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“Dame Shirley” Describes Life at a California Gold Mining Camp in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 1851

The author of this letter, who used the pseudonym “Dame Shirley,” was Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp (1819–1906). The letter was written to Clapp’s sister, Molly, in Massachusetts, but was subsequently published as one of a series of twenty-three in the Pioneer, a California literary magazine. Clapp’s subject in the “Shirley letters,” as they are called, was life at the gold mining camps of mid-19th-century California. Clapp knew about life in the world of California gold mining from first-hand experience. With her husband, a doctor, Clapp left the East Coast for California in 1849. At first the couple settled in San Francisco, but in 1851 they left for the Sierra Nevada mountains so that Dr. Clapp could regain his health in the mountain air. In the Sierra Nevadas, they spent more than a year at two gold mining camps, Rich Bar and Indian Bar, on the Feather River. As the self-conscious tone of these letters suggests, Clapp aspired to be a literary writer. As a woman, her perspective on life in the nearly all-male camps was unique. The letters allegedly provided material for Bret Harte’s stories. Today we can appreciate them for their historical value as observations of life during the California gold rush.

The Pioneer, April [1854]


September 20, 1851.

I INTEND, to-day, dear M., to be as disagreeably statistical and as praiseworthily matter-of-factish as the most dogged utilitarian could desire. I shall give you a full, true, and particular account of the discovery, rise, and progress of this place, with a religious adherence to dates which will rather astonish your unmathematical mind. But let me first describe the spot as it looked to my wondering and unaccustomed eyes. Remember, I had never seen a mining district before, and had just left San Francisco, amid whose flashy-looking shops and showy houses the most of my time had been spent since my arrival in the Golden State. Of course, to me, the coup d' il of Rich Bar was charmingly fresh and original. Imagine a tiny valley about eight hundred yards in length, and perhaps thirty in width, (it was measured for my especial information,) apparently hemmed in by lofty hills, almost perpendicular, draperied to their very summits with beautiful fir-trees, the blue-bosomed Plumas (or Feather River, I suppose I must call it) undulating along their base, —and you have as good an idea as I can give you of the local of Barra Rica, as the Spaniards so prettily term it.

In almost any of the numerous books written upon California, no doubt you will be able to find a most scientific description of the origin of these bars. I must acknowledge with shame that my ideas on the subject are distressingly vague. I could never appreciate the poetry or the humor of making one’s wrists ache by knocking to pieces gloomy-looking stones, or in dirtying one’s fingers by analyzing soils, in a vain attempt to fathom the osteology or anatomy of our beloved earth, though my heart is thrillingly alive to the faintest shade of color and the infinite variety of styles in which she delights to robe her ever-changeful and ever-beautiful surface . In my unscientific mind, the formations are without form, and void; and you might as well talk Chinese to me, as to embroider your conversation with the terms “hornblende,” "mica,“ "limestone,” "slate,“ "granite,” and “quartz” in a hopeless attempt to enlighten me as to their merits. The dutiful diligence with which I attended course after course of lectures on geology, by America’s greatest illustrator of that subject, arose rather from my affectionate reverence for our beloved Dr. H., and the fascinating charm which his glorious mind throws round every subject which it condescends to illuminate, than to any interest in the dry science itself. It is therefore with a most humiliating consciousness of my geological deficiencies that I offer you the only explanation which I have been able to obtain from those most learned in such matters here. I gather from their remarks, that these bars are formed by deposits of earth rolling down from the mountains, crowding the river aside and occupying a portion of its deserted bed. If my definition is unsatisfactory, I can but refer you to some of the aforesaid works upon California.

Through the middle of Rich Bar runs the street, thickly planted with about forty tenements, among which figure 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.

To-day I visited the “office,” the only one on the river. I had heard so much about it from others, as well as from F., [probably Fayette Clapp, her husband] that I really did expect something extra. When I entered this imposing place the shock to my optic nerves was so great that I sank helplessly upon one of the benches, which ran, divan-like, the whole length (ten feet!) of the building, and laughed till I cried. There was, of course, no floor. A rude nondescript, in one one corner, on which was ranged the medical library, consisting of half a dozen volumes, did duty as a table. The shelves, which looked like sticks snatched hastily from the wood-pile, and nailed up without the least alteration, contained quite a respectable array of medicines. The white-canvas window stared everybody in the face, with the interesting information painted on it, in perfect grenadiers of capitals, that this was Dr.—'s office.

