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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Love on the River

Here's a bit of local river history with a literary twist.

As a steamboat made its way on the river the leadsman stood on the bow and sang the depth soundings to the pilot.

It went like this:

Quarter Less Twain - ten and one-half feet

Mark Twain - twelve feet (two fathoms, or safe water)

Quarter Twain - thirteen and one-half feet

Half Twain - fifteen feet

Quarter Less Three - sixteen and one-half feet

Mark Three - eighteen feet (three fathoms)

Quarter Three - nineteen and one-half feet

Half Three - twenty-one feet

Quarter Less Four - twenty-two and one-half feet

Mark Four (or Deep Four) - twenty-four feet (four fathoms)

No Bottom - over twenty-four feet

(Photo)
Mark Twain in the early 1870s
The pilot, in this particular story is Samuel L. Clemens. He worked on the Mississippi River first as a cub pilot in 1857 and 58, then as a licensed pilot from 1858 to the outbreak of the Civil War when the river closed to commercial traffic in 1861. He worked on at least 15 different steamboats making 120 trips between New Orleans and St. Louis. During his time on the river he was known as Sam Clemens, but we know him by his pen name, Mark Twain.

(Photo)
Lloyd's map of the Lower Mississippi River from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico, 1863, shows the location of the Lazell plantation and the area around Point Pleasant, Missouri. [Library of Congress]
New Madrid and nearby Point Pleasant were frequent stops for steamboats plying the river before the Civil War, taking on or delivering passengers and goods. Town merchants knew the boats, their schedules and crews, especially the captains and pilots.

(Photo)
James Kenyon Robbins (1812-1873), no date, probably in the early 1870s. A successful river merchant, he and Twain became friends.
And that is how I believe one local merchant, James Kenyon Robbins, came to meet Twain.

But first, more about Robbins and his family.

Robbins, born in 1812 and a native of New York State, came to New Madrid County in the 1830s. His first employment was teaching school, and he later began operating a trading boat down the Mississippi. With the profits from that venture he opened a store in Point Pleasant.

(Photo)
Susan Lazell Robbins (1819-1883) was mentioned by Twain, no date.
In 1839, Robbins married 20-year-old local beauty, Susannah "Susan" Lazell,

By the time Twain began working on the river, Robbins and his family lived on a plantation near Point Pleasant. The two became friends, as illustrated by the story that Twain once stopped his boat at the plantation and had the boat's cook take a freshly baked cake to Robbins' young daughter, Myra. Nancy Miriam "Myra" Robbins, the third child of James and Susan Robbins, was born in 1848 and would have been about 12 years old when Twain sent her the cake. This incident was told to Marshal Dial in the early 1960s by Myra's great-niece, Myra Ransburgh.

But such pleasantries on the river came to a sudden halt in 1861 when the Civil War erupted. Twain went west to Nevada to work for his brother, Orion. The following year, Robbins moved his family to St. Louis where Myra grew into a beautiful young lady of society.

At some point, according to Ransburg, Twain approached Myra's father about courting her. He was promptly rebuffed by Robbins telling Twain that "he didn't think much of river men." This story gains considerable credibility as Twain's affection for Myra was recalled by the granddaughter of one of Robbins partner's, Agnes Bowen, who recounted "a family tradition that Miriam [Myra}, the daughter of Mrs. Robbins, was one of Clemens's 'sweethearts,' and something of a beauty."

(Photo)
Miriam "Myra" Robbins (1848-1881) was the subject of Twain's affection and dreams.
Twain alludes to his affection for Myra in a in a letter written to his friend William Bowen from New York in 1867. Twain concludes the letter writing: How is [Miriam? Tell] her I [dream of her still.] And I [dream of Mrs. Robbins] too, but [not so much]. [Good bye, my oldest] friend.

Twain's closeness to the James K. Robbins family is further suggested by his selection of the name "Old Robbins" for one of his characters in his "Grandfather's Ram" story in Roughing It.

But, more surprisingly, at least one Twain scholar suggests that Myra Robbins was Twain's inspiration, in part, for the Tom Sawyer's girlfriend, Becky Thatcher.

Twain's across the street neighbor and childhood sweetheart Anna Laura Hawkins has always had the best claim as being the inspiration for the fictional character Becky Thatcher, but clearly Twain also had his eyes and dreams on Myra Robbins before he penned Tom Sawyer. And, she certainly looks the part.

(Photo)
The Robbins home near Point Pleasant in the 1920s. The home was razed in the late 1960s to make way for St. Jude Industrial Park. [All Robbins photos courtesy of Marie Lawrence, a family descendant, who also provided much information about Robbins family history]
Steamboat's coming!

Behind the scenes