Big Read Extra: The True Story of Tom Sawyer's Later Years

Last modified: 
Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Breaking Big Read news! The Kansas City Public Library has come into possession of historic fictitious documents outlining the life of Tom Sawyer after his youthful adventures in the works of Mark Twain.

They come to KC Unbound by way of alert patron Tom Ryan, who has composed the following to shed light on one of Missouri’s greatest literary mysteries.

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The Truth About the Infamous Major Tom Sawyer as Told by a Military Academy Classmate by way of Marshal Bass Reeves and Injun Bill

“Judge Thatcher hoped to see Tom a great lawyer or a great soldier some day. He said he meant to look to it that Tom should be admitted to the National military academy and afterwards trained in the best law school in the country, in order that he might be ready for either career or both.” – The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Ch. XXXV

“All I know about military matters I got from the gentleman at West Point, and to them belongs the credit.” – Mark Twain, June 8, 1881

The following very fictitious but authentic letter should set the record straight about the infamous Confederate guerilla scoundrel, Major Tom Sawyer, founder of the clandestine Missouri Bluff Runners, a mounted band of pirates and poets who struck fear in hearts of every Federal soldier in the Western Campaign – and if they didn’t, they sure should have…

August 15, 1913 

To Brigadier General John J. Pershing

Fort Bliss Texas

Dear General,

Greetings and congratulations on your speedy yet deserved recent promotion. I am writing this letter to apprise you of the possible whereabouts of one whom we’ve thought lost and many have happily forgotten.

You may remember my classmate Tom Sawyer. We graduated together in 1852. When the war started he was a traveling lawyer living in Charleston. Or that is to say, he had planted his oft uprooted roots there I hear around ’58 being a helpful adjudicator of shipping and trade contracts or lack thereof along the Atlantic coast south to as far as Argentina, his present residence, I’m told. 

The cannon of Sumter must have shaken his Missouri heart for he packed up and intended a journey to his home, St. Petersburg, Missouri. He never made it we know. Meeting up with his old friend Injun Bill, son of the infamous Injun Joe, Major Tom dusted off his riding britches, secured some gold through various means and formed that regiment we, in the Union ranks, called the Bluff Runners. We named them because Major Tom Sawyer never allowed them a name as you may have read in a few books of late.

A few years back, in the Spring of ’07 I had the pleasure to meet the negro Marshal Bass Reeves while visiting my sister in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Bass passed away in January 1910 and I’ve since spoken with his widow about Bass, Tom, and Injun Bill. Enclosed you’ll find a letter from Tom to Bass from August 1909. Also, I’ve enclosed a silver dollar which Bass won in a poker game the night after the Battle of Pea Ridge, March 8, 1862. Widow Reeves requested you send the coin to West Point to commemorate “Major Tom” and his friendship with Bass and Injun Bill. Enclosed is also a short note from Tom to Injun Bill from Spring of this year, sent from Argentina, requesting the shipment of ten horses. All of this will make a bit of sense I hope.

If you know about Tom, chances are you heard a few tall tales in Benny Havens and a few other taverns around Highland Falls. Most of them are lies but a few have basis in fact. There’s the time that Tom herded 35 cows overnight to the lawn of the Superintendent’s Quarters whereupon General Lee awoke to see Cadet Sawyer and a few henchman milking the cows at reveille. The canon startled a few of the cows which decided to make a run for it to the parade ground. Tom’s smiling defense of his dairy skills to a puzzled General Lee consisted of Tom’s organizing an ice cream social for the Academy’s officers in thanks for their service and leadership to the Corps of Cadets.

I was skeptical when I first met Marshal Reeves, but he recounted this tale as accurate as I had witnessed it from a milking stool no more than twenty feet from Cadet Sawyer on that early morning. In truth, my vantage point was a rigid position of attention when the General opened his front door. And yes, the ice cream social was a big success and a means whereby the Corps received a class and work-detail free day thanks to Tom’s enterprise.

From what I’ve pieced together, it sounds as if Major Tom Sawyer may be in Mexico. No doubt the dust from the revolution there crosses the Border and perhaps concerns you. I know you’re too busy to chase a Wanted Dead or Alive old man like Sawyer, for he’ll be 83 this year, and it is not my intent to distract you from your important duties and responsibilities. My wish is that we can clear Tom Sawyer’s name, for I hear you have the ears of a few important men including the President.

It seems that based upon the detailed saga told to me by Marshal Bass Reeves and his widow, supported with written testimony from Injun Bill, Major Tom Sawyer’s Confederate outlaw legend began and ended at Pea Ridge, Arkansas. Bass, Tom, and Injun Bill rode with General van Dorn. Tom gave command of the Bluff Runners to his brother Sid on March 9th. Bass and Injun Bill headed for the Oklahoma territory together while Tom Sawyer rode south to New Orleans and booked passage on a ship to Argentina.

