Did Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) Meet Thomas Sawyer of
Lee County, Iowa Before He Wrote The Adventures of Tom
The writers of this essay, Ann Stroupe and Jim Ramsey,
are descendants of Thomas SAWYER and his wife Eliza
SNODGRASS who were Lee County, Iowa residents.
Thomas and Eliza are buried in Oakland Cemetery in
Keokuk. We feel that accumulated evidence shows
a very strong likelihood that our Thomas Sawyer could
have personally met Samuel Clemens during his
residency in Keokuk through common connections with
Sam's relatives or in-laws in Lee County, business
meetings, or at least had his name become known to Sam
Clemens through newspaper accounts, well before Sam
sat down to write his first book Tom Sawyer.
Generations of our Sawyer families have passed down
stories about meeting Mark Twain.
Thomas Sawyer is Ann Stroupe's 3rd great grandfather
and Jim Ramsey's 2nd great grandfather. A
resident of Lee County, Iowa from 1850 to 1892, Thomas
owned property and lived in Pleasant Ridge Township,
Montrose Township, and Keokuk, the town where Samuel
Clemens lived and worked in his brother Orion's
printing shop in 1855-1856. Thomas Sawyer ran
for and was elected to the Iowa State Legislature
during the time Sam Clemens was in Keokuk. It is
certain that Thomas knew several of Sam Clemens'
relatives who lived in Lee County. The Clemens
family (Sam, his mother Jane, brother Orion, and
Orion's wife Mollie) were very close to and in regular
contact with their many relatives who lived in Lee
County, Iowa, both through written letters and
Thomas Sawyer's wife was Eliza Snodgrass.
Eliza's parents lived in West Point, Iowa from 1850
until their deaths in 1860 and 1877. They are
buried in the West Point Cemetery very near Sam
Clemens' great-grandmother Jane Montgomery Casey.
It is well-documented that the Tom Sawyer character is
based on the real adventures of Sam Clemens and his
boyhood friends in Missouri, but we propose that our
ancestor's name was known to Sam Clemens, either from
reading it in the Iowa newspapers, or from having
personally met the Sawyer/Snodgrass family, and when
he wrote his book Tom Sawyer the name was not
invented, but was recalled from Sam Clemens' memory,
as was the name SNODGRASS, which Clemens several times
used as a pseudonym.
Mortals Only Copy
"We mortals can't create. We can only
copy." This was Mark Twain's reply in August
1895 to a reporter's query whether Tom Sawyer was
based on a real person. A Portland, Oregon
reporter was interviewing Twain on his world tour. (1)
Many authors have thoroughly discussed the sources of
Twain's' literary characters who were drawn from or
inspired by family, friends, and acquaintances, so it
is not necessary to repeat them here. (2)
Thomas Sawyer and
Family in Lee County, Iowa
Thomas and Eliza's infant son Samuel died 3 March 1850
in Miami Co, OH and was buried there. They must
have left Ohio very shortly after that, because Thomas
bought land in Lee County, Iowa June 18 of that year
and they are listed in the 1850 census for Lee
County (enumerated Sept 17, 1850). They
lived in Pleasant Ridge Township of Lee County 1850 to
1865; Montrose Twp 1865-1882, then bought a house in
Keokuk and retired there in 1882.
Thomas Sawyer was a devout Presbyterian. He was
a leader in the West Point, Montrose, and Keokuk
churches where he lived. He was chosen by
the Presbytery of Iowa as a delegate to the General
Assembly which met at Cleveland, Ohio in 1866.
(3) Many of Sam Clemens' Iowa relatives were
Thomas Sawyer was elected to the Iowa Legislature's
House in 1856 to succeed R.P. Creel. Thomas was
succeeded by J.A. Casey. Both Creel and Casey
are Sam Clemens' relatives. (4) These three men
must have known each other, and it is documented that
the Casey and Creel and Snodgrass families knew each
other from church activities in West Point. (5)
During Thomas' term the Iowa Legislature voted to move
the state capital to Des Moines, and they adopted the
State Constitution. This exciting news was
published in all the Iowa newspapers and eagerly
discussed by all residents. Thomas Sawyer's name
was also in the local newspaper several times in 1856
and 1857 in connection with the Lee County Fair.
He was Superintendent of Judges of Agricultural
Productions. (See following section on Clemens
Relatives in Keokuk and Lee County) Sam Clemens
was interested in politics and local activities, and
when he lived in Keokuk he likely read many Lee County
newspaper articles about the election, legislative
actions, and the County Fair.
