Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

Mark Twain Comes to Utah

Brigham Young.jpg

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Mark Twain Comes to Utah


Mark Twain’s visit to Utah and the comical encounter he had with Brigham Young.

Mark Twain is known to most of us as the author of such classics as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. A well-known humorist, one of Twain’s earlier books, called Roughing It, contains a wonderful mixture of truth and fiction as he recounts his journey West by stagecoach in 1861. Traveling with his brother, who had been appointed secretary of the newly created Nevada Territory, Mark Twain stopped in Salt Lake City and wrote engagingly of its setting and people.

Reflecting his awe of the Salt Lake Valley, Twain described the city as lying "...in the edge of a level plain as broad as the state of Connecticut, [crouching close] to the ground under a curving wall of mighty mountains whose heads are hidden in the clouds, and whose shoulders bear relics of the snows of winter all the summer long. Seen from … these dizzy heights… Great Salt Lake City is toned down and diminished till it is suggestive of a child's toy village reposing under the majestic protection of the Chinese wall."

Twain also wrote about a visit he and his brother apparently had with Brigham Young. Twain found himself ignored by the Mormon leader, especially his attempts to direct the conversation toward Young's attitudes about Congress and politics. As the two brothers left, the elderly church president smiled at Mark Twain, patted him on the head, and said to his older brother, "Ah--your child, I presume-- Boy or girl?"

Of course, Twain settled the score with the best weapon he had – his pen. Teasing Brigham Young unmercifully, Twain wrote about the difficulties Young must have managing his extensive polygamous family: the protests for equal treatment when Young gave one wife jewelry; the avalanche of demands unleashed when a stranger gave one of his children a tin whistle; and of course, the 7-foot-long, 96-foot-wide bed that Young allegedly had built to accommodate all his wives.

One may wonder whether Brigham Young was amused by Twain’s satire, but at least the writer – who would later become famous – enjoyed his visit to Salt Lake City, noting upon his departure that he and his brother were "hearty and well fed and happy...."


Megan van Frank for Utah Humanities © 2010


Image: In Memoriam Brigham Young / "And the place which knew him once shall know him no more". Caricature of 12 weeping women in large bed, with boots of Brigham Young at the foot and his hat at the head. 1877. Courtesy of Library of Congress. 

See Allan Kent Powell, “Mark Twain’s Utah”, History Blazer, November 1995, a joint project of the Utah State Historical Society and the Utah State Centennial Commission, http://historytogo.utah.gov/; Mark Twain, Roughing It, 1872.


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org