The Shirley Letters, as they are best known, have received the
highest possible praise by virtually every historian of the Gold Rush. The
importance of Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp’s letters was recognized early on
and influenced the views and writings of such luminaries as Josiah Royce
(q.v.), Hubert Howe Bancroft (q.v.), Bret Harte (q.v.), and possibly Samuel
Clemens (q.v.). Gold Rush historian and bibliographer Carl Wheat wrote: “These
superlatively readable and informative letters may well be accorded first place
in any gathering of notable Gold Rush literature.” More recently, Joanne Levy,
the author of the pathbreaking They Saw the Elephant: Women in the
California Gold Rush, extolled her words, “Louise Clapp’s letters may well
comprise the best account of mining life in the whole of gold rush literature.”
Her glittering epistles from the mines certainly may be regarded as the most
famous publication associated with the Gold Rush, and with the ever growing
interest in the role of women, appreciation of her letters has soared.
Louise Clapp sailed around Cape Horn with her husband, Dr. Fayette Clapp, and arrived in San Francisco on January 11, 1850. After a short stay, the two headed north with Dr. Clapp going to the diggings on the Feather River and Louise settling in at Marysville. While in that supply town, she met the famed editor of the Marysville Herald, Stephen Massett, and on April 8, 1851, this “fair and gifted correspondent” supplied him with the first of three descriptive letters and two poems. The Clapps moved to Rich Bar and then to Indian Bar in one of the deep canyons of the Feather. Starting on September 13, 1851, this lady with the “gifted pen” began a series of twenty-three letters to her sister Molly back home in Massachusetts concerning her surroundings and the curious people she encountered. She completed the last of her sisterly screeds on November 21, 1852. Fourteen months later, these letters or copies of them wound up in the hands of Ferdinand C. Ewer, the editor of California’s first magazine, The Pioneer. Carl Wheat surmises that Massett may have brought them to Ewer’s attention. Recognizing the value of this extraordinary literary trove, Ewer published one of her letters in each number of The Pioneer beginning in January 1854 and ending with the demise of the magazine in December 1855. The letters were published under her elegant pen name of “Dame Shirley” rather than her married name.
Her letters rightly receive such high acclaim not only for featuring a woman’s viewpoint but also for recording in beautifully crafted language a realistic picture of life in the mines. No other woman wrote with such immediacy and resoluteness about the gritty atmosphere of a hardscrabble mining camp populated by few women and hundreds of men of every hue and stripe. Furthermore, unlike Borthwick, Taylor, Marryat, and the other great eyewitness authors, Dame Shirley’s experience is confined primarily to a specific geographic area, giving it a unique sense of emotional attachment. Every detail caught her eye from her new home’s natural beauty to the complex and noisy mining machinery used to extract the precious nuggets. Sometimes expressing exhaustion in composing these letters, she confided to her sister that she wrote in a “minutely particular” manner.
It is these particulars that make her words so readable, so well studied, and so often quoted. Her descriptions of the makeshift appointments of her “log palace” in Indian Bar, the interior of a mining camp hotel (the Humboldt), and the physical appearance of other women arriving from the Overland Trail exhibit a gentlewoman’s perspective not to found elsewhere. As with many observers, the mashing together of so many racial and ethnic groups in one place invited comment and wondrous delight. In telling her sister of this polyglot land she composed the following poetic litany: “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 [sic] 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 put her “scribbling powers” to great effect in recounting a variety of situations including a Christmas season Saturnalia where female-starved miners whooped it up for four straight days before collapsing in “drunken heaps” and commencing a “most unearthly howling,” where “some barked like dogs, some roared like bulls, and others hissed like serpents and geese.” She told of the grotesque and unjust hanging of William Brown; the white-hot racial tension between American and Hispanic miners; and the reckless violence meted out by the “moguls,” a group of thugs who took the law into their own hands. The arrival of the express with its bounty of supplies and letters was always a cause for celebration. Despite the harshness of her surroundings, she adapted well and confessed to Molly her growing attachment to Indian Bar and its people. When the mines played out, Fayette and Louise had to move on, but she composed one last letter that beautifully expressed her feelings. She lamented, “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.”
Amazingly, it was not until 1922 that the first edition of Dame Shirley’s letters appeared in book form. Thomas C. Russell of San Francisco published the letters in an edition of 450 copies sold by subscription. Russell offered the volume in three different varieties of papers. The distinguished Grabhorn Press of San Francisco published a two-volume edition in 1933 with an introduction and notes by Carl I. Wheat. This version was in turn republished in 1949 by Alfred A. Knopf, and in 1971, Ballantine Books produced a paperback edition of the Knopf edition. Peregrine Smith published yet another edition in 1970 with an introduction by Richard E. Oglesby. The most recent edition of Dame Shirley’s letters was published by Heyday Books and Santa Clara University in 2001, edited with an introduction by Marlene Smith-Baranzini.
——Gary F. Kurutz
Additional sources consulted: Joanne Levy, They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush (Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1990); Rodman W. Paul, “In Search of Dame Shirley,” Pacific Historical Review 33:2 (May 1964), pp. 127-46; Marlene Smith-Baranzini, Introduction to The Shirley Letters from the California Mines, 1851-1852 (Berkeley: Heyday Books; Santa Clara: University of Santa Clara, 2001); Carl I. Wheat, Introduction to California in 1851: The Letters of Dame Shirley (San Francisco: The Grabhorn Press, 1933).