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As It Was: Woman Writer Mines Goldmines for Colorful Stories

Dame Shirley was the pen name of Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, who wrote 23 letters about her experiences in the Rich Bar goldmine camps on California’s Feather River. The rough life of the 1851 miners fascinated Clappe, an Amherst-educated doctor’s wife.

She wrote, “In the short space of twenty-four days, we have had murders, fearful accidents, bloody deaths, a mob, whippings, a hanging, an attempt at suicide, and a fatal duel.”

She loved the beauty of the mountains and the tremendous contrasts of a life that gave her champagne and oysters one minute and near starvation the next. She even tried being a miner herself, but only briefly because the river’s cold water wet her feet, ruined her gloves and dress, froze her fingers, gave her a cold, and resulted in only $3.25.

After several seasons, Dame Shirley and her husband moved to San Francisco where they divorced and she became a teacher in a girl’s school. She wrote for the Marysville Herald and the periodical The Pioneer. Bret Harte and other writers of that period mined her letters for their colorful content.

Source: Knapp Smith Clappe, Louise Amelia. The Shirley Letters. (With an Introduction by Richard E Oglesby). Peregrine Smith Inc., 1970. Print.

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Maryann Mason has taught history and English in the U.S. Midwest and Northwest, and Bolivia. She has written history spots for local public radio, interviewed mystery writers for RVTV Noir, and edited personal and family histories.  Her poetry has appeared in Sweet Annie & Sweet Pea Review (1999), Rain Magazine (2007), and The Third Reader, an online Journal of Literary Fiction and Poetry. In 2008 she published her first chapbook, Ravelings.  She organized a History Day for Southern Oregon.