Clappe, Louise (Amelia Knapp) Smith

views updated

CLAPPE, Louise (Amelia Knapp) Smith

Born 28 July 1819, Elizabethtown, New Jersey; died 9 February 1906, Morristown, New Jersey

Wrote under: Dame Shirley

Daughter of Moses and Lois Lee Smith; married Fayette Clappe,1848 or 1849

Shortly after Louise Smith Clappe's marriage to her physician husband the couple migrated to the California gold fields where, they believed, there would be a great need for the services of a physician. The couple lived in Rich Bar and the neighboring gold camp of Indian Bar until near the end of 1852. From this experience came Clappe's observations of life in the gold camps, The Shirley Letters (1854-55). Although she wrote other letters and verse both before and after The Shirley Letters, none came even close to the latter's literary quality.

The Shirley Letters were written to Clappe's sister Mary in 1851-52 while Clappe was living in the gold camps. Their purpose was "… to give you a true picture (as much as in me lies) of mining life and its peculiar temptations, 'nothing extenuating nor setting down aught in malice."' The letters reflect a spirit of spontaneity and vitality, giving detailed observations and vivid commentary on daily life in the gold camps.

Ferdinand Clappe Ewer, editor of The Pioneer; or California Monthly Magazine, published them serially from January 1854, to December 1855, and described them as "… penned in that light, graceful, epistolary style, which only a lady can fall into; and as they are a transcript of the impressions which the condition of California affairs, two years ago, made upon a cultivated mind, [they] cannot fail to be of general interest."

In the 1933 edition of the letters Carl I. Wheat wrote in the introduction: "… the 'Shirley Letters' were at once recognized as the first literary production of outstanding merit inspired by the gold rush. Men who had lived through those earliest mad years of California's peopling found in them a faithful and accurate portrayal of scenes which they themselves had witnessed…. In her words we of today may in truth see and come … to understand life in the California mines as it was…. Her woman's eye caught and recorded an array of intimate details which no man would have noticed. These … elements … lend brilliancy and verisimilitude to the picture which she painted…. With the 'Shirley Letters' Clappe created a real masterpiece."


Oglesby, R. E., introduction to Louise Clappe's The Shirley Letters (1970). Paul, R. W., "In Search of 'Dame Shirley,"' in Pacific Historical Review 33 (May 1964). Russell, T. C., introduction to The Shirley Letters from California in 1851-52 (1922). Walker, F., San Francisco's Literary Frontier (1939). Wheat, C. I., introduction to California in 1851: The Letters of Dame Shirley (1933).

Reference Works:

NAW, 1607-1950 (1971).