Thomas Sawyer owned property in downtown Keokuk at 4th
and Blondeau, just 2 blocks from where Orion Clemens'
print shop was located at what is now 202 Main Street,
and one block from Orion's law office at 5th and
Thomas Sawyer's in-laws, Samuel and Martha Snodgrass,
had moved with their children to Lee County, Iowa
before January 1851 when they bought a lot in West
Point and acreage in West Point Township. Samuel
died in 1860, Martha in 1877. They are both
buried in the West Point City Cemetery just yards away
from Twain's great-grandmother's
headstone. Thomas and Eliza Sawyer lived
near West Point from 1850-1865. Thomas was the
executor of his mother-in-law's will, and spent a lot
of time in West Point working on her estate.
Eliza Snodgrass Sawyer died in Keokuk in 1882 and
Thomas Sawyer died there in 1892. Both are
buried in Keokuk's Oakland Cemetery and their joint
headstone still stands.
River Rat Connections
Jim Ramsey relates an interesting family story about
Thomas Sawyer and Samuel Clemens. The story was
told to Jim's mother by his great grandmother,
Isabella Horne Sawyer, wife of Thomas and Eliza
Sawyer's son William. Isabella (1853-1939) and
her family settled in Montrose, Iowa about 1857, and
she and William Sawyer were married there in
1874. Jim's mother, Florence Gretchen McKee
Ramsey, wrote the following: "According to my
maternal grandmother, Isabella Horne Sawyer, her older
brother met Clemens when they were both what she
referred to as 'river rats' on the large paddle wheel
boats constantly plying the Mississippi River in those
days. They were frequent visitors for that
period at the Keokuk home of Thos. & Eliza
We have done research on Isabella's family in an
attempt to verify this story. Of Isabella's four
older brothers, Wilson Horne is probably the one
referred to above. Wilson was a contemporary of
Samuel Clemens; they were both born in 1835.
Wilson lived in or near Montrose, Iowa. Prior to
his enlistment in the Civil War in Keokuk in 1862,
Wilson worked on a Mississippi riverboat. He was
a laborer for Johnathan P. Barber, a riverboat pilot
who lived in Montrose and piloted over the rapids from
Montrose to Keokuk. (7) Wilson died in Montrose
in 1866 as a result of pulmonary consumption
contracted during the War.
We are encouraged to have confirmed parts of this
intriguing story, and will continue to investigate the
"river rat" connection. We may find a connection
through one of Sam Clemens' many Keokuk friends -
Edwin Brownell, Billy Claggett, Dick Higham, Oliver
Isbell, George Rees - or through a riverboat pilot
connection - Dan Able, Horace Bixby, Bart and Sam and
Will Bowen, William Brown, David DeHaven, George
Ealer, Beck Jolly, John Kleinfelter, Zeb Leavenworth,
Isaiah Sellers. (8)
Samuel Clemens in
While living in Keokuk and working in his brother
Orion's printing shop in 1856, the 20-year old Sam
Clemens rediscovered girls and had an active social
life. He took piano lessons at Mr. O.C. Isbell's
studio on the floor below Orion's shop, and he joined
a glee club. He lived for a while at Ivin's
House on the river front, and later moved in with
Orion. Sister-in-law Mollie's relatives--the
Pattersons, Stotts and Taylors-- were among Keokuk's
leading families and had several pretty, witty, and
musical girls. (9) The Pattersons and Stotts
were prominent members of the Presbyterian Church, and
could have known Thomas Sawyer through the church.
Sam Clemens' first, and reportedly hilarious, public
speech was January 17, 1856 at a printer's
banquet in Keokuk held on the anniversary
of the 150th birthday of the famous statesman
and printer Benjamin Franklin.
Sam put an ad in the Keokuk newspapers in October 1856
reporting his find of a $50 bill. (10) It
illustrates his reliance on local publishing efforts.
This money eventually helped him to become a riverboat
In the fall of 1856 Sam Clemens left Keokuk and
traveled down river to St. Louis. From there he
wrote a letter to the Keokuk Post and signed it
"Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass". He soon returned
to Keokuk and agreed to write more Snodgrass letters
for $5 each. This was the first written material
the young Sam sold. Then he left for Cincinnati,
where he stayed until March 1857. From there he
wrote two Snodgrass letters to the Keokuk Post, dated
November 14, 1856, and March 14, 1857. (11)
Sam's three Snodgrass letters were published in the
Keokuk Post November 1 and 19, 1856 and April 10,
It is possible that Sam invented the pseudonym Thomas
Jefferson Snodgrass after meeting our Snodgrass
family. Samuel and Martha had a son named George
Washington Snodgrass. Sam may have met George
while in West Point to visit his great grandmother
Casey's grave and his Casey cousins. Sam's
memory of George Washington Snodgrass could easily
have led him to think of using "Thomas Jefferson
Snodgrass" when he wanted a pen name for his published
letters (Mortals only copy!).
