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‘Really, everybody ought to go to the mines just to see how little it takes to make people comfortable in the world,’ Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp wrote from the mines in California, to her sister Molly in New England. She penned 23 letters in all, from September 13, 1851, through November 21, 1852, describing life at Rich Bar and nearby Indian Bar, on the ‘East Branch of the North Fork of Feather River,’ roughly 120 miles northeast of Sacramento, in present-day Plumas National Forest.

Louise Clapp’s letters were published as a series, from January 1854 through December 1855, under the nom de plume ‘Dame Shirley,’ in Ferdinand Ewer’s short-lived literary journal: The Pioneer: or California Monthly Magazine. Ewer informed readers that the letters ‘were not (originally) intended for publication, and have been inserted with scarcely an erasure from us.’ Among those who read the series was Bret Harte (see August 1995 Wild West). Harte was influenced by the Shirley letters when he wrote The Luck of Roaring Camp and other California Gold Rush stories. Nineteenth century historian, philosopher and writer Josiah Royce said the Shirley letters ‘form the best account of an early mining camp that is known to me.’ And in the 20th century, when the Book Club of California invited 16 leading authorities to list the 10 best primary sources on the California Gold Rush, 13 named the Shirley letters. No other source received that much recognition.

Louisa Amelia Knapp Smith was born on July 28, 1819, in Elizabeth, N.J., the daughter of Moses and Lois (Lee) Smith. Her father was the schoolmaster at the local academy. The family eventually moved back to her father’s hometown of Amherst, Mass., where Moses died in 1832, at age 47. Louise was 13 at the time. Lois followed her husband to the grave five years later, leaving seven orphans. Louise was entrusted to an attorney and family friend in Amherst, Osmyn Baker. He sent her to school at the Female Seminary in Charlestown, Mass., and the Amherst Academy. Her closest sibling was Mary Jane, or ‘Molly,’ to whom she later wrote her now famous letters. Louise may have met Amherst residents Emily Dickinson and Helen Hunt (Jackson), but Louise, as historian Rodman Wilson Paul notes, was 11 years older than her literary neighbors.

Someone with whom Louise did exchange letters was Alexander Hill Everett. They met by chance in August 1839 while traveling by stagecoach in southern Vermont. Louise Smith was then a delicate, bright, golden-haired 20-year-old student. Alexander Everett was a widely traveled diplomat 30 years her elder. She was fascinated by him, in an academic way. He was infatuated with her. As her literary mentor, he advised, on October 31, 1839: ‘If you were to add to the love of reading the habit of writing you would find a new and inexhaustible source of comfort and satisfaction opening upon you.’ She accepted his advice, rejected his love. Everett died in Macao, China, in June 1847, the same year he received a letter from Louise announcing her engagement to a young doctor.

The man Louise Smith married was five years her junior. Fayette Clapp had graduated from Brown University in 1848 and was a medical student and doctor’s apprentice when he met Louise. Both Louise and Fayette Clapp longed to go west, so when they heard that gold had been discovered in California, the newlyweds packed their trunks and boarded the schooner Manilla. They sailed out of New York Harbor in August 1849, arriving in San Francisco about five months later. The foggy, damp bay weather did not agree with Fayette. He suffered from bilious attacks, fever, ague and jaundice while in San Francisco. Louise, on the other hand, liked the hilly city. She wrote: ‘What with its many-costumed, many-tongued, many-visaged population: its flashy looking squares, built one day and burned the next; its wickedly beautiful gambling houses; its gay stores where the richest productions of every nation can be found; and its wild, free, unconventional style of living, it possesses, for the young adventurer especially, a strange charm.’

For health reasons, Fayette Clapp moved inland with his wife, settling in Plumas City, a place Louise described as ‘a was-to-have-been city’ of ‘vanishing splendors.’ Built near the Feather River, between Sacramento City and Marysville, Plumas City no longer exists.

On June 7, 1851, Fayette set out with a friend to Rich Bar, hoping the pure mountain air would be good for his health. He also hoped that good mining investment opportunities existed at the camp, and that there was a shortage of doctors. In many other places in California, doctors and lawyers were already in abundance. Luckily for young Dr. Clapp, prospects at Rich Bar were good on all counts. Once he had successfully established himself, he returned for his wife in September. Since Louise was provided with a cook and a laundress, she had plenty of time for writing.

