Learning About Mark Twain & Riverboats

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Mark Twain & Riverboats

When our book club read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer our children enjoyed “meeting” Tom, Huck, and Becky and following along on their adventures.  We knew our studies wouldn’t be complete, however, without also spending time learning more about author Mark Twain.

Mark Twain

Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835 in the small town of Florida, Missouri. A few years later the Clemens family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, a growing town on the Mississippi River. It was here that Samuel Clemons developed his love for boats, especially the steamboats that traveled up and down the river.

As a teenager Clemens traveled the United States and worked as a printer’s apprentice.  At the age of 21 he returned to the Mississippi River and began working in his dream job — a steamboat pilot.

As the Civil War started, his career as an author officially began as he wrote humorous stories for the local newspaper. It was at this time that he also took the pen name “Mark Twain” (the term “mark twain” was used by riverboat crewman of the time to refer to the depth of the water as being “two fathoms” or 12 feet deep). Twain became a famous author and lecturer, known for his humorous, and usually exaggerated, tales.

“When I was a boy,” said Clemens in the Atlantic Monthly, “there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman.”

Mark Twain is synonymous with the Mississippi River and all its mysterious majesty. Even after gaining fames as author he never forgot his love of the River.

Steamboats & Riverboats

Steamboats ruled the rivers in the early 19th century and were often known as riverboats, steamboats, paddleboats or showboats. Steamboats were first made in the United States in the late 1700s.

Inventor Robert Fulton (1765-1815) is commonly (and incorrectly) given credit for inventing the first steam boat. Fulton was actually the one who succeeded in creating a steam powered boat that could efficiently transport people and products on American’s rivers in the days before many areas were serviced by railroads.

In our World Study Guide for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we include a section on riverboats, with a fun riverboat diagram to complete.

Riverboat Diagram Project - World for Learning

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There are plenty of internet sites and books that provide tons of information on the history of steamboats. One of our favorites is Steamboats.org.

Be sure to visit their Interactive Steamboat Model to navigate the various parts of a typical steamboat.  You can also look at their Glossary of Steamboat Terms for interesting and unique vocabulary.

Another informative website about Steamboats and Mark Twain is Steamboat Times.

If you wish to delve deeper into Mark Twain’s love of the Mississippi River and steamboats, check out his classic Life on the Mississippi.

Life on the MississippiWorld Study Guide for The Adventures of Tom SawyerFor the Riverboat Diagram and other fun activities such as:

  • Author Study
  • Timeline
  • Book Study
  • Tom Sawyer Recipes
  • Mapping the Mississippi
  • Writing with Hyperbole and MORE

Be sure to check out our World Study Guide for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

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As a veteran educator I am always looking for new ways to bring learning to life for my family. I enjoy traveling, sharing ideas with other moms, and helping my children explore the world around them. Our favorite subjects to study together are history, literature and geography.


  1. says

    Good information! Can’t wait to take my kids to Hannibal to see it all! Of course they are too little to appreciate most of it right now!

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