Sam's many close relatives and friends prompted
numerous return visits to Keokuk after his initial
residency period of 1855-56.
In the spring of 1859 Sam became a certified riverboat
pilot on the Mississippi River between Keokuk and New
Orleans. He asked his mother, Jane, to invite a
friend of hers and to chaperone his second cousin,
Miss Ella Creel of Keokuk on a trip on the "City of
Memphis" as he piloted it down river to New
Orleans. At the end of the boat trip, Sam
proudly escorted all three women on a tour of New
Sam Clemens visited Keokuk in July 1860. His
book Life on the Mississippi relates an anecdote
about Henry Clay Dean speaking in Keokuk in 1861. (14)
In 1861 Sam accompanied his brother Orion, the newly
appointed Nevada Territorial Secretary, to Carson
City, where he lived from August 1861 until May
1864. From there Sam wrote two letters to the
"Keokuk Gate City" newspaper and signed them
"Josh". It was also during his Nevada years that
Sam started using the pseudonym "Mark Twain." (15)
After a cruise to the Hawaiian Sandwich Islands, Sam
returned to Keokuk, registered at the Tepfer House and
on April 8, 1867 gave his Sandwich Island lecture at
the Chatham Square Church which stood at Morgan &
7th Streets. (16) Orion's Keokuk law office at
5th and Blondeau was Sam's lecture headquarters.
Many chairs were set up for visitors and "half the
town dropped in". (17) Was one of these visitors
our Thomas Sawyer?? Sam wrote at length about
this visit in letters to the San Francisco Alta
California newspaper and they were later published in
Mark Twain's Travels with Mr. Brown.
In August of 1870 Mark Twain attended the races in
Sam started writing Tom Sawyer in New York in April
1874. (18) It was published in 1876.
On May 17, 1882 Sam was in Keokuk to collect
information for his book Life on the
Jane Clemens moved into Orion and Mollie's large
Keokuk house in September 1882. It was fixed up
with generous financial help from brother Sam.
Jane liked to walk and visit with neighbors. Orion
lived at 628 High Street. Thomas and Eliza
Sawyer were then living at 604 Grand Avenue, five
Sam passed through Keokuk again on January 14, 1885 on
a lecture tour. "Almost everybody who could afford the
admittance price attended." (20) Later that
year, on July 4th, he returned to Keokuk for a family
reunion. His mother and brother were living
there still. He spoke at the holiday gathering
at Rand Park. "Keokuk was agog with interest."
In summer of 1886 Sam, wife Livy and their three
children visited at Keokuk, staying at the McElroy
home. One of Orion's lodgers, school principal
George Marshall, intrigued Sam Clemens by wearing a
shockingly white suit during the very hot and very
sultry weather, all the while appearing cool and
immaculate. Sam Clemens noted the fact that it
took courage to wear white because people tended to
stare. After thinking over this remark, he
soon took up the habit himself, and a white suit
became one of his trademarks. (22)
Sam was called to Keokuk August 19, 1890 to be with
his ill mother. He stayed awhile with brother
Orion at 806 N. 7th St. (23)
Sam had maintained close relationships over the years
with the many friends he made, and drew heavily on
those relationships when he began writing his many
Sam Clemens' Casey
and Creel Relatives Lived in West Point and Keokuk,
Iowa, near the Sawyers and Snodgrasses
Sam Clemens' mother's maternal grandmother was Jane
Montgomery Casey. At the age of 76 she moved to
West Point, Lee County, Iowa, with her daughter-in-law
Janie Casey, and her grandchildren. They settled
on land that had been claimed by her son Green Casey,
who died before his family moved to Iowa from
Illinois. Jane died in 1844 and was buried in
West Point Cemetery. (24)
John Allen (J.A.) Casey, son of Green and Janie Casey
and a first cousin of Samuel Clemens' mother, grew up
in Lee County. He was Superintendent of Judges
of Agricultural Implements for the Lee County, Iowa
Fair in 1857. Thomas Sawyer was Superintendent
of Judges of Agricultural Productions for the same
Fair. (25) We can assume that the
Superintendents attended meetings together, and that
Thomas Sawyer and J.A. Casey knew each other.
