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Dame Shirley (Mrs. Clappe), Letters from a Western Pioneer, 1851–1852

Use this primary source text to explore key historical events.

Suggested Sequencing


In 1849, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe and her husband Fayette boarded a passenger ship and took a five-month voyage from New York to San Francisco, by way of South America’s Cape Horn. Clappe was a graduate of the Amherst Academy in Massachusetts, and Fayette was a physician. Along with many easterners, they had heard about the discovery of gold in California and were eager to seek their fortune by mining for gold. After making their way to the settlement of Rich Bar in 1851, Clappe began to write a series of letters to her sister, Molly, back east. In her 23 letters, Clappe provided an extraordinarily detailed glimpse of life in the mining camps. Throughout her letters, she used the pseudonym of Dame Shirley. A couple of years after Clappe wrote her final letter, Clappe’s friend Ferdinand C. Ewer published the letters in his journal, The Pioneer. With their publication, Clappe’s letters provided a large audience with an opportunity to view pioneer life and the Gold Rush through a woman’s eyes.

Sourcing Questions

  1. Who did Clappe intend to be the audience for these letters?
  2. Who became the intended audience for these letters after Ewer had them published?

Vocabulary Text
From our Log Cabin, INDIAN BAR, November 25, 1851
Nothing of importance has happened since I last wrote you, except that I have become amineress, that is if the having washed a pan of dirt with my own hands, and procured therefrom three dollars and twenty-five cents in gold-dust, which I shall enclose in this letter, will entitle me to the name. I can truly say, with the blacksmith’s apprentice at the close of his first day’s work at the anvil, that I am sorry I learned the trade, for I wet my feet, tore my dress, spoilt a pair of new gloves, nearly froze my fingers, got an awful headache, took cold, and lost a valuable breastpin, in this my labor of love. After such melancholy self-sacrifice on my part, I trust you will duly prize my gift. I can assure you that it is the last golden handiwork you will ever receive from Dame Shirley. . . .
Xanthippian(adj): like Xanthippe, the strong-willed wife of Socrates

coquetry(n): flirtatious behavior

bloomers(n): divided women’s garments for the lower body, especially popular among women’s rights activists in the early 1850s
How can women, many of whom, I am told, are really interesting and intelligent, how can they spoil their pretty mouths and ruin their beautiful complexions by demanding with Xanthippian fervor, in the presence, often, of a vulgar, irreverent mob, what the gentle creatures are pleased to call their “rights”? How can they wish to soil the delicate texture of their airy fancies by pondering over the wearying stupidities of Presidential elections, or the bewildering mystifications of rabid metaphysicians? And, above all, how can they so far forget the sweet, shy coquetries of shrinking womanhood as to don those horrid bloomers?
Melville: writer Herman Melville

nymph, satyr, naiad, grace(n): types of spirits and deities

Bacchus: Roman god of the grape harvest

Venus: Roman goddess of love
From our Log Cabin, INDIAN BAR, March 15, 1852
From happiest homes and such luxuriant lands has the golden magnet drawn its victims. From those palm-girdled isles of the Pacific, which Melville’s gifted pen has consecrated to such beautiful romance; from Indies, blazing through the dim past with funeral pyres, upon whose perfumed flame ascended to God the chaste souls of her devoted wives; from the grand old woods of classic Greece, haunted by nymph and satyr, Naiad and Grace, grape-crowned Bacchus and beauty-zoned Venus; from the polished heart of artificial Europe; from the breezy backwoods of young America; from the tropical languor of Asian savannah; from every spot shining through the rosy light of beloved old fables, or consecrated by lofty deeds of heroism or devotion, or shrined in our heart of hearts as the sacred home of some great or gifted one —they gather to the golden harvest.
Kanaka(n): workers from the Pacific Islands You will hear in the same day, almost at the same time, the lofty melody of the Spanish language, the piquant polish of the French (which, though not a musical tongue, is the most useful of them all), the silver, changing clearness of the Italian, the harsh gangle of the German, the hissing precision of the English, the liquid sweetness of theKanaka, and the sleep-inspiring languor of the East Indian. To complete the catalogue, there is the native Indian, with his guttural vocabulary of twenty words!

Comprehension Questions

  1. Does Clappe’s description of her attempt at panning for gold suggest a defiance of feminine stereotypes?
  2. Why does Clappe disapprove of the women’s rights movement?
  3. To what is Clappe referring to when describing a “golden magnet” and a “golden harvest?”
  4. How would you characterize Clappe’s observations of the ethnic diversity in California? Does she view that diversity in a positive or negative light?

Historical Reasoning Questions

  1. These letters were written several years after the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848 [see the The Women’s Movement and the Seneca Falls Convention Lesson in Chapter 6]. In what ways might these letters support the Declaration of Sentiments adopted by the convention? In what ways might these letters hinder the efforts of the convention?
  2. There is some speculation that Clappe may have known she would be writing to a larger audience when she first penned her letters. Do you believe there is language in the provided passages that suggests she had intended to share her observations with the American public? Does Clappe’s decision to write under the pseudonym of Dame Shirley suggest she may have intended to reach a larger audience?

The Shirley letters from California mines in 1851-52

Letter the First, Part Two [The Pioneer, February, 1854] The JOURNEY to RICH BAR

The Shirley letters from California mines in 1851-52

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