings are slated for print by the University of California Press in 2017. According to its editors, it will contain, at about 65,000 words, roughly a quarter of Twain’s correspondence over the period. “Our collection does now contain some stuff most scholars have not seen, let alone the general public, and we’re now moving seriously toward issuing this in a book, and when we do, the contents will also go up on our website, free of charge,” says Berkeley’s General Editor of the Mark Twain Papers Robert Hirst. The website, known as the Mark Twain Project Online (MTPO), aims to maintain a fully annotated digital critical edition of everything the author ever wrote.

“The thing about ‘The Rawhide Ranch’ [story],” as Hirst explains, “is that it is quite characteristic. Here he is, writing for a newspaper…somebody tells him this story, probably one of the Gillises.” note: It was Jim and Billy Gillis with whom Twain briefly lived on Jackass Hill during those key months that seeded his celebrated literary career; when he heard and penned his famous “recounting” of an Angels Camp tavern tale that became known as “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras.”

Hirst explains a marked difference in the “Rawhide Ranch” story, which recalls a misadventure of two Tuolumne County miners. “[Twain] can’t possibly have heard the conversation that was going on between [John W.] Gashwiler and [Johnny] Skae, as they’re dangling above the bottom of this mine and worrying about dying. He imagined that — and he creates it, whole cloth, not from documents.”

Hirst points out, “BUT…the whole story is factual. These guys are really inspecting the mine. They really, eventually, do buy it…I’m sure Cotton [the horse] is real. That is almost the epitome of the way Mark Twain will work — for the rest of his literary career. He likes to get a hold of true stories and tell them in his own fashion.”

Twain’s “Rawhide Ranch” story came through a rediscovered reprinting of a letter originally published in the Enterprise, on October 20, 1865. According to Hirst, MTP does not own and does not want to restrict access to or use of it. note: According to the Twain history timeline, it was in February of 1865 when Twain returned to San Francisco from his gold country mining camp adventures. Desperately poor and jobless, he managed to wrangle a gig from the Territorial Enterprise of Virginia City, Nevada, where he had worked before, and soon became its local telegraphic reporter and correspondent. Until leaving the Bay Area for his “Hawaiian assignment” in March 1866, Twain composed five to six “San Francisco Letter” daily columns for the Enterprise, for which he was paid $100 per month, which greatly rejuvenated his spirits and wallet. Dispatched by steamboat, then forwarded from Sacramento by train and stagecoach to the newspaper’s offices, these colorful, highly creative missives reported local events, his own tall tales, as well as recollections of his pre-Civil War Mississippi River life experiences and Sierra Nevada mining stories, including the infamous Jumping Frog tale and the newly brought to light story of the Rawhide Ranch miners.



This somewhat famous mine—famous now, though a placidly-worked and almost unknown concern for the past ten years—is situated in Tuolumne county, California, near Sonora; near Tuttletown; near Jimtown; near Jackass; near Chaparral Hill; near—well, near forty places, but in the immediate vicinity of none. It is exceedingly rich in gold. It has been worked in the most easy-going, primitive manner for years past by its five original owners, with a tranquil old rattle-trap of a ten-stamp mill and a hoisting apparatus, consisting of a serene and unimaginative old horse by the name of “Cotton,” so called because of a remarkable white spot which ornaments his person near his tail. The original cost of this hoisting apparatus was not extravagant, and with that original cost all expense connected with it ceased, because it lived on refuse rock and the pleasures of contemplation, and its running gear was repaired and renovated from time to time with strips of rotten raw-hide from the fence which enclosed the Rawhide Ranch, and which substance, as you will readily infer, gave the ranch and the mine their names.

The Rawhide Mining Company—(which designation always included did their own work without hired assistance. One of the men used to go down in the mine about 10 o’clock in the morning to dig and blast and sweat and swear, Cotton and another partner would remain above to hoist out a bucket of ore once an hour and then pass away the balance of the time in wholesome recreation—Cotton in profound meditation and the other stockholder asleep; the third proprietor would tend the mill to keep it from going asleep also, and the two remaining proprietors would stay at the cabin and draw all their energies into preparations for dinner. After four or five hours of exhausting labor, Cotton would be turned loose among the refuse rock, and all hands would knock off for the day and adjourn to their dining hall with desolating appetites and the happy consciousness of having done their duty. In this pleasant way an average of about eight tons was daily put through—four tons of ore and four tons of bacon and beans—and the Rawhide mine prospered, and its owners slowly but surely progressed toward affluence.

