With all his ability and industry, and with the-best of intentions, John Clemens would seem to have had an unerring faculty for making business mistakes. It was his optimistic outlook, no doubt — his absolute confidence in the prosperity that lay just ahead — which led him from one unfortunate locality or enterprise to another, as long as he lived. About a year after his marriage he settled with his young wife in Gainsborough, Tennessee, a mountain town on the Cumberland River, and here, in 1825, their first child, a boy, was born. They named him Orion — after the constellation, perhaps — though they changed the accent to the first syllable, calling it Orion. Gainsborough was a small place with few enough law cases; but it could hardly have been as small, or furnished as few cases; as the next one selected, which was Jamestown, Fentress County, still farther toward the Eastward Mountains. Yet Jamestown had the advantage of being brand new, and in the eye of his fancy John Clemens doubtless saw it the future metropolis of east Tennessee, with himself its foremost jurist and citizen. He took an immediate and active interest in the development of the place, established the county-seat there, built the first Court House, and was promptly elected as circuit clerk of the court.
It was then that he decided to lay the foundation of a fortune for himself and his children by acquiring Fentress County land. Grants could be obtained in those days at the expense of less than a cent an acre, and John Clemens believed that the years lay not far distant when the land would increase in value ten thousand, twenty, perhaps even a hundred thousandfold. There was no wrong estimate in that. Land covered with the finest primeval timber, and filled with precious minerals, could hardly fail to become worth millions, even though his entire purchase of 75,000 acres probably did not cost him more than $500. The great tract lay about twenty nines to the southward of Jamestown. Standing in the door of the Court House he had built, looking out over the “Knob” of the Cumberland Mountains toward his vast possessions, he said:
“Whatever befalls me now, my heirs are secure. I may not live to see these acres turn into silver and gold, but my children will.”
Such was the creation of that mirage of wealth, the “Tennessee land,” which all his days and for long afterward would lie just ahead — a golden vision, its name the single watchword of the family fortunes — the dream fading with years, only materializing at last as a theme in a story of phantom riches, The Gilded Age.
Yet for once John Clemens saw clearly, and if his dream did not come true he was in no wise to blame. The land is priceless now, and a corporation of the Clemens heirs is to-day contesting the title of a thin fragment of it — about one thousand acres — overlooked in some survey.
Believing the future provided for, Clemens turned his attention to present needs. He built himself a house, unusual in its style and elegance. It had two windows in each room, and its walls were covered with plastering, something which no one in Jamestown had ever seen before. He was regarded as an aristocrat. He wore a swallow-tail coat of fine blue jeans, instead of the coarse brown native-made cloth. The blue-jeans coat was ornamented with brass buttons and cost one dollar and twenty-five cents a yard, a high price for that locality and time. His wife wore a calico dress for company, while the neighbor wives wore homespun linsey-woolsey. The new house was referred to as the Crystal Palace. When John and Jane Clemens attended balls — there were continuous balls during the holidays — they were considered the most graceful dancers.
Jamestown did not become the metropolis he had dreamed. It attained almost immediately to a growth of twenty-five houses — mainly log houses — and stopped there. The country, too, was sparsely settled; law practice was slender and unprofitable, the circuit-riding from court to court was very bad for one of his physique. John Clemens saw his reserve of health and funds dwindling, and decided to embark in merchandise. He built himself a store and put in a small country stock of goods. These he exchanged for ginseng, chestnuts, lampblack, turpentine, rosin, and other produce of the country, which he took to Louisville every spring and fall in six-horse wagons. In the mean time he would seem to have sold one or more of his slaves, doubtless to provide capital. There was a second baby now — a little girl, Pamela — born in September, 1827. Three years later, May 1830, another little girl, Margaret, came. By this time the store and home were in one building, the store occupying one room, the household requiring two — clearly the family fortunes were declining.
About a year after little Margaret was born, John Clemens gave up Jamestown and moved his family and stock of goods to a point nine miles distant, known as the Three Forks of Wolf. The Tennessee land was safe, of course, and would be worth millions some day, but in the mean time the struggle for daily substance was becoming hard.
He could not have remained at the Three Forks long, for in 1832 we find him at still another place, on the right bank of Wolf River, where a post-office called Pall Mall was established, with John Clemens as postmaster, usually addressed as “Squire” or “Judge.” A store was run in connection with the postoffice. At Pall Mall, in June, 1832, another boy, Benjamin, was born.
The family at this time occupied a log house built by John Clemens himself, the store being kept in another log house on the opposite bank of the river. He no longer practised law. In The Gilded Age we have Mark Twain’s picture of Squire Hawkins and Obedstown, written from descriptions supplied in later years by his mother and his brother Orion; and, while not exact in detail, it is not regarded as an exaggerated presentation of east Tennessee conditions at that time. The chapter is too long and too depressing to be set down here. The reader may look it up for himself, if he chooses. If he does he will not wonder that Jane Clemens’s handsome features had become somewhat sharper, and her manner a shade graver, with the years and burdens of marriage, or that John Clemens at thirty-six-out of health, out of tune with his environment — was rapidly getting out of heart. After all the bright promise of the beginning, things had somehow gone wrong, and hope seemed dwindling away.
A tall man, he had become thin and unusually pale; he looked older than his years. Every spring he was prostrated with what was called “sunpain,” an acute form of headache, nerve-racking and destroying to all persistent effort. Yet he did not retreat from his moral and intellectual standards, or lose the respect of that shiftless community. He was never intimidated by the rougher element, and his eyes were of a kind that would disconcert nine men out of ten. Gray and deep-set under bushy brows, they literally looked you through. Absolutely fearless, he permitted none to trample on his rights. It is told of John Clemens, at Jamestown, that once when he had lost a cow he handed the minister on Sunday morning a notice of the loss to be read from the pulpit, according to the custom of that community. For some reason, the minister put the document aside and neglected it. At the close of the service Clemens rose and, going to the pulpit, read his announcement himself to the congregation. Those who knew Mark Twain best will not fail to recall in him certain of his father’s legacies.
The arrival of a letter from “Colonel Sellers” inviting the Hawkins family to come to Missouri is told in The Gilded Age. In reality the letter was from John Quarles, who had married Jane Clemens’s sister, Patsey Lampton, and settled in Florida, Monroe County, Missouri. It was a momentous letter in The Gilded Age, and no less so in reality, for it shifted the entire scene of the Clemens family fortunes, and it had to do with the birthplace and the shaping of the career of one whose memory is likely to last as long as American history.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00