Mark Twain Briefly Holds Property at Lake Tahoe



The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed United States citizens to file a claim for free federal land, up to 160 acres. This privilege allowed heads of households or adults 21 and over to pay a small registration fee and then live on that property continuously for five years. After that they owned the land. If the owner wanted quicker ownership, he paid $1.25 per acre after a six-month residency.

Mark Twain, along with a friend, set out for Lake Tahoe at the end of August with an axe strapped to his back. Brigade members, who were friends of theirs, had timber lands along the lake shore and a camp with provisions. Twain intended to take advantage of the law and build a wooden ranch while staying at the Brigade’s camp. Visions of wealth and dreams for a bright future put a spring in his step.

lake-tahoe-177933_960_720Twain described the bracing air at Lake Tahoe as being “the same the angels breathe.” While fishing in a boat, the clear water made the young men feel as if they floated on air.

After exploring the area, the friends claimed about three hundred acres of dense yellow pine timber land by posting notices on a tree. The next order of business to hold the land was to build a fence, or in this case, cut down trees so they fell to form an enclosure. After the men cut three trees apiece, they decided to “rest their case” there while hoping it was enough to meet the requirement.

lake-tahoe-1697573_960_720Then they turned their attention to building a log home that would be the envy of the Brigade property owners. The first log took so long to trim that the friends decided to build a sapling home. That proved to be a lot of work as well so they settled on a brush house and began living on their new property.

fire-1650781_960_720One evening, Twain lit a fire and then went to retrieve his frying pan to cook bacon for supper. In that short time, the fire took off “galloping all over the premises!” He and his friend, Johnny, retreated to a boat to watch helplessly as dry pine needles lit with fierce speed. Flames roared up nearby ridges.

wildfire-1105209_960_720The fire mirrored in the lake where a horrified Twain sat in his boat. His house and fence were burned up with no insurance. Provisions were gone but the blankets had been in sand and so were saved.

They returned to the Brigade’s camp and ate their provisions. Then Twain and Johnny returned to Carson to explain what happened to the Brigade owners, who forgave them after the pair paid the damages.


-Sandra Merville Hart





“Homestead Act,”, 2016/09/29

“Homestead Act,” The Library of Congress, 2016/09/29

Twain, Mark. Roughing It, Penguin Books, 1981.