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Monday, January 16, 2017

Who Was Dame Shirley?

Louise Amelia Knapp Clappe (née Smith) was born on July 28, 1819 in New Jersey. She spent most of her youth and young adult life in Massachusetts. Her father Moses Smith, graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in the year of 1811, and he once had the responsibility of being in charge of a local academy. Both Moses and his wife came from Amherst, Massachusetts. There is some speculation that her parents might have been cousins, for both Moses' mother and wife shared the same maiden name (Lee). Both of Louise's parents died before she turned 20, with her father dying in 1832 and her mother in 1837.

Louise was one of seven children, with three brothers and three other sisters. In 1838 she attended a female seminary in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The following two years she continued her education at Amherst Academy. She was a good student, whose interests included metaphysics. Following in her father's footsteps, Louise also got involved with education, teaching in Amherst in 1840.

Around the same time, she was introduced to Alexander Hill Everett who happened to be at least twice of Louise's age. Everett was a distinguished author, and Louise’s relationship with him was mostly an intellectual one. Between the years 1839 to 1847 they had exchanged forty-six letters. During this time Louise also met her future husband, Fayette Clappe. When Louise told Everett about her new relationship, he was not pleased and things ended poorly.

Born in June 1824 in Chesterfield, Massachusetts, Fayette Clappe was five years younger than Louise. Fayette's family also had a different spelling of Clappe, and instead spelled it as Clapp. He started his college education at Princeton, but finished up at Brown University, graduating in 1848. He briefly continued his education, studying medicine at Castleton in Vermont. Similar to Louise's mother, Fayette's mother also bore the maiden name Lee. The exact date of their wedding is unknown; however, some believe it occurred in either 1848 or 1849. Louise and Fayette never had any children together.

Louise had always wanted to go to the West, first mentioning her desire to do so in one of her letters to Everett. While Fayette was studying medicine in Vermont, the couple caught gold rush fever. Louise and Fayette later moved out West to California where she took on the pen name of Dame Shirley and wrote her widely known Dame Shirley letters.
1851 California gold miners
Upon arrival in California, both Louise and Fayette were ill. Louise had suffered from chronic illnesses throughout the 1830s and 1840s. Her first year in California living in San Francisco and Plumas (near Marysville) was spent taking care of Fayette who had been sick for their whole first year. During this time, Fayette was able to obtain an absentee degree from Castleton, making him a doctor. He was elected as a delegate to a political nominating convention and was also chosen to serve on a committee protesting the tactics of agents hired to help the incoming immigrant wagon trains from across the Plains.

Known as “Dame Shirley,” she famously captured the spirit of California Gold Rush society in a series of 23 letters to her sister in the East. Adopting for these the persona of a self-consciously whimsical “Dame Shirley,” she wrote the Shirley Letters in 1851 and 1852 from the gold mines at Rich Bar and Indian Bar on the Feather River, where she had ventured in company with her physician husband.  In these letters she wrote of life in San Francisco and the Feather River mining communities. She focuses on the experiences of women and children, the perils of miners' work, crime and punishment, and relations with native Hispanic residents and Native Americans.

Throughout the years there have been multiple editions of her letters in print. Her letters have been described as being both witty and disturbing, while giving insight into California mining life.

In her earlier letters, Shirley never uses a full name and instead uses just a first initial. The Shirley letters were all carefully written, and they showed off Louise's education and writing skills, for all of the letters were unique and extremely rich in detail. In the sixth letter written back to her sister Molly, Shirley discusses her shock at how vulgar the men in California are, and the wider tolerance for such vulgarity. The same letter also indicates that her marriage with Fayette was failing, describing his business transactions with some bitterness. In her twelfth letter, Louise claims that she wants to give the true picture of mining life, and she did so from a distinctly female perspective. Some later authors and publishers believe her letters were never meant to be made public at the time she wrote them; others believe that was her intent all along.

