The Real Tom Sawyer - Mark Twain’s Inspiration

Updated Apr 29, 2022
Kathy Pinna
Kathy Pinna shared a photo
on Nov 03, 2016 6:11 PM
A photo of Tom Sawyer, San Francisco firefighter, in the 1860's.

In 1863, Tom Sawyer was a customs inspector, volunteer firefighter, and special policeman in San Francisco. One night, he was playing poker with a young writer at a steam bath in the city. As they played and talked, Tom told the writer the following story:

In 1853, Tom was a fire engineer on a steamboat, The Independence. While the steamboat was heading towards San Francisco (from Mexico), it hit a reef off of Baja. As a result, the engines caught fire and the ship started to founder. There were 359 passengers on board . . . and only one usable lifeboat.

At this point, 2 of the crewmen jumped overboard and started to sink. Tom jumped into the sea, recovered the men, and swam with them on his back. He swam 100 yards to shore, left the men, and returned to the ship, returning to the shore several times with passengers on his back.

Finally, the one usable lifeboat and two lifeboats that were patched up were lowered in the water. They were loaded with passengers and when the lifeboats made shore, Tom took one and headed back to the ship. He tossed life preservers to the remaining passengers, lined them up in the water (holding each other) and towed them back to shore. He now had burned forearms but he kept towing passengers to the shore for the next hour until the ship was a sheet of flame. By the end, he was credited with saving 90 passengers.

The writer was riveted by the story and they became fast friends. Tom said of the writer: "“He could drink more and talk more than any feller I ever seen. He’d set down and take a drink and then he’d begin to tell us some joke or another. And then when somebody’d buy him another drink, he’d keep her up all day. Once he got started he’d set there till morning telling yarns.” He also said that the writer always seemed to be broke.

One day the writer came up to Tom. "Tom,’ he says, ‘I’m going to write a book about a boy and the kind I have in mind was just about the toughest boy in the world. Tom, he was just such a boy as you must have been....How many copies will you take, Tom, half cash?"

In 1866, the writer left San Francisco and Tom never saw him again. But in 1876, the writer published a book - yes, the writer was Sam Clemens (Mark Twain) and his book was The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Date & Place: in San Francisco, San Francisco County, California United States

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AncientFaces commented on Nov 04, 2016
An 1860's San Francisco firefighter - we all know the name Tom Sawyer. Who he was, what he did, and who he met is a fascinating story.
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