J.A. Casey and his brother William P. Casey lived with
their families near West Point. J.A.'s wife
Mildred and William's wife Susan were co-founding
members of the Female Benevolent Society of the Old
School Presbyterian Church of West Point in 1855.
Three of Eliza Snodgrass Sawyer's sisters, Priscilla,
Martha and Harriet, were also founding members of that
Society. The Snodgrass and Casey families were
neighbors and shared in church activities. (5)
Jane Montgomery Casey's daughter Mary married John
Creel. They also lived in Lee County. Their son
Robert Paxton (R.P.) Creel was elected to the Iowa
State House in 1854. Thomas Sawyer succeeded him
in 1856, and was in turn succeeded by J.A. Casey.
(26) Thomas must have known both of these men,
who were related to each other and to the Clemens
family. R.P. Creel was the father of Miss Ella
Creel of Keokuk, who was friendly enough with her
second cousin Sam Clemens to be invited to take a trip
to New Orleans on Sam's Mississippi riverboat.
William Casey Creel, a brother of R.P. Creel, lived
very close to the Thomas Sawyer family in Pleasant
Ridge Twp, Lee Co as seen in the 1860 census.
Creel was on pg. 240 dwelling #39, Thomas Sawyer was
on pg. 239, dwelling #29. It is very likely that
these farmers knew each other.
William Patterson, father-in-law of R.P. Creel, was a
leader in the Presbyterian Church in West Point and
later in Keokuk, and was active in politics for many
years. He was elected as Iowa Territorial
Representative in 1838, 1839, 1841, 1842, 1845.
In 1857 he was a delegate to the third Constitutional
Convention (27), and he was elected Mayor of Keokuk
three times--1860, 1865 and 1866. (28). We know
Thomas Sawyer was interested in politics, and it is
likely that his interest included local Keokuk
politics and politicians.
Sam Clemens' mother Jane was the oldest grandchild and
namesake of Jane Montgomery Casey. Jane Clemens
was a first cousin of J.A. Casey, William P.
Casey, R.P. Creel, and William Casey Creel. The
last letter written by Granny Jane to granddaughter
Jane the year Granny died invited them to visit her in
West Point. (29) It is likely that Jane urged
her sons Sam and Orion to travel to West Point to
visit Granny Casey's grave and renew family ties with
Casey and Creel relatives still living there.
When Orion was courting Mollie Stotts of Keokuk, Jane
reminded Orion of their family connections in West
Point. Jane, with her youngest son Henry had
stopped in Keokuk when on a trip between Hannibal,
Missouri and Muscatine, Iowa and Jane had met
Mollie Stotts during the stopover. (30)
If Sam and/or Orion Clemens did visit their
great-grandmother's grave and the Casey/Creel
families, it is very possible that they also met the
Snodgrass and Sawyer families who lived nearby.
William & Eleanor Patterson (grandparents of
Ella Creel) were original members of the oldest
Presbyterian church in Iowa, organized June 24, 1837
at West Point. (31) The Sawyers and Snodgrasses
were also members of that church.
Jane Clemens had joined the Presbyterian church as an
adult after letters from her Granny Casey in Iowa told
her about some of its tenets. Jane's son Orion
and daughter Pamela also joined. (32)
In March 1851 Thomas Sawyer and other church trustees
filed in county books the Articles of Incorporation
for the Reformed Presbyterian Church of West
As mentioned earlier, in 1855 three of Eliza Snodgrass
Sawyer's sisters were co-founding members of the
Female Benevolent Society of the Old School
Presbyterian Church of West Point, IA along with
Clemens relatives Susan R. Casey and Mildred Casey.
Thomas Sawyer and wife Eliza were lifelong members of
the Presbyterian church. Thomas was a trustee of
the West Point Presbyterian Church, Lee County,
Iowa. He was chosen by the Presbytery of
Iowa as a delegate to the General Assembly which met
at Cleveland, Ohio in 1866. (34) He was an elder
in the Montrose Presbyterian church in 1879.
(35) He later joined the Westminister
Presbyterian Church in Keokuk, which had been
organized in 1851 by Revs. James Sharon and J.G.
Wilson, and had among its fifteen original
members Clemens relatives the William
Pattersons, Mary Stotts and Mary Ann Creel.
