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The Young Mark Twain

TWAIN, MARK. (CLEMENS, SAMUEL L.). A collection documenting the early life of Samuel Clemens and his family in Iowa

Various places, mainly Iowa, 1850s-1880s

Photographs, letters, documents, and books

This unique collection of photographs, books, letters, and other objects is from the Creel family, Samuel Clemens’s relations on his mother’s side. One highlight of the collection is the charming ambrotype portrait of young Ella Creel, one of Sam’s “favorite companions” and a “one-time sweetheart.” The photograph dates to the time of that youthful flirtation, when Ella was in her teens and Sam was about twenty.

In 1854 Sam Clemens’s older brother Orion left Hannibal, Missouri and moved with his wife Mollie to her hometown, Keokuk, Iowa. They were accompanied by their widowed mother Jane, who had family in Iowa. Young Sam Clemens traveled east working as a printer and then came to Iowa. He worked on his brother’s newspaper in Keokuk in 1855-56 before becoming an apprentice riverboat pilot. Later Orion and his wife moved away, but by 1874 they had returned, and their mother Jane moved to Keokuk as well. As a result, Twain had early and enduring ties to the area and its people. He referred to his Iowa relatives in his correspondence, and he visited Keokuk on a number of occasions throughout his life.

The collection, which includes a number of otherwise unknown objects, comprises:

1. Mary Eleanor “Ella” Creel (1841-1894). Photograph portrait as a teenage girl. Ambrotype. Ella Creel was the daughter of Mary Ann Patterson and Robert Paxton Creel and thus was a distant cousin of Sam Clemens on his mother’s side. In April 1859 Sam Clemens became a licensed riverboat pilot on the Mississippi between Keokuk, Iowa and New Orleans. He asked his mother and a friend to chaperone Ella Creel on a trip to New Orleans on a boat he piloted, proudly taking the three women on a tour of the city when they arrived. According to Twain’s biographer Albert Bigelow Paine, Ella was one of Sam’s “favorite companions” and a “one-time sweetheart.”

2. Mary Eleanor “Ella” Creel (1841-1894). Photograph portrait as an adult. Ambrotype.

3. Mollie Clemens. Photograph portrait. Cabinet card albumen print. Mollie was the wife of Sam’s brother Orion.

4. Charles Riffley. Photograph portrait. Cabinet card albumen print. Charles was the husband of Mollie Clemens’s sister.

5. Robert Paxton Creel (1815-1883). Photograph portrait. Albumen print (6 x 8 in.). Inscribed by Creel on verso “For David C. Walker from his Grand Pa.” Father of Sam Clemens’s sweetheart Ella, Robert P. Creel was cousin of Samuel Clemens’s mother Jane Lampton Clemens. Creel’s father John married Polly Casey, a sister of Margaret Casey, who married Benjamin Lampton and was mother of Jane Lampton (later Clemens), the author’s mother. Curiously, Robert Creel was succeeded in the Iowa state legislature in 1856 by a man named Tom Sawyer. It has been suggested that this is the source of the name of Twain’s character.

6. Margaret Creel Scott. Photograph portrait. Cabinet card albumen print. Margaret was Ella Creel’s sister.

7. Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad (1870). Signed by Ella Creel’s brother Joseph.

8. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Poetical Works (1867). Signed by Ella Creel’s sister Abba.

9. Perrin, Fables (1839). Signed by Ella Creel’s sister Abba.

10. Pamela Moffett (Sam Clemens’s sister). Autograph letter signed to Jane Clemens (1877). In this chatty letter to their mother, Sam’s sister discusses family matters, refers to Orion and Mollie (with whom Jane was living in Keokuk), and gives reading recommendations for her brother “Sammy.” Pamela is said to have been the model for Tom’s cousin Mary in Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

11. Jane Clemens (Samuel Clemens’s mother), signed napkin. Linen napkin or handkerchief with the ink signature of Jane Clemens. Jane was a major influence in Sam’s life, and she figures in several of his books, most notably as Tom Sawyer’s Aunt Polly.

Provenance: a fine Clemens family provenance, from the family of Abba Beatrice Creel Walker and Alexander Milton Walker. Abba (#8 and 9 in this collection) and Ella Creel  (#1 and 2) were the granddaughters of John Creel (father of Robert Paxton Creel, #5), who was married to Polly Casey. Polly’s sister Peggy was the mother of Jane Lampton Clemens (#11), mother of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), his sister Pamela Moffett (#10), and his brother Orion. Late in her life Jane lived in Keokuk with her son Orion and his wife Mollie (#3). Abba’s sister Ella (#1 and 2) was Twain’s teenage sweetheart in those early years in Keokuk, Iowa.