Young Bass saved the life of Major Tom Sawyer on March 7. Tom and Injun Bill helped Bass escape from his master, Captain Reeves. Bass was a crack shot and horseman and thus was his utility to his master.

On the night of March 8 after their defeat, remnants of van Dorn’s cavalry hid for the night before heading out the next day. Bass had secured a bag of silver from a Federal officer, but his master tried taking it away. A fight ensued. Tom intervened. He told Bass and Captain Reeves to play a game of poker to decide the fate of the treasure. With the help of a few jugs of whisky from Injun Bill and Tom’s distracting yarns and quiet counsel to Bass, Bass won fair and square, mostly. Tom, Bass, and Injun Bill decided to make theirs a hasty night retreat, more in fear of Captain Reeves’ Company than the threat of General Sigel’s less-than-speedy Union forces in less-than-hot pursuit.

Together, they rode for six days and in that time formed a bond and a few plans. Bass needed a place to hide out for a while, being a runaway slave. Injun Bill wanted to get into the horse trade and knew a few folks in the Oklahoma Territory who could provide assistance. Tom decided the disunited States not the place for him. He decided to head south, far south, and seek his fortune in beef and military affairs and consultation for the newly elected General Mitre of Argentina in late 1862. Tom corresponded with Bass and Bill over the years.

In your hand you may be holding the 1861 silver dollar. Notice beneath the Eagle the etched name “T.Sawyer” flanked by two X’s, the one on the left being Injun Bill’s mark, and on the right the mark of Bass Reeves. Bass told me Injun Bill has one like it and Tom carries the third. You are holding the one that belonged to Marshal Bass Reeves. It’s a bit worn and smoothed out, so handle it gentle.

I loved Tom like a brother. It has been far too long that many of us have wanted Tom hanged based upon what I know now as useless hearsay which has become legend and even the truth in the minds of some folk. I was guilty of believing the legends. Not now. Whatever the Bluff Runners did, if they existed as a cavalry unit at all, they did without Tom. And based upon the less than sturdy reputation of Captain Sid Sawyer, my estimation is that the Bluff Runners were just a ghost story, a phantom unit to blame every Federal blunder west of the Mississippi. Feel free to blame them for any incidents in and around El Paso.

Tom still sends five silver dollars to Injun Bill and Bass, now to his widow of course, as he has done since Christmas of 1864. The silver dollar served as the calling card for Marshall Reeves, so I’m told and probably secured a few good horses for Injun Bill’s corral.

I thank you for your time and gracious attention in reading this. Please review the enclosed notes from Tom. With your help, it is my sincere wish that we re-enter Tom Sawyer’s name to the West Point graduate register, remove all wanted posters, and wish him God speed on what seems to be a farewell adventure, with a Mr. Ambrose Bierce, himself a writer of note, a veteran of Shiloh, and officer of the Union Army’s 9th Indiana Infantry.


With tongue-in-cheek


Tom Ryan

USMA Class of 1975

Transcript of Tom’s letter to Bass Reeves:

July 4, 1909

Dear Bass,

Hope this letter finds you well enough. Been a stretch of 7 months since my last dispatch. For that I will not apologize for I have my reasons which seem fine at this moment but three months ago felt less so. A fast schooner to Philadelphia proved slow. Lost a poker game in Camden, ran to Baltimore and won two. Argentina still suits me. Best wishes to your family. Time for us to take it easy, but I suspect you are still enforcing the law. I sure am glad it wasn’t you who was chasing me all these years. Shoot straight, ride hard.

T. Sawyer

Transcript of Tom’s letter to Injun Bill:

February 15, 1913


Heading to Mexico in a month to meet with my old friend Ambrose Bierce. We aim to join up with Poncho Villa and conduct some business. Not sure what two old men can do for the rascal but the whole thing sounds like a real adventure, maybe my last. Please ship those ten horses to my son James. He has sent payment by way of Frisco thanks to Mr. Bierce. You may already have received it so I hope you haven’t lost it due to your card playing skills. When I get to Mexico, I’ll attempt to contact you, but don’t hold your breath. We’re getting old for this childish behavior.

With fond memories of us

Brothers forever,

Perhaps an hour or two longer

If we can hide from St. Peter

And have one last drink.

T. Sawyer


Inspired by Mark Twain’s love of West Point, celebrated in Philip W. Leon’s book Mark Twain & West Point (ECW Press, 1996) and Arthur Burton’s Black Gun, Silver Star: the Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves (University of Nebraska Press, 2006).

About the Author

Tom Ryan is a writer and playwright living in the Crossroads of Kansas City. Two of his plays, Conscience Matter and Gator Pit, will open in the Fall of 2012. He maintains the CrossroadsCurrents blog.