Her marriage with Clapp started to falter around 1852. While the two separated around that time and Fayette headed back East, their marriage did not officially end until some years later.
San Francisco - 1851
While Louise was staying in San Francisco, she made the acquaintance of Ferdinand C. Ewer, who printed her Shirley letters in his new periodical, "The Pioneer" in 1854-1855. Her writings influenced the later writing of gold rush chronicler Bret Harte.

Not only did Louise submit her letters, but she also wrote two other articles for the Pioneer. The two articles "Superstition" and "Equality of the Sexes" once again did not show off her writing gifts. In both articles she still identifies herself as Mrs. Louisa Clapp, even thought she and Fayette had split at this point.
Photo ctsy of The Philadelphia Rare Books and Manuscripts Company
Louise later wrote for the Marysville Herald in the spring and summer of 1857. The Herald was not much of a newspaper, but more of a vehicle for advertisements.

Louise began teaching in San Francisco in 1854. In 1856 she officially filed for divorce from Fayette. While living in San Francisco, she was well liked and became well known for her teaching and writing. She taught for two different all-girls schools, Denman Grammar School, and Broadway Grammar school. She also taught well-attended evening classes in both art and literature.  In 1857 she most likely made nine-hundred dollars for the year. Between 1868 and 1869 she switched the spelling of her last name to Clappe. Throughout the next decade she went back and forth between the two different spellings.

While in San Francisco, she adopted and raised a niece, Genevieve Stebbins. In 1878 she retired from teaching. The Denman School raised a farewell gift of two thousand dollars. Louise lived out the remains of her life in New York City for the next twenty eight years. She resumed her writing in 1881 when a periodical at Hellmuth Ladies' College at London, Ontario published a series of her articles under her Shirley name.

She returned to her native New Jersey in 1878. She lived on to the age of 87 and died from chronic diarrhea and senility on 11 February 1906. Her headstone reads that she was the wife of Dr. Fayette Clappe.


Google Books; The Shirley Letters from California Mines in 1851-52: Being a Series of Twenty-three Letters from Dame Shirley (Mtrs. Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe) to Her Sister in Massachusetts and Now Reprinted from the Pioneer Magazine of 1854-55, with Synopses of the Letters, a Foreword, and Many Typographical and Other Corrections and Emendations by Thomas C. Russell; Together with "An Appreciation" by Mrs. M. V. T. Lawrence

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  1. These early women writers are so interesting. Many traveled and made use of that fact in telling their stories. Thank you for adding to the list. Doris

    1. Thank you, Doris. I was searching for information on mining practices hoping to put together something not too dry. I came across her name, and it went from there. I've read Bret Hart's Luck of Roaring Camp, but had no idea he got the idea from her writings.

  2. I find the question of whether she intended to publish the letters or not interesting. So often what get saved from the past is more luck than intent. Either way, I really enjoyed your blog. Fascinating.

    1. I found it interesting, too. Louise must have kept a copy of her letters. I don't recall reading that she went back east where she could have gotten them from her sister, nor was mail very reliable between California and the East back in the 1850's. She may have kept a copy in case her sister didn't receive one of the letters, then later came up with the idea to publish them...especially after she separated from her husband and needed a source of income. Thanks for your comment.

  3. This is so interesting. I love these gems of 'colorful backstories'. I wonder what these women who wrote about their westward adventures would think about how drawn to these accounts the writers of 100+ years later are. (she wrote ungrammatically - lol)

    Dame Shirley is a fabulous pen name.

    1. I know, huh? Everything was much slower back then. Think about it -- most readers used to expect a huge novel 80K+ words. Now, to some readers they would seem too slow and wordy because there are so many novella length works available. Times change.

  4. I felt bad for her that she and her husband did not have a successful marriage.
    Those letters to Everett must have been very interesting considering he must have felt they had a love connection.
    One thing is for certain, she had an adventurous life. I know she must have had fun writing the Shirley Letters.
    A lovely accounting of her life, Keena.