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Louise A. K. S. Clappe, "Dame Shirley" (1819-1906)
by Janice Albert

Rich Bar on the Feather River, today's Highway 70.

We don't even know what she looked like. No photos have been identified of the petite Yankee woman who followed her husband to the California mines and who wrote so vividly of the life she found there. Settlers living in 1850 on the banks of the North Fork of the Feather river could pick her out easily enough. She was the woman in petticoats, the full, long skirts of her day. She rode sidesaddle, wore kid gloves, and once spent $8 to have a dozen pocket handkerchiefs laundered in San Francisco on her way to the mines.

Her treasured writing consists of a mere twenty-three letters that she sent to her sister back home in Massachusetts between September1851 and November 1852. When the mining operation closed, the letters were published in San Francisco by The Pioneer from her own copies and later collected under the title The Shirley Letters.

A college-educated woman who was seeing the Gold Rush up close, she wrote with candor about the people, the mining operations, the drinking and gambling, the privations as well as the rewards of living on a steep riverbank under the blue California sky. If we were to collect all the journals and letters written by settlers in Northern California from 1850-1860, the result would be a surprising number of words. A century later, most of these prose records seem surprisingly similar, even dull. Louise Clappe's letters sparkle with life even after 150 years, even after the Gold Rush story has been told a million times, calcified in textbooks and enshrined in historical sites around the city of Sacramento.

Written under the pen name "Dame Shirley," Clappe's letters record the humanity of mining. She writes of laws created by one group to bar another nationality from a mining camp, the Yankees at war with the Spanish. She chronicles the hard work of mining, both digging and fluming--that is, diverting a river from its bed to excavate where the water once was. She witnesses days of binge drinking when the holidays come and the weather is too cold for work. Her fascination with the human scene is communicated in passages such as this: "You will hear in the same day, almost at the same time, the lofty melody of the Spanish language, the piquant polish of the French…, the silver, changing clearness of the Italian, the harsh gangle of the German, the hissing precision of the English, the liquid sweetness of the Kanaka, and the sleep-inspiring languor of the East-Indian." She summarizes the scene as "a perambulating picture-gallery, illustrative of national variety in form and feature" (Letter Fourteenth).

A few pages before this romantic, almost too-literary meditation, Clappe writes of the trial of a Swede, who was condemned to die one hour after being found guilty of a robbery in which no life was taken. The jury themselves construct a gallows by throwing a rope over the bough of a tree, and crush the life out of the condemned man "by hauling the writhing body up and down several times in succession." Shocked by this "cruel butchery," Clappe nonetheless tries to understand it, and reports on the reactions of others-sober bystanders, drunkards, and the more thoughtful members of the community. She gives the background of the affair, discusses the condemned man's criminal record ("he said it was his first, and there is no reason to doubt his assertion"), and compares the action of the miners in Indian Bar with those of the Vigilance Committee of San Francisco, itemizing the differences in procedure and organization--all in all, quite a thorough piece of reporting for a woman, the wife of a doctor, who describes herself as passing the time reading Shakespeare, David, Spenser, Paul, Coleridge, Burns and Shelley.

The letters occasionally show the literary influence of these august authors, and they certainly show the influence of her training at the Amherst Academy, but the personality of Louise Clappe shows through in the sly humor with which she makes peace with her home. Describing the cabin in which she is to spend the winter, Clappe writes, "The fireplace is built of stones and mud…; contrary to the usual custom it is built inside, as it was thought that arrangement would make the room more comfortable…. The mantle piece--remember that on this portion of a great building, some artists, by their exquisite workmanship, have become world-renowned--is formed of a beam of wood, covered with strips of tin procured from cans, upon which still remain in black hieroglyphics, the names of the different eatables which they formerly contained."

Recent scholarship into the life of Louise Clappe reveals that she was the eldest of seven children. Born on July 28, 1819, she lost her father in 1832 and her mother in 1837, when she was eighteen years old. Her guardian, Osmyn Baker, living in Amherst, Massachusetts, took Louise and her sister Mary Jane, called "Molly," to live with him and provided for their education. On September 13, 1848, Louise married Fayette Clapp, a twenty-four-year-old medical student, a choice that seemed questionable to members of her family.

Writing in California History (Winter 1999-2000), Marlene Smith-Baranzini tells us that within three months of their marriage, news of the discovery of gold reached Amherst. The Clapps explored the cost of the voyage--about $300 per person by sea around Cape Horn--and decided that they could afford the fare and the expense of equipping themselves, possibly because of Louise's comfortable inheritance. They made up a party of four, including Alfred Clapp, one of Fayette's older brothers, and Isabella Smith, one of Louise's three younger sisters. The voyage aboard the Manilla began on August 10, 1849, and was complete exactly five months later, January 10, 1850. Half way through, Louise's sister Isabella died, and was buried at sea, an event which must have affected her sister but is not touched on in the Shirley letters.

Why Louise Clappe chose to call herself "Dame Shirley" while writing to her sister Molly is unknown. As a result of this nom de plume, the letters from the mines are often referred to simply as "The Shirley Letters." When the Clapps' year and a half on the Feather River ended, they parted. Fayette traveled back to Massachusetts and in 1857 they were divorced. Louise settled in San Francisco, added an "e" to the end of her name, and became one of the city's first school teachers. Publication of her letters in 1855-56 preceded the arrival in San Francisco of the young Ina Coolbrith by about five years. Scholars speculate that Bret Harte owes the germ of more than one of his stories to The Shirley Letters. Marlene Smith-Baranzini reports that a former student of Louise's, Mary Tingley, put this suspicion into writing, voicing "a long-running accusation that dogged [Harte] throughout his lifetime." Tingley reported that Harte and Clappe were friends, and that he "enjoyed her brilliant wit and conversation; and she opened his vision to the mountain possibilities for the pen-of treasures of history to be yielded up where she felt she had but done 'placer work.'"

"Rich Bar and its 1851 Wing Dam"
A lithograph by Fariss and Smith (1882)

It's ironic that, following her retirement in 1878 from the San Francisco Public School system, Louise returned to the East Coast where she resumed a friendship with Bret Harte's estranged wife, finally boarding with the Knaufft sisters, nieces of the Hartes.

Strangely, Harte's career took a turn for the worse after he left California in 1878. His inspiration evidently left him, and he resorted to churning out rehashes of his California tales from the safety of England. Louise Clappe outlived Harte by four years, dying in 1906, at the age of 87 in her home state of New Jersey.

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