There were few women at Rich Bar. Louise found only four besides herself. The mining camp had no brothel, although the Empire, a combination inn, restaurant and general store, had originally been constructed with a brothel in mind. The venture had failed and the gamblers who had invested $8,000 — building and furnishing the two-story structure with its ‘elegant mirror,’ glass windows, monte tables, and ‘bedsteads so heavy that nothing short of a giant’s strength could move them’ — sold out to Curtis and Louise Bancroft for a few hundred dollars.

Louise Bancroft (referred to in the letters as ‘Mrs. B-‘) was the first woman Louise Clapp met at Rich Bar. The writer describes her as ‘a gentle and amiable looking woman, about twenty-five years of age.’ When Louise Clapp entered the Empire, Mrs. Bancroft ‘was cooking supper for some half-a-dozen people, while her really pretty boy, who lay kicking furiously in his champagne basket cradle and screaming…had that day completed just two weeks of his earthly pilgrimage.’

A French cartoon makes light the Gold Rush’s shortage of women. A man crams a group of attractive young women into a box marked “Pour Californie.” (Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

The other women at the camp included ‘Mrs. R-,’ whose name has not yet been decoded by historians. She lived with her husband in a three-room canvas house she kept exceptionally clean. Louise dubbed her ‘the little sixty-eight-pounder queen.’ In her fifth letter, she quotes a miner who praised Mrs. R- enthusiastically. ‘Magnificent woman that,’ the miner said. ‘A wife of the right sort she is. Why, she earnt her old man nine-hundred dollars in nine weeks, clear of all expenses, by washing! Such women ain’t common I tell you; if they were, a man might marry and make money by the operation.’

Mrs. Nancy Bailey was also tiny. She shared a dirt floor cabin with her husband and three children, but she fell sick and died weeks after Louise arrived. ‘I have just returned from the funeral of poor Mrs. B-,’ Louise wrote, ‘who died of peritonitis, a common disease in this country.’ The body was placed in a coffin and carried, with a monte tablecloth for a pall, to a mountainside cemetery, where the gravestone still stands.

The first woman to arrive at Rich Bar ran the Indiana Hotel with her father. She was called the Indiana Girl. Louise wrote about her in her second letter:

The sweet name of girl seems sadly incongruous when applied to such a gigantic piece of humanity….The far-off roll of her mighty voice, booming through two closed doors and a long entry, added greatly to the severe attack of nervous headache under which I was suffering when she called. This gentle creature wears the thickest kind of miner’s boots, and has the dainty habit of wiping her dishes on her apron! Last spring she walked to this place and packed fifty pounds of flour on her back down that awful hill — the snow being five feet deep at the time.

All the same, several men, including Yank, keeper of a log cabin store farther up the bar, were’smitten with the charms of the Indiana Girl,’ Louise admits in her ninth letter. Yank himself was a character. His aspiration was to be a dandy grafter. ‘He takes me largely into his confidence, as to the various ways he has of doing green miners,’ Louise wrote. As for his log cabin store, she described it as ‘the most comical olla podrida [potpourri] of heterogeneous merchandise that I ever saw. There is nothing you can ask for but what he has — from crow bars down to cambric needles; from velveteen trowsers up to broadcloth coats of the jauntiest description….His collection of novels is by far the largest, the greasiest, and the ‘yellowest kivered’ of any to be found on the river.’

In her seventh letter, Louise describes the log cabin Fayette acquired for her on the sparsely populated Indian Bar, upriver from Rich Bar but within walking distance:

Enter my dear; you are perfectly welcome; besides, we could not keep you out if we would, as there is not even a latch on the canvas door….The room into which we have just entered is about twenty feet square. It is lined over the top with white cotton cloth….The sides are hung with a gaudy chintz, which I consider a perfect marvel of calico printing. The artist seems to have exhausted himself on roses…from earliest budhood up to the ravishing beauty of the ‘last rose of summer.’ A curtain of the above described chintz divides off a portion of the room, behind which stands a bedstead….The fireplace is built of stones and mud, the chimney finished off with alternate layers of rough sticks….The mantle piece…is formed of a beam of wood, covered with strips of tin procured from cans, upon which still remain in black hieroglyphics, the names of the different eatables which they formerly contained….I suppose that it would be no more than civil to call a hole two feet square in one side of the room, a window, although it is as yet guiltless of glass.

