Name

Horace Ezra Bixby

Career

Navy

Occupation 1

Steamboat Captain

Occupation 2

Mark Twain's Instructor

Identifier

Mississippi River

Region

NA/South & Gulf region

Era

Heroic Age of Sail (1816-1865)

Born

1826

Died

1912

Source

ANB

Text

Steamboat pilot. After running away from home when he was thirteen, Bixby made his way to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he first worked in a tailor shop. Like many river-town youths, he was attracted to steamboating, which was rapidly expanding in the 1840s. He started as a second, or mud, clerk on the Olivia and at age twenty became a pilot.

Bixby was regularly employed by various Mississippi and Ohio river lines during the 1850s, usually considered to have been the "Golden Age of Steamboating." In 1857, while navigating the Paul Jones from Cincinnati to New Orleans, he agreed to teach piloting to Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who later gained fame as Mark Twain. Their seventeen-month association earned Clemens a license as a Mississippi River pilot.

After the Civil War disrupted St. Louis-New Orleans commerce, Bixby piloted the Union gunboat Benton during the unsuccessful 1862 river campaign against Vicksburg, Mississippi. At the war's end Bixby, like many other St. Louisans, entered the Missouri River trade, which the Montana gold rush had made lucrative. With his talent for memorizing river-channel details, Bixby obtained a Missouri River piloting license and worked for the Montana and Idaho Transportation Company, the major St. Louis-Fort Benton, Montana, line. During his Missouri River career, Bixby had the misfortune of snagging and sinking the Bertrand, which he was piloting. After the short-lived Montana gold rush boom, Bixby returned to the Lower Mississippi River trade, which was seriously challenged by railroads.

During the 1870s and 1880s, in partnership with his father-in-law and brother-in-law, Bixby owned and captained Anchor Line boats in the St. Louis-New Orleans business. In 1883 Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi was published, and Bixby became a celebrity. This autobiographical work, in which Twain portrayed Bixby as a stern, precise, and profane master of the river, proved to be a mixed blessing to the veteran pilot. He received numerous letters from Twain fans, but he believed that even without Twain he had earned a place in riverboat history. Bixby also took pride in abstaining from vulgar language and objected to Twain's characterization of him as profane. Despite Bixby's feelings, it was Twain who made him famous as the quintessential pilot. Twain recalled that after observing Bixby complete a hazardous maneuver an awe-stricken fellow pilot exclaimed, "By the Shadow of Death, but he's a lightning pilot!" When commercial steamboating declined sharply, the small but able-bodied Bixby worked as a snagboat pilot in the federal government's river improvement service. He retired only two days before his death at his home in Maplewood, a suburb of St. Louis.

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Record ID: 462