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”?

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Black Bart in Butte County


Charles E. Boles 1829-???

On July 25, 1878, the notorious outlaw “Black Bart” held up a stagecoach on the Oroville-Quincy Road. Twenty-eight stagecoach robberies are credited to Charles E. Boles (aka “Black Bart”) and this was his fifth.

Boles had not had a great deal of success as a gold miner, so in order to finance his fancy for the good life in San Francisco, he turned to a career of crime, holding up stagecoaches from Calaveras to Siskiyou counties. If he hadn’t lost a handkerchief with a laundry mark, he might have gotten away with more.

The Butte County holdup was reported in the Weekly Butte Record for August 3, 1878.

Month JULY Issue Date AUGUST 03 1878 page 1(1)

Five years later, after Boles’s capture, the same newspaper recalled the incident, and included the verse Bart left at the scene.


Weekly Butte Record 17 November 1883

The second verse actually comes from a previous robbery, and the editor has kindly put blanks where Bart wrote some rather coarse language. Editors were more sensitive to their readers fine sensibilities in 1883. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks.

Black Bart disappeared from public notice after his release from prison in 1888. There is a theory (and a book) claiming that he spent the rest of his life as a druggist named Charles Wells in Marysville. If you want to read more about Black Bart, a good place to start is www.blackbart.com.


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Annie Bidwell at the Women’s Congress


Photo: California Historical Society, San Francisco, CA

This photo, brought to my attention by Richard Elsom, shows an 1896 meeting of Suffragist leaders: standing (l to r) Ida Husted Harper, Selena Solomons, Carrie Chapman Catt, Annie Bidwell, (seated) Lucy Anthony, Dr. Anna H. Shaw, Susan B. Anthony, Ellen Clark Sargent, and Mary Hay.

Although prominent in the women’s rights movement, most of these names are no longer familiar to us, but here in Chico we know Annie Bidwell, and everyone knows Susan B. Anthony, leader in the movement for women’s suffrage.

The photo was taken at the 3rd annual Women’s Congress of the Pacific Coast, held in San Francisco in May, 1896. The foremost issue at the convention was the vote, and the delegates rejoiced that the California Republican Convention had just endorsed women’s suffrage at their convention in Sacramento. The San Francisco Call newspaper, which gave the Women’s Congress extensive coverage, also endorsed votes for women.

Susan B. Anthony was a forceful and popular speaker. She believed that women’s votes could clean up politics.


San Francisco Call 28 April 1896

The women felt that they were making great progress in getting public opinion on their side and thought that it would not be long before women in California would be voting in elections. Alas, it would be another 15 years before the state of California acknowledged women’s right to vote.

Other items addressed at these Women’s Congresses were prohibition of alcohol (a major issue), public education, especially the benefits of kindergarten, uplift of minority women (Chinese, Japanese, Indians), and dress reform. Annie’s had a comment on divided skirts for riding.


San Francisco Call 5 April 1894

Why she “owed it as a duty to her children” when she didn’t have any is a puzzle, but it may have been a matter of setting a healthy example for all. Here is a picture of Annie in her “bifurcated garments” riding astride.



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More Bicentennial Birthdays

bicentennielNot only does the year 2019 mark the 200th birthday of John Bidwell, but he shares his bicentennial year with some notable figures.

Here are some other folks who turn 200 this year.

Two royals: Queen Victoria (May 24) and Prince Albert (August 28). Queen Vicky and her Prince Consort were born in the same year, and she was actually three months older than he.

Two famous American authors: Walt Whitman (May 31) and Herman Melville (August 1). Maybe this year is a good year to pick up Leaves of Grass or reread Moby Dick.

A great British novelist: George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans (November 22). One of these days I am going to reread Middlemarch. I keep telling myself that.

The author of The Battle Hymn of the Republic: Julia Ward Howe (May 27). Glory, glory, hallelujah!

Another Howe, inventor of the sewing machine: Elias Howe (July 9). He was not the first to try to invent a machine for sewing, but he came up with the lockstitch method that is still the basis for modern machines. Seamstresses (or sewists, as they are called now) everywhere than you!

The foremost American detective: Allan Pinkerton (August 25).

sam brannanAnd last but not least, that other California pioneer: Samuel Brannan (March 2). (I knew I shared a birthday with Dr. Seuss, but Sam Brannan too? I am not an admirer.)

