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Wild Women of the West: Cowgirl Louise Clappe

A cowgirl with an amazing story.

September 10, 2019

“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.” —Excerpt from Louise Clappe’s letter to her sister Mary Ann, September 20, 1851

The sun hung like a golden disc in an impossible blue sky over the primitive trail leading to the gold camp of Rich Bar in northern California. The wind swirled over the lush green landscape tossing wildflower pedals into the air and creating ripples across the surface of the clear waters of the Feather River. Louise Clappe, a young pioneer bride, rode through the tranquil setting beside a bearded driver in his supply-laden wagon. She let her eyes drift to the ruggedness beyond where the snow-covered Sierra mountain peaks cut sharply into the sky and wispy clouds drifted around the summit.

Louise was so lost in thought she hardly noticed that the vehicle had come to a complete stop. She glanced inquisitively over at the driver and he casually nodded his head at the interruption standing before them. A band of Native Americans blocked the roadway and were eyeing the travelers carefully. Little by little more Indians filtered out from behind the trees and brush surrounding the wagon.

They were friendly people, more curious than threatened by the invaders on their land. The women gently approached Louise and the wagon to get a closer look. The infants they carried in their arms cooed and wriggled happily. The men watched their wives and daughters touch Louise’s clothing and stroke her hat and shoes in wonder. Louise was moved by their peaceful scrutiny and fascinated with their looks as well.

She opened the handbag resting in her lap and produced a package of straight pins. She placed one of the pins into the hand of a young woman dressed in a thigh-length skirt of rushes pounded into threads and tied about the hips. The woman smiled brightly and turned to the others around her to show off the treasure she had just received. Without a moment’s hesitation the remainder of the women in the group as well as the men extended their hands to the benevolent Mrs. Clappe. They all hoped that they would be given a gift too.

Louise captured the moving encounter with the Indians as well as the details and spirit of her journey to the gold fields in a series of letters written to her sister living in the east. Her firsthand description of a unique place and time during the Gold Rush is considered by most historians to be as valuable as the nuggets found in California’s streams and mines.

Born in 1819 in Amherst, Massachusetts, Louise Amelia Knapp-Smith was an orphan. She learned to read and write at an early age, and by the time she was nineteen years old she was a published author. Her talent for writing was nurtured by a distinguished diplomat named Alexander Hill Everett. The pair met in Massachusetts and when Everett took a job as a U.S. Commissioner in China, he and Louise began writing letters back and forth. Alexander was a well-known writer and encouraged Louise to hone her craft. “If,” he wrote, “you would add to your love of reading the habit of writing, you would find a new and inexhaustible source of comfort and satisfaction opening upon you.”

Louise took her mentor’s advice and penned a number of short stories that served as practical experience for the work yet to come. She created a clear, straightforward style unlike the literary work common at the time by writers like Sarah Orne Jewett and Louisa May Alcott.

Armed with a desire to see the west and recount the sights and sounds to her adopted sister, Mary Ann (referred to in her letters as Molly), Louise traveled to California with her husband, Dr. Fayette Clappe. The petite, vivacious blonde arrived in San Francisco in 1849. After two winters in the fog, wind, and cold of San Francisco, the inclement weather became too much for the physician to tolerate. On the recommendation of a friend, he decided to go to Rich Bar near the crest of the Sierras on Feather River.

In the spring of 1851, he sent for Louise and she enthusiastically began packing. Her friends thought the move was a bad idea. One friend suggested, “It was indelicate to go alone among so many men.” Louise politely thanked them for their concern and proceeded to the gold fields anyway. Shortly after reaching the mines, she began sending letters to her sister describing the coarse and often brutal nature of life in the mining camps. She wrote a total of twenty-three letters, which were later published in a literary magazine called The Pioneer under Louise’s pen name, Dame Shirley.

In her first letter, Louise posed a question she suspected Mary Ann would ask. “How did such a frail, home-loving little thistle ever float safely to that faraway spot; and take root so kindly…in that barbarous soil? And, for pity’s sake, how does the poor little fool expect to amuse herself there?”

Louise’s account of her journey shows the spirit that prevails throughout her letters. Passing quickly over the boring steamboat ride upriver, she began her story at the rancho ten miles below Marysville. Here her husband met her; most of her clothes were left to be transported later.

Rich Bar could be reached only by mule train. Louise wrapped a few toilet articles in a sheet, which was tied to the back of a mule. She described the beauties of the distant buttes as they traveled to Marysville. There were no sidesaddles, but Louise thought it amusing to ride astride.

Her first adventure happened shortly after they set out. The saddle was too large for the mule. It slipped sideways, dumping Louise into the dust. Her husband suggested that they return so she could change, but she refused. The doctor, fearful of another accident, walked the spindly-legged mule to Marysville. They arrived at midnight. The hotel help had gone to bed; the only refreshments available were dried apple pies, cheese, and “those tempting and saw dustiest of luxuries, crackers.” Louise wanted something hot. Dr. Clappe went out to a restaurant and ordered a meal: hot oysters, toast, tomatoes, and coffee. She finished them gratefully and fell asleep.

