The History Of...Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn’s Stomping Ground


By Heather Schindler,

Literature’s Liveliest Town
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are two of the most beloved books in American literature.  While they are known best for their spunky, mischievous main characters, the books also became a favorite part of high school English because of the wild frontier town where the boys had their adventures. In the books, the town and its people often seem so unconventional and larger-than-life that many assume that their author, Mark Twain, completely invented the setting.
However, the town, St. Petersburg, is based on the real city of Hannibal, Missouri, where Twain himself grew up.

Hannibal got its start in 1819, and in just over 40 years became Missouri’s second-largest city due its popularity as a docking place for steamboats traveling on the Mississippi River. By the time four-year-old Mark Twain moved there with his family in 1839, industries such as lumber and candle making had transformed it into a bustling commercial center that was home to people from many different places and walks of life.

At the same time, it was a typical “Wild West” town which was no stranger to lawlessness and shady characters.
Much like his books’ main characters Tom and Huck, Twain’s childhood was spent playing pranks, chasing girls, and embarking on adventures in the local area. However, after his father died in 1847 when he was just 11 years old, he was forced to leave school, and began working a string of colorful jobs that gave him a different perspective on Hannibal. He started out at his brother’s newspaper, beginning as a typesetter and eventually moving on to the profession that would make him famous by writing humorous stories. After traveling around the East Coast for four years, he returned to the Hannibal area and became a riverboat pilot, which was the most prestigious job around because of the importance of the river and the danger involved in navigating its many sharp turns and hidden rocks.

Twain eventually left Hannibal for good and went on to become one of the country’s best-known authors. He never forgot the many adventures he had in the small river town, though, and included many of his childhood friends and experiences in his two most famous books. The city of Hannibal has worked hard to preserve the places made famous by Tom and Huck, and has made sure that the buildings, streets, and green spaces look exactly like they did during the 1840’s, which is when the books take place.

Elaborately-dressed re-enactors strolling the streets and a replica riverboat chugging along the Mississippi complete the picture, transporting visitors straight into the world of the stories.

Planning Your Trip
Hannibal is extremely easy to reach, as it is only a two hour drive from St. Louis and a three hour drive from Kansas City, which both make a great starting point for your trip as they are filled with things to do. If you want to really immerse yourself in the car-free world of the 1840’s, there are many overnight riverboat cruises that travel between the major cities along Mississippi River and stop in Hannibal.

Although Hannibal is small, there is no shortage of Twain-themed things to do. The city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau runs a website that describes nearly all the activities, restaurants, shopping, and more that visitors can enjoy. The site also lists events and festivals, including concerts, art exhibits, and Twain’s upcoming 180th birthday party. You can also download or request to be mailed a visitor guide, which provides additional recommendations, contains a number of helpful maps and, best of all, includes a list of seven free things to do.

The Convention and Visitor’s Bureau also runs Facebook and Twitter accounts, which they use to highlight special events and offbeat things to see and do and regularly post witty and wise Twain quotes to help brighten your day. They also have an Instagram page filled with artsy snaps of everything from Hannibal’s artisanal coffeehouses to its Victorian cemeteries. The Bureau is also challenging people to take pictures with small Twain figurines they give out and post them on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram under the hashtag #TravelingTwain, and is awarding some great prizes to the best shots. Searching this hashtag on any of these platforms is also a great way to get more Hannibal inspiration from other travelers.

Best of Hannibal
Since the Mississippi River played such a major role in Twain’s life, his books, and Hannibal itself, it is the natural first stop on any trip that is following in Twain's footsteps. On a daytime or dinner sail on The Mark Twain Riverboat, you will hear stories about Twain and his characters while cruising past spots he made famous, such as the island where Huck meets his traveling companion Jim. After disembarking, you can get an overview of the downtown area by taking a charming trolley tour along a 14-mile loop.

The best way for visitors to experience Twain’s time in Hannibal is to purchase a ticket to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home and Museum, which provides access to the house where he grew up, as well the homes of the real people who inspired Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer’s crush, Becky Thatcher. The fun doesn’t end there, though, as the price of your ticket also includes the court where Twain’s father was a judge, a performance by a Twain impersonator, and the ability to “paint” the infamous fence that gives Tom Sawyer so much trouble. Before you leave, make sure to take a photo (or a selfie) with the famous statue of Tom and Huck.

The legacy left by Twain and his characters is visible far outside the small circle of houses where he and his friends grew up. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is such a significant book largely because it opened people's eyes to the injustice of slavery. The newly-opened Huck Finn Freedom Center is the first attraction in Hannibal to focus on this important aspect of Twain’s writing, which it does through exhibits on the life of the man Jim was based on, Daniel Quarles, and the wider African-American experience in the community. Yet another way to get in touch with the books is to take a Haunted Hannibal Ghost Tour, which mixes history and humor with tales of paranormal occurrences at Hannibal’s spookiest sites, including the cemetery where the man who inspired Tom Sawyer’s nemesis, Injun Joe, is buried.

No fan of Twain’s could ever forget the caves where Tom and Becky get hopelessly lost. The caves are based on real ones Twain played in as a child, which can now be explored on three different tours, including two where a lantern you carry is your only source of light. The cave complex is also home to one of Missouri’s most acclaimed wineries, Cave Hollow West. If Twain buffs still want more after visiting Hannibal, they can drive 45 minutes west to Florida, Missouri, which is home to the Mark Twain Birthplace State Historic Site. Visitors can tour the tiny cabin where Twain was born, which also contains several first editions of his book and a handwritten manuscript of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.  


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Travel Magazine: The History Of...Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn’s Stomping Ground
The History Of...Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn’s Stomping Ground
Travel Magazine
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