The path between Indian Bar, where the Clapp cabin stood, and Rich Bar, where Fayette had his office, was somewhat precarious. Footbridges across the river were felled logs still wrapped in bark and moss. Large rocks and countless mining pits, 6 or more feet deep, with accompanying gravel heaps, had to be skirted. One pit was only a few feet from their cabin door.

On the way to Indian Bar, Louise recorded: ‘The first thing that attracted my attention, as my new home came in view, was the blended blue, red and white of the American banner…suspended on the Fourth of July last, by a patriotic sailor, who climbed to the top of the [cedar] tree to which he attached it, cutting away the branches as he descended, until it stood among its brethren, a beautiful moss-wreathed Liberty pole, flinging to the face of Heaven the glad colors of the Free.’

She also glimpsed the ‘artificial elegance’ of a hotel:

Over the entrance…is painted in red capitals…the name of the great Humboldt spelt without the d. This is the only hotel in this vicinity, and as there is a really excellent bowling alley attached to it, and the bar-room has a floor on which the miners can dance, and, above all, a cook who can play the violin, it is very popular. But the clinking of glasses, and the swaggering air of some of the drinkers, reminds us that it is no place for a lady.

Louise Clapp enjoyed being a ‘lady,’ but she sometimes showed an unladylike willfulness, describing herself as the sort of ‘obstinate little personage, who has always been haunted with a passionate desire to do everything which people said she could not do.’ Taking up residence in a mining town was an adventure most ladies avoided. So was panning for gold. When Louise washed a single pan of dirt, she found $3.25 in gold placer. She also discovered it was hard, dirty work, and she did not repeat the experiment, not for years. But she did observe and write about the gold miners. The methods they used, as well as the claim system that governed them, is the subject of her 15th’severely utilitarian’ letter:

First, let me explain to you the ‘claiming’ system. As there are no State laws upon the subject, each mining community is permitted to make its own. Here, they have decided that no man may ‘claim’ an area of more than forty foot square. This he’stakes off’ and puts a notice upon it….If he does not choose to ‘work it’ immediately, he is obliged to renew the notice every ten days; for without this precaution, any other person has the right to ‘jump it’….There are many ways of evading the above law. For instance, an individual can ‘hold’ as many claims as he pleases if he keeps a man at work in each….The laborer…can jump the claim of the very man who employs him…[but] generally prefers to receive the six dollars per diem, of which he is sure…[rather than] running the risk of a claim not proving valuable….The labor of excavation is extremely difficult, on account of the immense rocks…[in] the soil. Of course, no man can work out a claim alone. For that reason…they congregate in companies of four or six, generally designating themselves by the name of the place from whence the majority of the members have emigrated; for example, the ‘Illinois,’ ‘Bunker Hill,’ ‘Bay State,’ etc., companies. In many places the surface soil, or ‘top dirt,’ ‘pays’ when worked in a ‘Long Tom.’

Some companies discarded top dirt and chose instead to hunt for gold in bedrock crevices. They dug ‘coyote holes’ into the sides of surrounding hills, creating tunnels ‘that sometimes extended hundreds of feet,’ in order to get at the bedrock. A large company of miners pooled resources and built a wing dam and flume that diverted water from the riverbed, where they expected to find ‘rich diggings’ in the bedrock. Of ‘the dreadful flume,’ as Louise calls it, she wrote: ‘The machinery keeps up the most dismal moaning and shrieking, painfully suggestive of a suffering child.’

