The Shirley Letters

The Shirley Letters: Being Letters Written in 1851-1852 from the California Mines were written by Dame Shirley. “Dame Shirley” was the pen name taken by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe (1819-1906) when her letters were published out west in the periodical The Pioneer, by editor Ferdinand C. Ewer. On September 13, 1851, Louise began a series of twenty-three letters to her sister Molly back home in Massachusetts. She wrote the last letter on November 21, 1852.

These witty and insightful letters give a detailed and truthful picture of mining life in California. She wrote of life in San Francisco and the mines, specifically of Rich Bar and Indian Bar. In her twelfth letter, Louise expressed her desire to “give the true picture of mining life.” She did so from a truly female perspective, which was unusual for that time. Her diverse writing focused on the experiences of women and children, the perils of miners’ work, crime and punishment, and relations with native Hispanic residents and Native Americans.

“Dame Shirley” was born in New Jersey, one of seven children; she spent most of her adult life in Massachusetts. As a student at Amherst Academy, she was interested in metaphysics. Around 1848 she married Fayette Clappe. After the discovery of gold in California, they moved out west by sailing around Cape Horn. Upon their arrival, Fayette fell ill and Louise nursed him back to health during their first year in California. Soon after, in September of 1851, she began writing letters detailing her new California life to her sister back east.

In 1854 Louise relocated to San Francisco to teach; there she met editor Ferdinand C. Ewer, who offered to publish her letters in his new periodical, The Pioneer. Beginning in January 1854, a new letter published under the pseudonym “Dame Shirley” appeared in each issue of the periodical until its demise in December 1855. In 1878, she retired from teaching in San Francisco and moved back east to New York. She passed away in 1906 in a home for the aged in New Jersey with a headstone that reads, “Wife of Dr. Fayette Clappe.” After all this time, no photographs of her have been discovered, nor any of the original letters she wrote to her sister Molly. 

The Shirley Letters receive high praise from historians of the Gold Rush. The significance of her letters was recognized early and her work influenced other nineteenth century writers. Carl Wheat notes, “These superlatively readable and informative letters…may well be accorded first place in any gathering of notable Gold Rush literature.” It is important to point out that the letters are listed in every bibliography of California literature including Gary Kurutz’s The California Gold Rush and Carl Wheat’s Books of the Gold Rush.
You can read The Shirley Letters at the Library of Congress website or listen to an audio version at The Internet Archive. If you wish to view the original documents, two digitized periodicals are available at The Internet Archive. Additionally an excellent reprint of the letters, edited by Marlene Smith-Baranzini, was published by Heyday Books in 2009.

Read The Shirley Letters at The Library of Congress here.

Listen to The Shirley Letters at The Internet Archive here.

View Original Shirley Letters in The Pioneer here.

Patricia Keats, Director of Library and Archives