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Tom Sawyer is quite typical of the thousands of men who came to the West during the Gold Rush. He settled in San Francisco and held several jobs and minor political positions. He would have died in relative obscurity except that he is reputed to have known Samuel Clemens when the author was a reporter for the “Daily Morning Call” newspaper, writing under the name Mark Twain. Twain is supposed to have named his book, “Tom Sawyer” after his San Francisco acquaintence. Twain scholars, including Barbara Schmidt of Tarleton University have been unable to verify any claim that Mark Twain named his book for this particular Tom Sawyer.

Curiously, the claim was published in 1900 when all of the principals were alive, including Twain, Sawyer, and probably several hundred San Franciscans who knew them both, and could have authenticated or challenged the claim.


Photo of Tom Sawyer, volunteer San Francisco fireman To write the biography of the subject of this sketch is a simple but long task, for the life of Tom Sawyer is replete with stirring scenes and adventures in many parts of the country. He was born in New York City on January 1, 1832.

His first duty was in a bakery, from which employment he soon graduated and went to opening oysters in Washington market, where he remained until the first rumor of the new El Dorado in California struck New York; then the roaming spirit born in him came to the front, and he was soon on his way to the gold diggings in a staunch ship that safely weathered the storms that were so fatal to many vessels that rounded the Horn at that time. he arrived in San Francisco Bay in February, 1850, with $11.50 in his pockets, and immediately went to steam shipping, running as a fireman between this port and San Juan and Panama. He continued at this occupation for some years during which time his vessel, the steamer Independence, was wrecked on a reef off the Southern coast and burned to the water line and sunk.

Through his ingenuity and heroism he saved the lives of ninety people aboard, among them being Jas. L. Freeborn, the banker, and Jason Collins, the chief engineer, both of whom had lost consciousness in the water and were rescued by his diving down and bring them up and swimming ashore with them on his back. When nearly exhausted with the great task of swimming ashore with each passenger on his back, his great mind came to his rescue. By putting the rest of them in life preservers he towed them ashore and landed in the boiling surf safe and sound.

After returning from a long trip on the water he concluded to try his fortune in the mines, where he was associated with John W. Mackay. But “Dame Fortune” failed to smile upon his efforts, and he soon returned to a life upon the surging billows, where he remained until 1859 when he left the ocean for good and became a special patrolman, for which position he filled with ability until 1863, when he was appointed Inspector at the Custom House, where he remained until 1884, at which time he retired from public life and opened up the saloon at No. 935 Mission street [the southwest corner of Mission and Mary streets], where he has lived with his estimable wife for forty-three years. His place is fitted out with pictures and momentoes of Volunteer Firemen’s days.

Tom Sawyer’s fire record dates back to his boyhood days in New York, when he was a member of Columbian Engine Company No. 14. Before that time he was signal boy for Hudson, No. 1, under Cornelius Ruderson, afterwards Chief Engineer of the New York Department. After coming to San Francisco, he assisted in organizing Liberty Hose Company, No. 2, and was elected foreman, which position he held for three terms. He was a member of the Board of Delegates, and when the Veteran Fireman’s Association was organized in 1888 he was elected vice-president. When Sam Clemens was a reporter on one of the daily papers in San Francisco he was an associate of Tom Sawyer and dedicated his first book to his old time friend who had been the inspiration for his best work.

It was a source of much gratification to look back upon a life so well spent and treasure up the marks of esteem tendered him by his fellow men. At one time Mr. Sawyer held the highest office in the gift of the people, bell-ringer in the tower, forty yards above the mayor.

IN: The Exempt Firemen of San Francisco : Their Unique and Gallant Record, with a Resume of the San Francisco Fire Department and its Personnel; Historical, Biographical. [San Francisco : H. C. Pendleton], 1900 : pp. 100-101