In her third letter, Louise paints a picture of the setting in which the miners worked, describing Rich Bar as ‘a tiny valley, about eight-hundred yards in length and thirty in width…hemmed in by lofty hills, almost perpendicular, draperied to their very summits with beautiful fir trees; the blue bosomed ‘Plumas’ or Feather River…undulating along their base.’ Here, the mining town sprang up suddenly, ‘as if a fairy’s wand had been waved above the bar.’ There were ‘about forty tenements…round tents, square tents, plank hovels, log cabins, etc. — the residences varying in elegance and convenience from the palatial splendor of ‘The Empire’ down to a ‘local habitation,’ formed of pine boughs and covered with old calico shirts.’

The people populating Rich Bar and Indian Bar varied as much as their houses. Besides white Americans and Californios (the Spanish-speaking residents who Clapp called ‘Spaniards’), there were Swedes, Chilenos, Frenchmen, Mexicans, Indians, Hawaiians, Englishmen, Italians, Germans, American blacks and mulattos. The mulattos included Humbolt-owner Ned ‘Paganini’ (as Louise nicknamed him) and the legendary mountain man and trailblazer Jim Beckwourth. Louise describes Beckwourth in her eighth letter:

He is fifty years of age, perhaps, and speaks several languages to perfection. As he has been a wanderer for many years and for a long time was a principal chief of the Crow Indians, his adventures are extremely interesting. He chills the blood of the green young miners, who, unacquainted with the arts of war and subjugation, congregate around him [to hear] the cold-blooded manner in which he relates the Indian fights that he has been engaged in.

San Franciscans of the 1850s. The back of the photo refers to them as a “Gold Rush Couple”– presumably one of the lucky ones who struck it rich. (Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley)

Unlike Jim Beckwourth, most men at Rich and Indian bars could not speak more than one language fluently, although some Americans seem to have tried. In her 14th letter, Louise wrote: ‘Nothing is more amusing than to observe the different styles in which…Americans talk at the unfortunate Spaniard.’ She adds that ‘mistakes made on the other side are often quite as amusing.’ Fayette’s colleague, Dr. Canas, told Louise of a Chileno who heard an American use the words’some bread’ when purchasing said item, and immediately afterward informed his friends that the English word for bread was the same as the Spanish word for hat — sombrero. Unfortunately, the humor in such misunderstandings was often overlooked. Alcohol, gambling losses, and envy of a neighbor’s mining success contributed to ill will. Yet things remained relatively peaceful through the winter of 1851-52.

In February 1852, provisions were becoming scarce. The rancheros who had been driving beef herds into the valley and the mule drivers who brought in onions, potatoes, butter and coffee could not get through the deep snow that covered the hills surrounding the bars. So the Clapps and their neighbors lived for three months on flour, dark ham, salted mackerel, and rusty pork. And when the snow finally melted, spring floods commenced, sweeping away flume machinery, log bridges, long toms, cradles, a newly finished sawmill and several men. By mid-May, the waters calmed down and fresh provisions arrived. So did a large number of mostly American newcomers. On May 25, Louise noted: ‘Hundreds of people have arrived upon our Bar within the last few days; drinking saloons are springing up in every direction; the fluming operations are rapidly progressing, and all looks favorably for a busy and prosperous summer.’ Some of these newcomers had fought in the Mexican-American War and tended to perceive Spanish-speaking people as enemies.

Meanwhile, Mexicans at the mines expressed growing frustration over the lack of justice where they were concerned. In her 16th letter, Louise writes sardonically:

A few evenings ago, a Spaniard was stabbed by an American. It seems that the presumptuous foreigner had the impertinence to ask very humbly and meekly of that most noble representative of the stars and stripes, if the latter would pay him a few dollars which he had owed him for some time. His high mightiness, the Yankee, was not going to put up with any such impertinence, and the poor Spaniard received, for answer, several inches of cold steel in his breast, which inflicted a very dangerous wound. Nothing was done and very little was said about this atrocious affair.

She goes on to explain that at Rich Bar, ‘they have passed a set of resolutions…one of which is to the effect that no foreigner shall work the mines on that Bar. This has caused nearly all the Spaniards [Californios] to immigrate upon Indian Bar.’ Two years earlier, the California Legislature had passed a law requiring all foreigners to pay a $20-a-month tax (later reduced to $4) for the right to stake a claim and mine it.

