Happy Birthday, Dame Shirley

Shirley-letters-book-coverJuly 28th marks another bicentennial, the 200th birthday of Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, better know as “Dame Shirley,” author of The Shirley Letters.

She was born in 1819 in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and was educated in Massachusetts. She attended Amherst Academy and taught there in 1840. In 1848 or 1849 she married Fayette Clappe, who was studying medicine. They set out for California in 1850 and spent their first year in San Francisco, then headed for the mines to make their fortune.

Shirley’s fortune and fame would come in a literary form. The marriage was not a success, and in the early 1850s Fayette returned East, while Shirley went back to San Francisco where she wrote and taught school.


Marysville Daily Herald July 15, 1851

Her first literary efforts were published in the Marysville Herald in 1851. These early writings are florid and over-wrought, in true Victorian style, and would not be remembered today if she had not learned how to imbue vivid life into her work. Here you can see an example of her early writing:


The Shirley Letters were first published in The Pioneer, or California Monthly Magazine, a short-lived literary periodical published in San Francisco. The letters had been written to her sister Molly in Massachusetts, in 1851 and 1852, when Dr. and Mrs. Clappe were living at Rich Bar, a mining camp on the Feather River. The Pioneer published the letters in 1854, and by that time Louise Clappe was teaching school in San Francisco.

We have to assume that Dame Shirley kept copies of the letters for future publication.  They have the feel of literary epistles, but they also are lively and full of  a love of nature as well as keen observations of the people of Rich Bar. When Shirley arrived in Rich Bar, she was only the second woman in the camp. The letters are an invaluable (and delightful) source of information about life in the goldfields from a woman’s point of view.

Here is an excerpt from her first letter, a comment on Bidwell’s Bar, where she almost spent her first night in the goldfields:

I arrived there at three o’clock in the evening where I found Fayette in much better health than when he left Marysville. As there was nothing to sleep in but a tent, and nothing to sleep on but the ground, and the air was black with fleas hopping about in every direction, we concluded to ride forward to the Berry Creek House, a ranch ten miles farther on our way, where we proposed to pass the night.

I wish I could show you a picture of Dame Shirley, but as far as I know, there isn’t one. If you google “Dame Shirley” you will see a picture of a nice lady on the right, but that turns out to be Kate Douglas Wiggin, another popular 19th century author.

Next: Where did she get the name “Shirley”?

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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