Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe

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Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe (July 28, 1819 – February 11, 1906) wrote under the pen name of 'Dame Shirley'.

Louise Clappe was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey. As a child, Clappe attended the primary public education that was mandatory of all Massachusetts schools. Her family valued education because they believed it was the moral and intellectual center for a persons' wellbeing. Accordingly, she attended the female seminary in Keene, New Hampshire in 1835. In 1837, Clappe's mother died after a long battle with tuberculosis and she had to return home to care for her siblings. After a year the children moved in with a long-time family friend Osmyn Baker. Clappe continued her education at the seminary in Norton, Massachusetts, the Charlestown Seminary, and concluded her studies at Amherst Academy.

In 1849, Louise moved to San Francisco with her new husband Fayette Clappe. However, they found the temperate climate of San Francisco less than pleasing so they decided to move to northern California in 1849. They were greatly intrigued by the gold mining obsession that was occurring to the north of them. During their travels, Louise was offered the opportunity to write for The Herold about her travel adventures. It was at this point that Louise chose the name "Shirley" as her pen name.

Dame Shirley wrote a series of 23 letters to her sister Mary Jane (also known as Molly) in Massachusetts in 1851 and 1852. The "Shirley Letters", as the collected whole later became known as, gave true accounts of life on two gold mining camps, Rich Bar and Indian Bar (on the Feather River) in the 1850s. She described these camps in Northern California with vividness in portraying the wildness of gold rush life. The letters give detailed accounts of the vast and beautiful landscape that was the background to the hustle and bustle of mining life. Louise's perspective as a woman gave a contrast to the typically all-male mining camps that she occupied.

After fifteen months of living on the mining camps, Fayette and Louise moved back to San Francisco. The last letter she wrote described the appreciation she came to have for the northern California mining camps. An east coast native, Louise's deep new love for California shows the whole idea of the Western frontier and all that it has to offer.

The letters were later published in Pioneer, a California literary magazine based out of San Francisco. The Pioneer published each of Louise's letters in separate issues, that collectively were titled "California in 1851 and 1852, A Trip Into the Mines." The "Shirley Letters" and were published in 1922 in book form. These letters gave a unique perspective as a woman in contrast to the typically all-male mining camps where Dame Shirley lived.

Dame Shirley letters also have been noted as the inspiration for many of Bret Harte's stories.

She was an early California settler, having sailed there in 1849 with her husband, Dr. Fayette Clappe. She taught for 24 years in the San Francisco Public Schools, from 1854 and retired in 1878. In 1838, Louise Clapp attended the female seminary in Charleston. An exhibit detailing these events can be seen at the Women's Museum of California in San Diego.[1] She was a United States traveler and a scientific writer on mining.[2]

Louise died on February 11, 1906 in New Jersey at a small home for elderly people presided over by a niece of Bret Harte.


  1. ^ "Collection Title: Guide to the Louise A. K. S. Clapp Collection, 1834-1849". California State Library. Retrieved January 17, 2012. 
  2. ^ Harvey, Joy Dorothy, Editor; Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey, Editor (2000). The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century (2 Volume Set) (Hardcover) 1. p. 259. ISBN 0-415-92040-X. Retrieved January 20, 2012.  ISBN 978-0-415-92040-7
  • Cohen, Hannah S. Harris, Gloria G. Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present

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