On the Fourth of July, tensions between Californios and Americans exploded. While Dr. and Mrs. Clapp joined other sober Americans in celebrating Independence Day with speeches, poetry, music and dancing at the Empire on Rich Bar, drunken celebrants made the rounds at Indian Bar. When the Clapps returned to their cabin at Indian Bar, a man gave them an ‘excited account’ of an American who had been knifed during a melee. Louis Clapp wrote about it in her 19th letter:

He said…Domingo — a tall, majestic-looking Spaniard, a perfect type of the novelistic bandit of Old Spain — had stabbed Tom Somers, a young Irishman, but a naturalized citizen of the United States,…[and while] brandishing threateningly the long bloody knife with which he had inflicted the wound upon his victim…[had paraded] up and down the street unmolested. It seems that when Tom Somers fell, the Americans, being unarmed, were seized with a sudden panic and fled. There was a rumor (unfounded, as it afterwards proved) to the effect that the Spaniards had on this day conspired to kill all the Americans on the river. In a few moments, however, the latter rallied and made a rush at the murderer, who immediately plunged into the river and swam across to Missouri Bar; eight or shots were fired at him…not one of which hit him.

In the meanwhile,…Spaniards who…thought that the Americans had arisen against them…barricaded themselves in a drinking saloon, determined to defend themselves against the massacre which was fully expected would follow….In the bake shop, which stands next to our cabin, young Tom Somers lay straightened for the grave…while over his dead body a Spanish woman was weeping and moaning in the most piteous and heart-rending manner. The Rich Barians, who had heard a most exaggerated account of the rising of the Spaniards against the Americans, armed with rifles, pistols, clubs, dirks, etc., were rushing down the hill by hundreds. Each one added fuel to his rage by crowding into the little bakery, to gaze upon the blood-bathed bosom of the victim….Then arose the most fearful shouts of ‘Down with the Spaniards’….’Don’t let one of the murderous devils remain.’

The more sensible and sober of the Americans partly quieted the angry crowd. Still, Fayette Clapp wanted his wife to join two other women who lived on a nearby hill, where things would be safer should a serious fight erupt. Louise said she wanted to stay where she was, but finally, ‘like a dutiful wife,’ she went up the hill.

We three women, left entirely alone, seated ourselves upon a log overlooking the strange scene below. The Bar was a sea of heads, bristling with guns, rifles, and clubs….All at once, we were startled by the firing of a gun, and…saw a man [being] led into the log cabin, while another was carried, apparently lifeless, into a Spanish drinking saloon….Luckily for our nerves, a benevolent individual…came and told us what had happened.

It seems that an Englishman, the owner of a house of the vilest description, a person, who is said to have been the primary cause of all the troubles of the day, attempted to force his way through the line of armed men which had been formed at each side of the street….In his drunken fury, he tried to wrest a gun from one of them, which being accidentally discharged in the struggle, inflicted a severe wound upon a Mr. Oxley and shattered in the most dreadful manner the thigh of Sr. Pizarro….This frightful accident recalled the people to their senses….They elected a Vigilance Committee and authorized persons to go…arrest the suspected Spaniards.

The first act of the Committee was to try a Mejicana who had been foremost in the fray. She has always worn male attire, and on this occasion, armed with a pair of pistols, she fought like a very fury. Luckily, inexperienced in the use of fire-arms, she wounded no one. She was sentenced to leave the Bar by day-light….The next day, the Committee tried five or six Spaniards….Two of them were sentenced to be whipped, the remainder to leave the Bar that evening; the property of all to be confiscated….Oh Mary! Imagine my anguish when I heard the first blow fall upon those wretched men. I had never thought that I should be compelled to hear such fearful sounds, and, although I immediately buried my head in my shawl, nothing can efface from memory the disgust and horror….One of these unhappy persons was a very gentlemanly young Spaniard, who implored for death in the most moving terms. He appealed to his judges in the most eloquent manner — as gentlemen, as men of honor; representing to them that to be deprived of life was nothing in comparison with the never-to-be-effaced stain of the vilest convict’s punishment to which they had sentenced him. Finding all his entreaties disregarded, he swore a most solemn oath, that he would murder every American that he should chance to meet alone, and as he is a man of the most dauntless courage, and rendered desperate by a burning sense of disgrace…he will doubtless keep his word.