At my loud laugh (which, it must be confessed, was noisy enough to give the whole street assurance of the presence of a woman) F. looked shocked, and his partner looked prussic acid. To him (the partner, I mean; he hadn’t been out of the mines for years) the “office” was a thing sacred, and set apart for an almost admiring worship. It was a beautiful architectural ideal embodied in pine shingles and cotton cloth. Here he literally “lived, and moved, and had his being,” his bed and his board. With an admiration of the fine arts truly praiseworthy, he had fondly decorated the walls thereof with sundry pictures from Godey’s, Graham’s, and Sartain’s magazines, among which, fashion-plates with imaginary monsters sporting miraculous waists, impossible wrists, and fabulous feet, largely predominated.

During my call at the office I was introduced to one of the finders of Rich Bar, —a young Georgian, —who afterwards gave me a full description of all the facts connected with its discovery. This unfortunate had not spoken to a woman for two years, and, in the elation of his heart at the joyful event, he rushed out and invested capital in some excellent champagne, which I, on Willie’s principle of “doing in Turkey as the Turkeys do,” assisted the company in drinking, to the honor of my own arrival. I mention this as an instance that nothing can be done in California without the sanctifying influence of the spirit , and it generally appears in a much more “questionable shape” than that of sparkling wine. Mr. H. informed me that on the 20th of July, 1850, it was rumored at Nelson’s Creek—a mining station situated at the Middle Fork of the Feather River, about eighty miles from Marysville—that one of those vague “Somebodies,” a near relation of the “They-Says,” had discovered mines of a remarkable richness in a northeasterly direction, and about forty miles from the first-mentioned place. Anxious and immediate search was made for “Somebody,” but, as our Western brethren say, he “wasn’t thar'.” But his absence could not deter the miners when once the golden rumor had been set afloat. A large company packed up their goods and chattels, generally consisting of a pair of blankets, a frying-pan, some flour, salt pork, brandy, pickax and shovel, and started for the new Dorado. They “traveled, and traveled, and traveled,” as we used to say in the fairy-stories, for nearly a week, in every possible direction, when, one evening, weary and discouraged, about one hundred of the party found themselves at the top of that famous hill which figures so largely in my letters, whence the river can be distinctly seen. Half of the number concluded to descend the mountain that night, the remainder stopping on the summit until the next morning. On arriving at Rich Bar, part of the adventurers camped there, but many went a few miles farther down the river. The next morning, two men turned over a large stone, beneath which they found quite a sizable piece of gold. They washed a small panful of the dirt, and obtained from it two hundred and fifty-six dollars. Encouraged by this success, they commenced staking off the legal amount of ground allowed to each person for mining purposes, and, the remainder of the party having descended the hill, before night the entire bar was “claimed.” In a fortnight from that time, the two men who found the first bit of gold had each taken out six thousand dollars. Two others took out thirty-three pounds of gold in eight hours, which is the best day’s work that has been done on this branch of the river. The largest amount ever taken from one panful of dirt was fifteen hundred dollars. In a little more than a week after its discovery, five hundred men had settled upon the Bar for the summer. Such is the wonderful alacrity with which a mining town is built. Soon after was discovered, on the same side of the river, about half a mile apart, and at nearly the same distance from this place, the two bars, Smith and Indian, both very rich, also another, lying across the river, just opposite Indian, called Missouri Bar. There are several more, all within a few miles of here, called Frenchman’s, Taylor’s, Brown’s, The Junction, Wyandott, and Muggin’s; but they are, at present, of little importance as mining stations.

Those who worked in these mines during the fall of 1850 were extremely fortunate, but, alas! the monte fiend ruined hundreds. Shall I tell you the fate of the most successful of these gold-hunters? From poor men, they found themselves, at the end of a few weeks, absolutely rich. Elated with their good fortune, seized with a mania for monte [a card game], in less than a year these unfortunates, so lately respectable and intelligent, became a pair of drunken gamblers. One of them, at this present writing, works for five dollars a day, and boards himself out of that; the other actually suffers for the necessaries of life, - a too common result of scenes in the mines.

Source: Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe. The Shirley Letters From California Mines in 1851–52 Being a Series of Twenty-Three Letters from Dame Shirley (Mrs. Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe) to her Sister in Massachusetts and now Reprinted from the Pioneer Magazine of 1854–55. San Franciso: Thomas C. Rusell, 1922.