How Mark Twain Came to Write the Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
Samuel Langhorn Clemens was born in 1835 in Florida, Missouri. He grew up loving the Mississippi River and became a riverboat pilot at the age of 23. At the start the Civil War riverboat traffic was suspended. When Sam’s brother, Orion, was appointed by President Lincoln as secretary of a Nevada Territory Sam went with him. There he clerked for the Nevada Territorial Legislature. He later worked the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. While living in Virginia City he adopted the pen name “Mark Twain.” After moving to San Francisco in 1864 he began writing for the San Francisco Call.
In 1865 Twain started mining gold at Angel’s Camp in Calaveras County while writing for San Francisco newspapers. Because he never struck it rich in the gold mines he was forced to work in a quartz mine to support himself.
One night, sitting in the Angels Hotel he overheard the bartender telling the yarn of a hopeless gambler, Jim Smiley, and his jumping frog. Twain was fascinated with the account and the following fall wrote his renowned story, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” It was this legendary story that made Mark Twain famous.
Jim Smiley was a habitual gambler. He would bet on anything. Jim had a frog he called Dan’l Webster. One day when Jim was bragging about how far Dan’l Webster could jump one of the men in the crowd said he didn’t believe that any one frog could jump any further than any other frog. To prove just how far Dan’l could jump Jim went to the marsh and caught another frog. Each man put up $40 and the race was on. As the story goes, the two frogs were set side by side with their fore paws even and Jim said “one, two three jump” and they touched the frogs from behind. The marsh frog hopped away while Dan’l just sat there. Even though Dan’l did try to jump he just couldn’t get off the ground. Jim lost his $40. In disbelief he picked up Dan’l to check him out. Dan’l felt very heavy and when Jim turned him upside down, “he belched a double handful of buckshot.” Jim had been cheated; Dan’l had been given buckshot to make him heavy. Fighting mad, Jim took after the man but never caught him.
Legend has it that the frog named Dan’l Webster was a California red-legged frog. In 1996 the California red-legged frog was declared an endangered species. This brought about ongoing litigation between ecologist and land developers.
Angels Camp, founded in 1848, is a beautiful little town located in the foothills of the Sierra Mountains. It has become the home of Mark Twain’s world famous “Jumping Frog Jubilee.” Every year during the third week of May the Jubilee is held at the Calaveras County Fairgrounds, better known as Frogtown. People from around the world come to Calaveras County to watch this extravaganza.
Quartz mining began in Angels Camp when a local gentlemen named Bennager Rasberry, shot his gun into the ground in an attempt to dislodge his ramrod. The ramrod split a stone to reveal the gleaming gold inside. The last mine in Angels Camp closed in 1942. When the crashing of the last stamp mill died away a hush never before heard fell over the town; it was so quiet the townspeople had trouble sleeping.
Today the population of Angels Camp just is a little over 3,000 but in 1849 nearly 4,000 miners camped in the one mile area which is now Main Street. The probable gross recovery of gold from the 5 mines operating in Angels Camp from 1886 – 1910 was approximately $20,000,000.
In the spring and summer, this captivating and extraordinary little town is bustling with tourists. Take a stroll down Main Street and see the beautifully maintained structural design of the historic buildings. This early California city reeks with history and if you listen carefully, maybe you will hear the crashing sound of the stamp mills.