Did Samuel Clemens (Mark
Twain) Meet Thomas Sawyer of Lee County, Iowa Before He Wrote The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer?
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 in-person visits.
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
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 also Presbyterians.
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 Blondeau. (6)
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 Sawyer."
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 Keokuk,
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, 1857. (12)
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
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 Keokuk.
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 Mississippi. (19)
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 blocks away.
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." (21)
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 books.
Sam Clemens' Casey and
Creel Relatives Lived in West Point and Keokuk, Iowa, near the Sawyers
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
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
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
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
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
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.
In March 1851 Thomas Sawyer and other church
trustees filed in county books the Articles of Incorporation for the
Reformed Presbyterian Church of West Point. (33)
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. (5)
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, Thomas Sawyer.
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 Ramsey
(1) Glickstein, Don. "Twain's Great Northwest Tour", Washington
The Evergreen State Magazine. Vol. 3, No. 4, (December
1986). p. 47.
(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, 420.
Varble, Rachel M. Jane Clemens, The Story of Mark Twain's Mother. New
York: Doubleday, 1964, p. 25, 142, 158, 180.
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.
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;
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, p. 720.
(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