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5. Masculine Heroes   

5. Masculine

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton
- Cherokee Memorials
- Louise Amelia Smith Clappe
- James Fenimore Cooper
- Corridos
- Caroline Stansbury Kirkland
- Nat Love
- John Rollin Ridge
- Catharine Maria Sedgwick
- Walt Whitman
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Louise Amelia Smith Clappe (1819-1906)

Sarony and Major, View of San Francisco
[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].

Louise Amelia Smith Clappe Activities
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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.

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