Harte moved to California from Albany, New York, when he was 17. He worked at several different jobs, including messenger, teacher, and miner. Eventually he became a newspaper reporter.
His first newspaper job, in a tiny town in northern California, ended abruptly when he was run out of town after reporting a detailed account of a massacre of members of a native tribe and then editorializing about the suspected attackers.
The Outcasts of Poker Flat concerns the fortunes of a gambler, a madam, a saloon girl, and a drunk who are run out of town by a pious secret committee bent on cleaning up the town. The Luck of Roaring Camp tells the story of a luckless gold prospecting camp in which a baby boy is born. When his mother dies in childbirth, the boy is adopted by the prospectors and is named Thomas Luck. Things are looking up until a flash flood hits the camp.
The stories were first published in Overland Monthly, a northern California literary magazine, and brought him national recognition. Harte later wrote for The Atlantic Monthly and, still later, served as U.S. consul in Germany and Scotland. He settled in London and spent 24 years living in Europe. He died in England in 1902.