Isaiah Sellers, a pioneer steamboat pilot, began
working on the Lower Mississippi River steamboats
around 1825. Three years later he was a pilot. He
made at least 460 round trips between St. Louis and
New Orleans and other ports in his career and not
once was he involved in and accident.
"He was very tall, well built, and handsome; and in
his old age--as I remember him--his hair was as
black as an Indian's, and his eye and hand were as
strong and steady and his nerve and judgement as
firm and clear as anybody's, young or old, among the
fraternity of pilots"...(Quote by Mark Twain)
Sellers had introduced navigation innovations such
as bell-tapping as the pilot's signal to take sound-
ings rather than the shouted commands; also a
system of signaling between the boats.
According to Mark Twain, Sellers was the Mississippi's
"only genuine Son of Antiquity".
No matter what any other pilot had done Captain
Sellers had a story of his own to top it; his minute
details, the names of islands washed--away long
ago, precise locations of forgotten river hazards--
all made him the brunt of ridicule by younger pilots.
They considered him and old bore.
In "Life on the Mississippi" Chapter 50, Mark Twain
wrote: "The old gentleman (Sellers) was not of literary
turn or capacity, but he used to jot down brief para-
graphs of plain practical information about the river,
and sign them 'Mark Twain', and give them to the
'New Orleans Picayune.'* They related to the stage
and condition of the river, and were accurate and
valuable; and thus far, they contained no poison. But
in speaking of the stage of the river today at a given
point, the captain was pretty apt to dropin a little
remark about this being the first time that he had
seen the water so high or so low at tha particular point
for forty-nine years; and now and then he would
mention Island So-and-so, and follow it, in parenthesis,
with some such observation as 'disappeared in 1807,
if I remember rightly.' In these antique interjections
lay poison and bitterness for the other old pilots, and
they used to chaff the 'Mark Twain' paragraphs with
It so chanced that one of these paragraphs became
the text for my first newspaper article. I burlesqued
it broadly, very broadly, stringing my fantastics out to
the extent of eight hundred or a thousand words. I was
a 'cub' at that time. I showed my performance to some
pilots**, and they eagerly rushed it into print in the
'New Orleans True Delta.' It was a great pity; for it did
nobody any worthy service, and it sent a pang deep
into a good man's heart. There was no malice in my
rubbish; but it laughed at the captain. It laughed at
a man to whom such a thing was new and strange and
dreadful. I did not know then, though I do now, that
there is no suffering comparable with that which a
private person feels when he is for the first time pil-
loried in print. Captain Sellers did me the honour to
profoundly detest me from that day forth. When I say
he did me the honour, I am not using empty words.
It was a very real honour to be in the thoughts of so
great a man as Captain Sellers, and I had wit enough
to appreciate it and be proud of it. It was distinction
to be loved by such a man; but it was a much greater
distinction to be hated by him, because he loved
scores of people; but he didn't sit up nights to hate
anybody but me.
He never printed another paragraph while he lived,
and he never again signed 'Mark Twain' to anything.
At the time that the telegraph brought news of his
death, I was on the Pacific coast. I was a fresh new
journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated
the ancient mariner's discarded one,*** and have done
my best to make it remain what it was in his hands--
a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found
in its company may be gambled on as being the pet-
rified truth; how I have succeeded, it would not be
modest in me to say. The captain had an honourable
pride in his profession and an abiding love for it. He
ordered his monument before he died, and kept it near
him until he did die. It stands over his grave now, in
Bellefontaine Cemetery, in St. Louis. It is his image,
in marble, standing on duty at the pilot wheel; and
worthy to stand and confront criticism, for it represents
a man who in life would have stayed there till he burn-
ed to a cinder, if duty required it.
Captain Isaiah Sellers died of pneumonia at Memphis
on a downstream run. When the Henry Von Phul return-
ed his body to St. Louis, flags on all steamboats along
the levee were at half-mast, as they were again seven
days later when he was interred in Bellefontaine Cemetery.
Isaiah Sellers (1802-1864) Block 87, Lot 659
*The following is typical of Captain Sellers' notes:
"In the winter of 1852 the Supervise inspectors enterduced
the whisal as a Signal for metin and pasen Boats I wars a pose
to it but after a time com over and am in favor of the whisal
and hope it will prove yousfull,"....
Obviously heavy editing was required before it was printed
in the New Orleans Picayune.
**It was Bart Bowen, Will Bowen's brother and Clemen's pilot
partner on the Edward J. Gay, who insisted upon printing the
burlesque. Although reluctant, Clemens did consent.
***In his autobiography, Mark Twain wrote: I don't believe these
details are right but I don't care a rap. They will do just as well
as the facts. The availability of Captaina Isaiah Sellers logbook
confirmed in the minds of Mark Twain scholars that the original
Mark Twain is Samuel Clemens and as suspected, Captain
Sellers never used the name in his columns for the New Orleans
Picayune. On February 3, 1863--a date considered as the "birth
of Mark Twain"--The Virginia City Territorial Enterprise published
a letter from Carson City, Nevada that Clemens signed "Mark
Twain". In steamboating jargon "mark twain" stood for the two-
fathom depth which happens to be the dividing line between
safe and dangerously shallow water. It literally means "two
marks" which stands for two fathoms, or twelve feet.
The problem with Mark Twain's account in "Life on the Mississippi"
about the origin of the name is that while Sellers did write for the
Picayune there is no evidence of his ever having signed them
"Mark Twain". Furthermore, Sellers died March 6, 1864--
more than a year after Clemens began using the pen name
"Mark Twain" himself. A more logical story of the origin of
Mark Twain was printed in the Eureka, Nevada Sentinel in the
1870's. In John Piper's bar, a favorite haunt of reporters, the
proprietor "conducted a cash business, and refused to keep any
books. As a special favor he would occasionally chalk down
drinks to the boys on the wall back of the bar. Sam Clemens,
when localizing for the Enterprise, always had an account with
the balance against him. Clemens was by no means a Coal Oil
Tommy, he drank for the pure and unadulterated love of the
ardent. Most of his drinking was conducted in single-handed
contests, but occasionally he would invite Dan DeQuille, Charley
Parker, Bob Lowery or Alf. Doten, never more than one of them...
at a time, and whenever he did his invariable parting injunction
was to "mark twain," meaning two chalk marks...in this way...
he acquired the title which has since become famous wherever
English is read or spoken.
Main image is taken from my own personal cd
collection and the information that is on the
following pages have been researched through
genealogy links and the Bellefontaine Cemetery
This set is NOT linkware and is NOT to leave
this site by any means. It is for my own personal
use and NOT yours.
Thanks.....Fiddlinsue a.k.a. Suzanne