‘Bonanza’: Why the Classic Mark Twain Episode Was Actually Realistic

by Megan Molseed

Four fourteen seasons between 1959 and 1973, the hit NBC classic television western series Bonanza brought us some interesting storylines. This makes sense, of course, since the series is the second-longest-running western series. Falling just behind another classic television western series, Gunsmoke. And, while it was a fictional show, Bonanza had a way of staying true to life. This was especially apparent in one first-season episode titled Enter Mark Twain. In this installment, the Bonanza family – the unforgettable Cartwrights – cross paths with iconic American author, Mark Twain. Or, as he is known outside of his pen name, Samual Clemens. A meeting that could have actually happened – when looking at the geographical logistics, at least.

The Bonanza Crew Have A Hard Time When Sam Clemens Visits the Ponderosa Ranch

In this episode, the Cartwright family sees Sam Clemens arrives in Virginia City. Clemens goes by the moniker “Josh” at the paper he is working for, the “Territorial Enterprise.”

Josh – or Sam Clemens – pens a story about a wild man spotted at the Ponderosa ranch. The story gets out, and soon the Cartwright family’s home is overrun by curious onlookers hoping to catch a glimpse of this mysterious “wild man.”

This, of course, does not sit well with the Cartwright clan who tracks “Josh” down and tells him to write a retraction to the report. But Clemens’s retraction isn’t what they expect, with the wildman dying, sinking into oblivion in Lake Tahoe. However, as the episode unfolds, the Cartwrights learn there is some truth to Clemens’s story. And, the real story is quite complicated; including a crooked judge who is running for office.

Sam Clemens Finishes His Bonanza Visit With A New Pen name: Mark Twain

As the story unfolds, viewers learn that this crooked judge is working on a land grab at the Ponderosa. And once the Cartwrights figure this out, Clemens is already under attack for his reports. As the Bonanza players are defending Clemens in a gunfight, the writer comes up with a new moniker…Mark Twain.

It’s a fun story and an interesting fictional narrative of how Twain settled on his famous moniker. However, we do know that that’s all the story is…fictional. But, it’s not entirely unlikely that Clemens and the Cartwrights would have crossed paths if the Bonanza crew were real.

Samuel Clemens actually resided in Virginia City, Nevada for a period of time in the 1860s. He arrived at the area to mine silver. However, he soon moved on to writing, working for a newspaper titled…the Territorial Enterprise! And, according to stories, it was here that Clemens settled on his Mark Twain pen name.