(36) Orion Clemens was expelled from this
church about 1879 for heresy after giving a lecture at
the Red Ribbon Hall (Red Ribbon was a Temperance
Movement) titled "Man the Architect of Our
Religion". His lecture was the basis for a
treatise Orion was writing with the strong
encouragement of brother Sam. (37)
Since the Sawyers and so many of Sam Clemens'
relatives were devoted and active Presbyterians, it
seems very probable that they knew each other.
Sam Clemens lived and worked in Keokuk for less than
two years as a young man, but encouraged by his
outgoing mother, he had close relations with the many
relatives who lived in and near the town. That and the
friendships he made so easily kept drawing him back to
Keokuk for 35 years after he left. It is no
wonder then, that he had so many memories of the
people and the town, and it is no surprise that he
recorded his memories in his many writings. We
think one of those memories was of our ancestor,
The authors of this essay are eager to hear from
anyone who has comments on our theory or who has any
additional information on Thomas Sawyer, the Snodgrass
family, or Sam Clemens' time in Lee County,
Iowa. Please contact Ann Stroupe at 321 S.W.
327th Place, Federal Way, WA 98023, phone
253-927-5811, email: HLS3@gte.net;
or Jim Ramsey at 52 Dexter Road, Lexington, MA
02420, phone 781-861-6896, email:
JamesRams@aol.com. Contributed by Ann Stroupe and Jim
(1) Glickstein, Don. "Twain's Great Northwest
Tour", Washington The Evergreen State
Magazine. Vol. 3, No. 4, (December 1986).
(2) "An Unpublished Manuscript by Mark Twain", Life
Magazine. December 20, 1968, pg 32.
Rasmussen, R. Kent. Mark Twain A - Z. New York: Oxford
University Press paperback, 1996, p. 37, 355, 384,
Varble, Rachel M. Jane Clemens, The Story of Mark
Twain's Mother. New York: Doubleday, 1964, p. 25, 142,
Hoffman, Andrew. Inventing Mark Twain, The Lives of
Samuel Langhorne Clemens. London: Phoenix Giant
Paperback, 1998, p. 191.
Meltzer, Milton. Mark Twain Himself. New York: Bonanza
Books, 1960, p. 174.
Allen, Jerry. The Adventures of Mark Twain. Boston:
Little, Brown and Company, 1955, p. 188.
(3) History of Lee County, Iowa 1879. Chicago: Western
Historical Co., 1879, p. 764.
(4) Ibid., p. 546.
(5) Lee Co, IA Record of Incorporation, Vol. 1, pp.
108, 137-138, Lee County Courthouse, Keokuk, IA.
(6) History of Lee County, p. 689.
(7) Civil War pension file of Adeline E. Horne,
Wilson's mother; History of Lee County, p. 757.
(8) Hoffman, pp. 42, 44, 51-61.
(9) Varble, p. 223.
(10) Neider, Charles, ed. The Autobiography of Mark
Twain. New York: Harper & Row, 1975, p. 103.
Harnett, T. Kane. Young Mark Twain and the
Mississippi. New York: Random House, 1966, p. 105.
(11) Rasmussen, p. 434.
(12) Varble, p. 230.
(13) Ibid., p. 243.
(14) Rasmussen, p. 290.
(15) Varble, p. 261.
(16) "Keokuk and Samuel Clemens". Pamphlet printed by
Keokuk (Iowa) Public Library, no date.
(17) Varble, p. 271.
(18) Meltzer, p. 162.
(19) "Keokuk and Samuel Clemens".
(20) Varble, p. 341.
(21) Ibid., p. 349.
(22) Ibid., p. 349.
(23) Keokuk, IA newspaper article dated Aug 19, 1890.
(24) Menke, Carolyn. "Great Grandmother of Mark Twain
Buried in West Point", Gate City and Constitution.
Keokuk, Iowa, Feb. 7, 1951.
(25) Keokuk Valley Whig, April 22, 1857.
(26) History of Lee County, p. 546.
(27) Ibid., p. 545.
(28) Ibid, p. 664.
(29) Varble, p. 155.
(30) Ibid., p. 219.
(31) History of Lee County, p. 667.
(32) Varble, p. 153.
(33) Ft. Madison District, Lee Co, Iowa, Deed Book 4,
(34) History of Lee County, p. 764.
(35) Ibid, p. 676.
(36) Ibid., p. 641.
(37) Varble, p. 316
.Written and contributed by Ann Stroupe and Jim Ramsey
(contact information in paragraph entitled Summary).
Mark Twain photo contributed by John Stuekerjuergen