Brannan was an opportunist and a scoundrel, but he has an important place in California history.

Very soon I will tell you about my favorite Bicentennialist (other than John Bidwell) , a California writer we should all celebrate.

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Bidwell Bicentennial Birthday Bash

It’s John Bidwell’s 200th birthday and you are all invited to a free event at Bidwell Mansion on Sunday, August 4th from 4 to 6 p.m. Fun for all!

Come for free Shubert’s ice cream, birthday cake, games, music by the Chico Community Band, and vignettes in the Mansion. Also, burgers for purchase from the Madison Bear Gardens grill.

BidwellBirthday2019 facebook event-outline

The birthday boy doesn’t look a day over 50, does he? Happy Birthday, General!


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Gold Rush Stories

GRUS2.inddGary Noy has done it again. A few years ago I read and reviewed his book Sierra Stories. Now he has a new book: Gold Rush Stories: 49 Tales of Seekers, Scoundrels, Loss, and Luck, published by Heyday Books. It came out in 2017 and I wish I had gotten it sooner. Whether you are new to reading about the California gold rush, or an old hand, you will find and enjoy stories that you never heard before.

A few of the characters are old familiars, like James Marshall, Emperor Norton, and Joaquin Murieta, but even then Gary finds something new in their lives. A few of these stories I have written about myself: the fate of Sutter’s Fort or the adventures of Luzena Stanley Wilson.

Many more of them were new to me, and what an invitation to explore further! Who wouldn’t want to know more about Lt. George Horatio Derby, who wrote under the pen name the “Veritable Squibob,” or Alfred Doten, whose alcohol-fueled journal of fifty years reveals the seamier side of life in the camps?

The forty-nine (what else?) chapters are short but packed with careful research and entertaining details. Gary has dug deep into the vast collection of journals, letters, and memoirs that came out of the gold rush. Along with the stories of individual “seekers and scoundrels,” he gives us a look at special groups — the tribulations of the Californios (and how the Peralta family was swindled out of their land holdings), the commercial success and family life of Jewish immigrants, and the struggle of African-Americans against prejudice. He has chapters on catastrophes, gambling, “dissipation” (drunkenness), hangings, and grizzly bears.

John Bidwell even makes an appearance, in the story of the explosion of the steamboat Belle on the Sacramento River.

Really, you can’t go wrong with this collection. There is excitement, surprise, and revelation in every chapter. This is the California Gold Rush in all its splendor and squalor. What Bayard Taylor said of the California Constitutional Convention can be applied to the entire experience: “So wonderful, so dangerous, so magnificent a chaos!”

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“Dear Charlie” — Horace Goes Home

Boston, June 19, 1855

Dear Charlie:

As you have been informed, Snow has arrived in America.  . .  I landed in New York the 6th day of June and from that time to this I haven’t seen a moment’s leisure time . . . How I came to return so suddenly, and thousands of other little things, I must omit until I see you  . . .

md1260381293After twenty-one months mining in California, Horace came home to “America.” as he called the eastern United States. Why he came home “suddenly” isn’t known. Maybe he was getting homesick for the comforts of home, in spite of his success as a gold miner.

A few months later he wrote another letter to Charlie (who was in New Hampshire) telling him he had changed his plans to return to California and was still in Boston.

But return to California he did, eventually. Though not until after the Civil War.

According to the “Civil War Veterans Project” of the Orange County California Genealogical Society, Horace Snow “enlisted 10 February 1862 at Dubuque, Iowa in Company H, 13th Infantry, mustered out 31 August 1864. Commissioned 7 September 1864 in Company D, U.S. Colored Troops 45th Infantry, Mustering Officer at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, mustered out 4 November 1865.” It would be interesting to know about his experiences as an officer with a colored troop, but I don’t have any information about that.

After the war he married Margaret (Maggie) Fox Butcher and took his bride back to California. His brother Hiram was still here. Horace and Maggie had five children, all of them born in California. After a few years in Solano County and Powellton, Butte County (he is on the 1872 Butte County Great Register of Voters), he settled in Eureka, Humboldt County.

He was a dry goods merchant, in business with his brother Hiram, as Snow & Co.

8722415_117407309048In later years he moved to Southern California, and lived in Tustin, Orange County, where he died in 1895.

For more information about Horace Snow, check out the complete record at the OCCGS Civil War Veterans Project.

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