The above account probably inspired the flogging scene in The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, by Yellow Bird, aka John Rollin Ridge. Historian Joseph Henry Jackson notes in his book Bad Company that the Shirley letters were in Ferdinand Ewer’s possession when Ridge researched his book, and that he frequently visited Ewer’s office.

Not long after the floggings, Louise reported that a hanging and an attempted suicide had occurred at the mines. The first involved a man accused of murdering and robbing his employer. The second involved a Henry Cook, who apparently slit his own throat. After Dr. Clapp tended his wound, Cook decided to accuse Ned, owner of the Humbolt, of attempted murder. Ned’s friends came to his defense, and the charge was dropped, but tempers were high. Dr. Clapp was nearly mobbed for having bound the wound of a man they, according to Louise Capp, ‘insisted upon shooting…reasoning [that]…’a man so hardened as to raise his hand against his own life will never hesitate to murder another!” In the end, the vigilantes decided to exile Cook instead.

Meanwhile, Señor Pizarro’s wounded leg festered. It was amputated, but he did not regain his strength. Sick with dysentery, he died soon afterward. Oxley remained bedridden for weeks but eventually recovered, no thanks to ‘the Moguls,’ whom Louise Clapp refers to as’sleep killers.’ The Moguls, actually members of the Vigilance Committee, apparently believed they were above the law. They began to ‘parade the streets all night, howling, shouting, breaking into houses, taking wearied miners out of their beds and throwing them into the river….Nearly every night they built bonfires fearfully near some rag shanty, thus endangering the lives (or I should rather say the property — for as it is impossible to sleep, lives are emphatically safe) of the whole community. They retire about five o’clock in the morning; previously…posting notices to the effect, and that they will throw anyone who may disturb them into the river.’

In fall, the population began to decline swiftly. Louise noted that the flume miners, who had spent $2,000 to build a wing dam’six feet high and three-hundred feet in length, upon which thirty men labored nine days and a half,’ had collected $41.70 in gold; ‘nearly every person on the river received the same treatment from Dame Nature….Shopkeepers, restaurants, and gambling houses…were in the same moneyless condition.’ Fayette had lost $1,000 in a prospecting investment, causing Louise to call mining ‘Nature’s lottery.’

Few people wanted to brave another winter on the bars, including the Clapps. In her last letter, dated November 21, 1852, Louise couldn’t help ‘fretting…at the dreadful prospect of being compelled to spend the winter here.’ Yet when the day of departure came, she hesitated. ‘My heart is heavy at the thought of departing forever from this place. I like this wild and barbarous life; I leave it with regret….Yes, Molly, smile if you will at my folly; but I go from the mountains with a deep heart sorrow. I look kindly to this existence, which to you seems so sordid and mean. Here, at least, I have been contented….You would hardly recognize the feeble and half-dying invalid, who drooped languidly out of sight, as night shut down between your straining gaze and the good ship Manilla…in the person of your now perfectly healthy sister.’ Fayette Clapp, too, was perfectly healthy, but San Francisco again did not agree with him.

In 1853, Fayette sailed to Hawaii without Louise. In 1854, he showed up in Massachusetts. A year later, he headed west again, this time to Illinois. Louise chose to remain in San Francisco, where she taught school. She filed for divorce there in 1856. Although she kept Fayette’s last name, she apparently added an ‘e’ to it, making her Louise A.K.S. Clappe. By the time the Civil War broke out, Fayette had moved to Columbia, Mo., and remarried.

Louise retired from teaching in 1878 and went to live in New York City, where she continued to write and lecture until 1897, when she moved into a retirement home founded by Bret Harte’s nieces, Anna and Nina Knault, in Hanover Township, N.J. She died there on February 9, 1906. Although the California Gold Rush, which started 150 years ago, produced its share of heartfelt letters, the ‘Dame Shirley’ letters remain the biggest bonanza in the bunch.

This article was written by Lori Lee Wilson and originally appeared in the August 1999 issue of Wild West.p>For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!