Louise Amelia Clappe, aka “Dame Shirley”
It can be argued that no woman among the California pioneers has had as great an impact on the way we understand the Gold Rush than former Amherst resident, Louise Amelia Clapp, known to the world as “Dame Shirley.” Her letters to her sister from the gold fields, published under her pseudonym, have delighted generations of students and casual readers, alike.
Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1819, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith was the daughter of Moses Smith, an Amherst, Massachusetts native who was the schoolmaster at an academy in Elizabeth. The family returned to Amherst before Moses Smith died in 1832. His wife, the former Lois Lee, passed away five years later, leaving the orphaned 18-year old Louise and her siblings entrusted to the guardianship of Northampton attorney Osmyn Baker. An avid reader, Louise attended a number of “female seminaries,” but finished her education at the Amherst Academy.
As a delicate, young 20 year-old, Louise impressed and charmed a much older Alexander Everett, a worldly diplomat and man of letters, whose brother Edward was then governor of Massachusetts. They met by chance on a stagecoach in southern Vermont and continued to correspond for years afterward. Everett became a mentor to Louise and encouraged her to develop her writing skills.
Louise was nearly thirty years old when she married Fayette Clapp. He was a young doctor, a Brown graduate, living in Chesterfield, and five years her junior. They were married in Northampton on September 13, 1848. He longed to go west and the discovery of gold in California gave the young couple the excuse they needed. With his older brother Alfred and her younger sister Isabella, they sailed out of New York aboard the Manilla in August of 1849. Five months later, after a trip around the Horn, they were in San Francisco. Sadly, Isabella Smith did not survive the trip and was buried at sea.
From California, Louise wrote her now-famous letters to her sister, Mary Jane or “Molly”, in Amherst. From the beginning, the frail, New England girl of delicate constitution, fell in love with the west. She wrote of San Francisco: “with its many-costumed, many-tongued, many-visaged population; its flashy looking squares, built one day and burned the next; its wickedly beautiful gambling houses; its gay stores where the richest productions of every nation can be found; and its wild, free, unconventional style of living, it possesses, for the young adventurer especially, a strange charm.”
Fayette did not enjoy San Francisco much, however. He was frequently ill. So, they moved into the mountains and the gold fields, first in Plumas City, and then to Rich Bar and Indian Bar in 1851. It was from Rich Bar that Louise’s most colorful letters have given historians a view of the mining camps through a woman’s eyes. She described with relish the other four women that lived at the camp. Their abode and its surroundings are noted in detail and she forthrightly told of her new life in this strange, but fascinating place.
Although a lady in every way, Louise enjoyed the challenge of doing what she was told she could not. Thus, she took up the challenge of panning for gold, netting $3.25 worth in her first attempt. Triumphant, she also realized that it was hard, dirty work that soon lost its appeal.
While it’s clear from her writing that Louise Clapp was invigorated by the beauty of California and its people, she did not shy away from the uglier aspects of the life in the camps. In one letter, she described the hanging of a Swedish man who had been caught stealing gold and convicted by a meeting of the miners earlier that day:
“The execution was conducted by the jury, and was performed by throwing the cord, one end of which was attached to the neck of the prisoner, across the limb of a tree standing outside of the Rich Bar graveyard, when all who felt disposed to engage in so revolting a task lifted the poor wretch from the ground in the most awkward manner possible. The whole affair, indeed, was a piece of cruel butchery, though that was not intentional, but arose from the ignorance of those who made the preparations. In truth, life was only crushed out of him by hauling the writhing body up and down, several times in succession, by the rope, which was wound round a large bough of his green-leaved gallows…
It is said that the crowd generally seemed to feel the solemnity of the occasion, but many of the drunkards, who form a large part of the community on these bars, laughed and shouted as if it were a spectacle got up for their particular amusement.”
Her letters, twenty-three in all, were first published in a California magazine, The Pioneer, between 1854 and 1855. Years later, after her death, they would be compiled and published as a book (The Shirley Letters from California Mines, 1851-52, ed. by Thomas C. Russell, 1922) which many credit as being among the best first-hand accounts of the mining camps. Writer Bret Harte, with whom she was acquainted in California, was influenced by her letters.
In her twenty-third and last letter, Louise lamented her impending departure from the mountains:
“My heart is heavy at the thought of departing forever from this place. I like this wild and barbarous life: I leave it with regret. The solemn fir trees, ‘whose slender tops are close against the sky’ here, the watching hills, and the calmly beautiful river, seem to gaze sorrowfully at me, as I stand in the moonlighted midnight, to bid them farewell. Beloved, unconventional wood-life; divine Nature, into whose benign eyes I never looked, whose many voices, gay and glad, I never heard, in the artificial heart of the busy world, — I quit your serene teachings for a restless and troubled future. Yes, Molly, smile if you will at my folly; but I go from the mountains with a deep heart sorrow. I look kindly to this existence, which to you seems so sordid and mean. Here, at least, I have been contented. The ‘thistle-seed,’ as you call me, sent abroad its roots right lovingly into this barren soil, and gained an unwonted strength in what seemed to you such unfavorable surroundings. You would hardly recognize the feeble and half-dying invalid, who drooped languidly out of sight, as night shut down between your straining gaze and the good ship Manilla, as she wafted her far away from her Atlantic home, in the person of your now perfectly healthy sister.”
After a year and a half in the mining camps, the Clapps returned to San Francisco and, then, split up. Fayette went first to Hawaii, then returned to Massachusetts, and eventually moved west again to Illinois. Louise remained in San Francisco where she taught school for a number of years. They were divorced in 1857 and Louise apparently added the “e” to her name, at that time. In 1878, she retired from teaching and also returned east. In New York City, she wrote and lectured until 1897 when she moved to her native state of New Jersey. Ironically, she rekindled her friendship with Bret Harte’s estranged wife and boarded with Harte’s nieces. It was there that she died in 1906 at the age of 87.
Albert, Janice, “Louise A. K. S. Clappe, ‘Dame Shirley’ (1819-1906)”, on the web at http://www.cateweb.org/CA_Authors/clappe.html.
Clappe, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith, The Shirley Letters from the California Mines, 1851-52, Thomas C. Russell, ed., San Francisco, 1922.
Levy, Jo Ann, They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush, Archon Books, 1990.
“Vigilante Justice, 1851”, Eyewitness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2006).
Wilson, Lori Lee, “A Lady’s Life in the Gold Rush”, originally published in August 1999 issue of Wild West , also on the web at http://www.historynet.com.