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Book Review: The Shirley Letters: From the California Mines, 1851-1852 (by Frederick Nolan) : WW

Originally published on Published Online: August 12, 2001 
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The Shirley Letters: From the California Mines, 1851-1852,edited with introduction by Marlene Smith-Baranzini, Heyday Books, Berkeley, Calif., 1998, $12.95 paperback.

Here once again are the 23 letters that were written in 1851-52 by Louise ("Dame Shirley") Clapp, the wife of a gold-camp doctor, to one of her sisters. These letters, which contain perhaps the best descriptions of the California Gold Rush's early days, were first published in a monthly California magazine in 1854 and 1855, collected into a single book in 1922, and reintroduced to readers at various times since then. (Portions of several letters appear in this issue of Wild West.) If Clapp, who added an "e" to her last name after separating from her husband, wrote other such letters, they have not been found.

Marlene Smith-Baranzini, an editor of the quarterly California History, tells the story behind the famous letters in the book's introduction and also provides plenty of information about Clapp herself (but, alas, there does not seem to be an available photo of Louise). Smith-Baranzini says that Clapp had written essays for the Marysville (Calif.) Herald earlier and that her letters were not intended just for a sister back East: "Between her first essays in the Herald and her first 'Letter from the Mines,' Louise established her identity…. With her new persona (Dame Shirley), she conscientiously set to work, building each letter from Rich Bar upon the previous one, constructing a complete portrait of mining life in segments for her reader."

As Smith-Baranzini notes, the letter form allows the Dame Shirley side of Clapp's personality to come to life. Smith-Baranzini contends that none of the other gold rush letters can match the "vitality and lucidity" of these 23 letters. Of course, most folks at the mines didn't have much time for writing. But one suspects that the Shirley letters would still be right up there at the top even if e-mail had existed 150 years ago.

B.B. Swan

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