How a Winter in California’s Gold Country Started Mark Twain’s Career

How a Winter in California’s Gold Country Started Mark Twain’s Career

At first glance, you might think that Angels Camp, a small city in the verdant foothills of the Sierra Nevada, is famous for its frogs.

The sidewalks in the former Gold Rush town are emblazoned with frog plaques. The Angels Camp Museum sells frog baseball caps and cookie cutters shaped like frogs. A billboard declares “Frogtown, USA.”

But why all the love for frogs in Angels Camp, of all places? Because of Mark Twain and his breakout story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” originally published in 1865. Legend has it that Twain — real name: Samuel Clemens — first heard the tale at a tavern in Angels Camp.

In the winter of 1864, Clemens was struggling. After trying his hand as a steamboat pilot, a miner and a mill worker, Clemens had found work as a newspaper reporter in San Francisco but had lost his job and was deeply in debt.

Just after his 29th birthday, he left the city in December 1864 to stay with some miners living in a cabin in Tuolumne County, about 140 miles east of San Francisco. There, in a place known as Jackass Hill, he began to feel rejuvenated, reading literature and listening to his friends tell witty stories by the fire in the one-room cabin, the local historian James Fletcher wrote in his book “Mark Twain’s 88 Days in the Mother Lode.”

Clemens began keeping a notebook, recording anecdotes and observations that would “feed his literary art for the rest of his life,” Fletcher writes. “Sam would spend but three months on Jackass Hill before returning to San Francisco, but these months were life-changing for the young writer.”

The story goes that Clemens and his friends were in the mining town of Angels Camp, about 10 miles north of Jackass Hill, in January 1865 when they heard a bartender at the Angels Hotel tell a strange and silly story about a frog-jumping contest.

Clemens returned to San Francisco in the spring and began writing humorous essays for local publications that soon became popular. He spun the frog yarn into a short story originally called “Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog,” which was published in The New York Saturday Press under the pen name Mark Twain, and was reprinted in papers all over the country, vaulting the young writer to national success.

I recently visited Angels Camp, a charming community of 3,500 residents that holds a frog-jumping festival each May and has a museum with an exhibit on Mark Twain’s experiences in Gold Country. Both the Angels Hotel downtown and a replica of the cabin on Jackass Hill (about a 10-minute drive south, on a peaceful summit canopied by trees) are California historical landmarks, recognized for the role they played in kick-starting the career of one of America’s most celebrated writers.

“I jotted down the story in my notebook that day and I would have been glad to get $10 or $15 for it — I was just that blind,” Clemens wrote years later in a letter to one of his friends from Jackass Hill, as quoted in “Mark Twain and the Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” by George Williams III. “I published that story, and it became widely known in America, India, China, England — and the reputation it made for me has paid me thousands and thousands of dollars since.”

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