To some Jim Gillis was the “Thoreau of the Sierras.” Others knew him as the “Father of Pocket Mining.” But, Jim Gillis’ most enduring quality was his cock-and-bull storytelling.
By his own account, Gillis was solely responsible for giving a certain unemployed junior reporter his first big break.
After losing his job at the Morning Call, Sam Clemens hung around San Francisco with Gillis’ younger brother Steve. One night Sam had to sign a $500 promissory note to bail Steve out of jail after the younger Gillis slugged it out with a saloon owner. Sam had not the means for paying the bond. So, he and Steve lit out of town for the Sierra foothills, fugitives from the law.
Steve invited Sam to lay low at his brother Jim’s cabin on Jackass Hill in Tuolumne County. It was a hovel really: leaning badly to one side with plenty of loose planks and a saggy roof that leaked when it rained. But to Clemens, it was a cool place to drink during the day and sturdy enough to keep the wind off the card table at night.
Many a good yarn was spun in that tumble-down, ramshackle of a cabin, and Sam, being an upstart writer that he was, wrote them all down. Jim’s favorite story was the time Clemens tussled with a pig. It went something like this…
Gillis trained his pig, John Henry, to dig pocket mining holes along the hillside by burying biscuits. He also had a good for nothing bulldog named Towser. Towser and John Henry got along famously except for their clashes at bedtime. Jim looked forward to letting in the two each evening and watch the battle royale over the rights to the bunk directly beneath his.
Sam was not privy to the nightly spectacle. After sleeping several weeks on a hard couch, Sam asked if he could stow away in the bottom bunk that evening. Jim said he could, and Sam had no problem falling asleep with John Henry and Towser clamoring outside to get in, thinking they were forgotten. When Gillis unlatched the door, the two rushed for the bunk, at which point they engaged in a fierce struggle for the territory where Sam bedded down.
Sam, who’d been dreaming about piloting riverboats up the Mississippi, was rousted in the roughest and most unfriendly manner. He could not extricate himself from the topsy-turvy bedlam. And, it didn’t help matters that Jim shouted, “Go to it, Towser! Give it to him John Henry!”
Clemens did the only thing he could do: he swore and yelled and swore some more—hurling insults at John Henry, Towser, and Jim. The more Sam cussed, the more Jim laughed, until the latter had to hold his sides to keep them from splitting. Gillis finally showed some compassion and took Sam in on the top bunk.
Still indignant that next morning, Sam began to pack his bags. Jim persuaded Clemens to stay with a promise that he would secure the young writer clear title to the story “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” in recompense, as Jim put it, “for damages sustained to Sam’s sensitive nature.”
Sam, never one to let a good story go to waste, jotted the yarn down in his notebook: Coleman with his jumping frog—bet a stranger $50—the stranger had no frog and C got him one—in the meantime, the stranger filled C’s frog full of shot so he couldn’t jump. The stranger’s frog won. Sam changed Coleman’s name to Jim Smiley and embellished the fable with all sorts of ironies and witticisms, but beyond that, the gist was pretty much the same.
As you probably know, under the pen name Mark Twain, Sam made the most of it. The story was published in The New York Saturday Press in 1865.
According to Jim Gillis, the most successful pocket-miner in California, it was he who gave his young house guest the story that would make him famous the world over. Gillis told his well-preserved yarn to anyone gullible enough to listen.
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