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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Dame Shirley's Gold Mine

Praised as the most delightful first-person account of California’s gold mines, The Shirley Letters is a collection of 23 letters written by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, from her mining-camp home to her sister Mary Ann, in Massachusetts. The mining camps of Rich Bar, and Indian Bar just across the river where Louise and her husband built a cabin, were bustling, remote “diggings” located high on the East Fork of the Feather River—difficult to get to, but nestled in a wild grandeur that captured Louise’s heart.

Signing herself “Dame Shirley” in those letters, she lived in those “diggings” with her doctor husband, for fifteen months during 1851 and 1852. Her lively, insightful observations and descriptions of the interactions of men from diverse cultures, gold mining techniques, frequent fearsome accidents, the opulence of the Empire gambling parlor next to the hovels of the miners, the constant noise from flume machinery, barking dogs and a bowling alley, as well as the scarcity of women, provide personal glimpses of miner’s lives. Nor did she omit the dark side: Dame Shirley also told her sister of quarrels, drunken Christmas binges, thievery, and a hanging.

Born on July 28, 1819 in New Jersey, Louise was the oldest child of distinguished educator Moses Smith and his wife, Lois. When Louise was twelve her father died, leaving enough property to support his widow and family, which had expanded to seven children. Louise’s own education, received at female seminaries in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, was interrupted when her mother died in 1837, but she completed her formal studies in 1839. For the next eight years Louise traveled throughout New England, teaching. On September 10, 1848, she married Fayette Clapp (Louisa would later add a final “e” to the name), a recent Brown University graduate who was beginning a medical apprenticeship. A year later, the couple boarded a ship for California, landing at San Francisco in January 1850.

San Francisco’s climate didn’t suit Fayette, so in the spring of 1851 they took a steamboat north. By the time the couple arrived in faraway Rich Bar, the few prospectors there had swelled to a community of 2,000 gold miners. Yet by the autumn of 1852 the gold had played out, and most of the miners had moved on. Dame Shirley’s last letter, dated November 21, 1852, tells of her regret at having to leave…while simultaneously admitting that the “dreadful prospect of spending the winter here [is] on every account, undesirable.” That day, the express man arrived to load their belongings.

The couple had survived a harsh-living gold rush experience, but their marriage had not. Upon their return to San Francisco in 1852, Fayette left Louisa behind when he moved first to Hawaii, and then on to Massachusetts in 1854. California’s liberal divorce laws enabled Louisa to divorce him in 1857. She supported herself in San Francisco as a school teacher, until she retired from teaching in 1878. Louise sailed for New York, and possibly lived with a niece there until she moved to a country home in Morristown, New Jersey, where she died on February 9, 1906.

Louise’s twenty-three letters were originally published in serial form during 1854-1855, in The Pioneer, a start-up, monthly San Francisco magazine. The collection first appeared in book form in 1922. Since then, there have been new editions printed by various publishers. The Shirley Letters, considered a classic in Gold Rush literature, can still be purchased today from books stores or on-line book sellers. Treat yourself to a copy.

March is National Women’s History Month.

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