Last winter this mine could have been bought for twelve or fifteen thousand dollars. Afterwards somebody got the refusal of it for a certain length of time, at fifty thousand, for the purpose of attempting a sale of it in New York. But before this, as I forgot to mention, the property was placed in the hands of a broker here, and numerous efforts were made to dispose of it at twenty-five or thirty thousand dollars. Well, as soon as it became known that the above-mentioned refusal had been given, of course everybody wanted the mine. Johnny Skae and Gashwiler went up there to look at it, and found it in the condition I have described—or at least I have been told they did, by a man who always speaks the truth when he tells what is so, and which is not so frequent as to give his friends uneasiness. They looked down the shaft and could see no bottom; and they looked at Cotton and liked his style, but they hesitated to put their trust in his harness; his “breeching” had a portentously unseaworthy aspect. So they rode over to Sonora and bought four dollars’ worth of reliable breeching and came back and repaired the hoisting gear. They got in the bucket and descended some eighty feet without accident; but from this point the character of the shaft changed a little—changed to an incline instead of a perpendicular—and the bucket went rasping and jolting over the rough wall-rock in the most threatening manner, and finally the bucket broke loose and went thundering down to the bottom, apparently seventy or eighty feet, leaving the two adventurers clinging desperately to the rope, and glaring in each other’s faces by the weird light of the candles held between their teeth—and just then Cotton stopped to meditate, and so did they—that is, they stopped, but I don’t mean, to meditate.

Gashwiler said “G-r-eat Geeminy!” and dropped his candle.

Skae said, “I’m opposed to this,” and dropped his candle also.

Gashwiler shouted; “Drive on! what the h—l did you stop for?—drive on quick!” No answer. “Johnny, I can’t hold on long—I’m bound to lose my grip directly. Johnny, this is dangerous—you bet it’s mighty dangerous—it’s fifty feet down to the bucket—may be a hundred and fifty—Lord! I begin to weaken! Johnny, could you hyste up a sort of a prayer?”

“No, Gash, but you holler—loud as you can. I’m weakening, too. Holler at the horse, Gash; the Lord might hear us, but—no time now to take any chances; holler at him, Gash—if we get out, it’s him that’s got to do it, anyhow—as well tackle him first as last. My left hand’s letting down. I don’t admire to hang this way.”

Then Gash shouted at the horse still louder, but produced no effect. So he said: “Johnny, I’ve not lived as I ought to have lived. D—n that infernal horse! But, Johnny, I have always tried to do right, and never wronged no man. Johnny, if we are saved I mean to be a good man and a Christian. D—n your thieving hides, I’ll cut the lungs out of some of you if I ever get out of this! Oh Lord, Johnny!—we’ve got to die in this dark hole—kiss me, Johnny.” And so he went on, swearing and praying by turns, until their strength was nearly gone.

But at last Cotton appeared to have come to a conclusion in the matter he was thinking about, and started on his round again. In due time Johnny and the incipient Christian reached the bottom of the shaft safely, and the incipient Christian lifted up his voice and swore till the confined atmosphere was foggy with blasphemy. When they were hoisted to the surface they found out the real reason of Cotton’s untimely halt. His hame-straps had broken, and the lives of the two prospectors hung entirely at the mercy of the new breeching purchased in Sonora. Consequently the hoisting works had to stand still and meditate while new hame-straps were manufactured out of the universal raw-hide. Altogether, it was a funny adventure to all save those most particularly interested in it—and yet it was a happy adventure, since it made at least a sort of jack-legged Christian out of Gashwiler. Messrs. Gashwiler, John Skae, John Keening, Land, De Land and Sloss bought the mine, and paid $75,000 in gold for it. The payment was made the moment the “refusal” contract run out; the money for the latter was deposited here at the same time, and a telegram to that effect was sent to Jimtown, but it was of no effect, because the terms of the contract were that the money was to be paid to the owners of the mine in Jimtown itself within the specified time. Cotton and his confreres took $7,000 from the mine the last month they were in possession, at no other outlay than the usual ruinous expenditure for company food. The new company are building a forty-stamp mill on the premises now, and it will be completed in the course of eight or nine weeks, when they will proceed to take out two or three millions a month, as I am informed by one who is something of an artist in imbuing his statements with an attractive interest.