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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Masculine Heroes Louise Amelia Smith Clappe (1819-1906)

[7357] Sarony and Major, View of San Francisco, Taken from the Western Hill at the Foot of Telegraph Hill, Looking Toward Ringon Point and Mission Valley [detail] (c. 1851), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1716].

Born in New Jersey and educated at female academies in New England, Louise Clappe had an unusual background for a participant in and chronicler of the Gold Rush. She was raised by her father, a mathematics professor, after her mother’s early death, and then by a guardian after she was orphaned in 1837. Her thorough education left her with a well-rounded knowledge of arts and literature.

In 1848, Louise Smith married Fayette Clapp, a young medical apprentice (Smith would later change the spelling of her married name to “Clappe”). Infected with “gold fever,” he moved with his new wife to San Francisco in 1849 at the beginning of the Gold Rush. From San Francisco, the couple moved on to the mining camps springing up throughout northern California, where Fayette hoped to establish a profitable medical practice. In 1851 and 1852, the Clapps lived in Rich Bar and nearby Indian Bar, two boomtowns on the East Fork of the Feather River. The mining camps were makeshift and primitive, presenting their inhabitants with difficult living conditions, especially during the rainy winter. Clappe was one of relatively few women to live among the miners and prospectors–the first California census of 1850 indicates that the population of the state was over 90 percent male–but as Clappe’s letters make clear, more women were immigrating to California along the Oregon Trail as the decade progressed.

While living in the mining camps, Clappe began writing descriptive letters about her experiences to her sister, Molly, who lived in Massachusetts. Drawing on traditions of literary letter writing begun by Caroline Kirkland and by Margaret Fuller in her Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (published in 1844), Clappe produced articulate epistles about her encounters. Witty, keenly observant, and often filled with literary references, Clappe’s letters paint a vivid picture of the diversity and dynamism of the social world created by the Gold Rush. Clappe’s perspective is surprisingly unconstrained by her status as a “proper lady”–she records everything she witnesses in the camps, from specialized mining techniques to incidents of mob justice to the prospectors’ drunken gambling sprees. Her delight in the natural beauty of northern California also permeates her letters.

Left with an unsuccessful medical practice when the gold in the area was exhausted, Fayette Clapp moved his wife back to San Francisco in 1852. Soon after, the couple separated: while Fayette sailed to Hawaii and eventually returned to the Atlantic coast, Louise Clappe remained in San Francisco and found work as a schoolteacher. In 1856, she formally filed for divorce and changed the spelling of her name from “Clapp” to “Clappe.” In 1878, she retired from schoolteaching and moved back to New England, where she lived until her death.

Louise Clappe eventually published the letters she had written to her sister from the mining camps, using the title “California, in 1851 and 1852. Residence in the Mines.” The letters appeared serially between 1854 and 1855 in the San Francisco magazine The Pioneer, where they became known as the “Shirley Letters” because Clappe signed them with the pseudonym “Shirley” or “Dame Shirley.” If Clappe hoped to gain fame or fortune from her writings, she published a little too late, for public excitement over the Gold Rush had waned by 1854. Nonetheless, her letters have been important to historians for their unique perspective on life in the California mining camps, and her work is now recognized as an important literary accomplishment.

Teaching Tips

  • Clappe frequently employs literary allusions, referencing Shakespeare, Greek mythology, Romantic poets, and British writers such as Charles Dickens who would have been her contemporaries. Ask your students to consider the function of these self-conscious assertions of “literariness” in Clappe’s letters. How do they affect the tone and voice of the letters? Why might Clappe have been interested in including these allusions in her work?
  • In Letter 12, Clappe tells her sister that she is committed to giving her a “true picture” of life in the mining camps. Ask your students to think about this “documentary” goal in Clappe’s letters. Why does she feel bound to report everything that she observes, even the “disagreeable subjects”? In many ways, the letters read more like a diary than correspondence between two people–Clappe rarely asks about her sister or even specifically addresses her. Ask your students whether they believe Clappe envisioned another, wider audience for her writing, or whether she might have revised the letters before publishing them.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Based on Clappe’s letters, what kind of role do you think women occupied within the mining camps (which were populated mainly by men)? What kinds of challenges would life in a mining town pose for women? What is Clappe’s attitude toward the other women whom she encounters in Rich Bar? How do issues of class seem to color Clappe’s descriptions of women?
  2. Context: Compare Clappe’s account of life in Rich Bar with Caroline Kirkland’s narrative of life in the Michigan Territory. What do the two women have in common? How are their accounts of “settling” in new territory different? How do the different regional characteristics of the Midwest and California shape their narratives in different ways? How does each attempt to create a “true picture” of her life as a settler?
  3. Context: Examine the illustration entitled The Winter of 1849 featured in the archive. How does the artist’s depiction of life in a mining town compare to Clappe’s account of her experiences?
  4. Exploration: Scholars have noted that Bret Harte borrowed heavily from Clappe’s letters in his stories “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” and “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” Some scholars have also asserted that Mark Twain may have been inspired by an episode in Clappe’s letters when he wrote “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” What does Clappe have in common with these writers of literary regionalism? Why do you think they achieved greater fame and financial profit than she did?

Selected Archive Items

[1303] Francis Samuel Marryat, The Winter of 1849 (1855),
courtesy of Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.
This illustration of residents trying to navigate San Francisco’s flooded streets shows how rapidly growing cities and towns suffered from poor planning and local weather conditions.

[5228] Anonymous, Montgomery Street, San Francisco, 1852 (n.d.),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USZ62-55762].
Rapid, primarily Euro-American immigration during the Gold Rush brought California to statehood in 1850, as a “free state” that forbade slavery. Yet demand for land and forced labor caused a genocidal-scale population decline among California Indians.

[5841] Currier and Ives, Gold Mining in California (c.1871),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1755].
This Currier and Ives lithograph presents a romantic and sanitized portrayal of life in the gold fields. In actuality, the mining process took an incredible toll on both miners and the surrounding environment.

[5599] Louise Amelia Smith Clappe, letter from The Pioneer, Letters from the Mines (1851),
courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library.
A well-educated woman from New Jersey, Louise Clappe wrote numerous letters to her sister about her experiences in the mining camps of California. In 1850 less than 10 percent of California’s inhabitants were female.

[7357] Sarony and Major, View of San Francisco, Taken from the Western Hill at the Foot of Telegraph Hill, Looking Toward Ringon Point and Mission Valley [detail] (c. 1851),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1716].
Less than two years after the Gold Rush began, San Francisco had become a sprawling boom town that drew people from all over the world. This illustration shows both a busy city and a very active harbor crowded with ships.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

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Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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