The stage from Marysville to Bidwell Bar was, Louise wrote, “the most excruciatingly springless wagon that it was ever my lot to be victimized in.” Her husband went ahead by mule, so she was alone. The road was steep and narrow. Cliffs crowded in on one side, a “yawning chasm” on the other. “Wonder to relate,” she wrote, “I did not oh! Or ah! Nor shriek once.” After they crossed the last mountain the Welsh driver complimented her. He said she was “the fust woman that ever come over that ’ere mount’in without hollerin’.” Louise was ashamed to admit that fear had kept her mute.

Dr. Clappe met his wife at Bidwell Bar. “There was,” she wrote, “only a tent to sleep in, only the ground to sleep on.” The air was black with fleas. In the night a grizzly bear came “shuffling about.” Louise was frightened, but her husband, awakened by her whisper, simply turned over and went back to sleep.

After two days and nights of traveling through the wilderness alone a miner escorted the couple on to Rich Bar. Dr. Clappe and Louise checked into the Empire Hotel, a framed structure with starched calico and blue drill stretched about four walls. The inside walls of the upstairs rooms were white cotton. But there were voluminous curtains at the glass windows, which were brought in from Marysville by mules. The first floor contained a saloon and bowling alley. Louise soon learned that next to cards, bowling was the miners’ chief recreation.

In a letter dated September 20, 1851, Louise conveyed her impressions of the mining camp outside of the hotel and her husband’s makeshift office. “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 Barra Rica, as the Spaniard 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.”

Dr. Fayette referred to his office as “a perfect marvel to the miners, from its superior elegance.” Louise was anxious to see this marvel. As she stepped into the log building, she saw two ten-foot-long benches along either side of the dirt-floored room. A small window was covered with white cotton, a rude sign on it declaring his profession.

Medicines and medical books were displayed on crude shelves resembling “sticks snatched from the wood pile.” The walls were adorned with pictures cut from Godey’s Ladies’ Book, a fashion magazine of the day, and from Graham’s and Sartain’s magazines for men. The figures looked, she wrote, like “imaginary monsters, sporting miraculous waists, impossible wrists and fabulous feet.”

Louise was proud of her husband and eagerly accepted his invitation for her to help him with his practice. Louise and Fayette traveled on pack mules to call on patients in the outlying areas. In the spring of 1852, they attended to a young miner who had been critically injured in an accident.

A few days prior, a rolling boulder crushing the prospector’s leg he had unearthed $4,000 in gold. After Dr. Clappe amputated the man’s leg, typhoid fever set in. Louise sat with the miner, wiping his brown and talking with him until he died. “On the evening of his death,” Louise wrote her sister, “he sat up, opened his eyes, and whispered, “Do you hear the funeral procession returning?”

“How oddly do life and death jostle each other in this strange world of our!” Louise lamented to Molly.

The cloth walls that surrounded Louise and Fayette’s hotel room could not prevent her from hearing the profanity that the miners constantly used. Some of their expressions, she wrote, “were they not so fearfully blasphemous, would be grotesquely sublime.” She explained that the loneliness of being away from loved ones caused them to drink and swear far more than they would have at home.

The cloth walls also made it hard to sleep, for the noise was always with her. Miners came in at all hours, shouting and singing. The bowling alley was never quiet, day or night. Mining equipment rattled and squeaked far into the night. There was a dog nearby that barked at all hours. Added to this was the noise of the wooden flume, hung by chains from the canyon walls to carry water to the sluices. Louise described its sound as “resembling those of a suffering child.”

Although there were certain crude aspects to living in a mining camp, Louise was amused by the hell-roaring life surrounding her. The methods employed by prospectors to attract the attention of the few females living in the area or passing through was of particular interest to her. “To impress a lady,” she wrote, “they salt their diggings. The dear creatures go home with their treasures, firmly believing that mining is the prettiest pastime in the world.”

After spending six months in Rich Bar, Dr. Clappe decided he and Louise should move farther downriver to a spot called Indian Bar. A bigger find of gold had been discovered at the location. A doctor’s services were in great need there and they could name their own price. Dr. Clappe, as well as any other physician, was paid in gold nuggets. He believed the move to Indian Bar would be personally and financially rewarding.

The Clappes arrived in Indian Bar in October 1851. They were greeted by a large homemade United States flag. A sailor had climbed the top of a fir tree, fastened the flag, and removed the branches as he descended; it had been there since the Fourth of July.

The hotel was another “rag shanty” of white cotton and blue drill; the sign above the entrance read Humboldt Hotel. The hotel had something unusual: In the bar/dancehall there was a wooden floor. There was also the ubiquitous bowling alley.

The canyon was so narrow that they were unable to reach their cabin except by going through the hotel’s kitchen. There Louise met Paganini Ned, the cook who was also chief fiddler in the dancehall. The frame-and-canvas door hung open. “Enter my dear, you are welcome,” she was told. “Besides, we could not keep you out if we would, as there is no latch on the door.” The cabin was about twenty feet square, divided into two rooms by an unhemmed curtain. The ceiling was white cotton, sewn together in spots so that, wrote Shirley, “it hung gracefully open, giving one a bird’s-eye view of the shingles above.”

The wooden floor was so uneven that “the chairs, tables, etc., remind you constantly of a dog with a sore foot.” The walls were hung with chintz, the pattern of wreathed roses in brown, purple, green and yellow. A log settee leaned against a wall. A small, square chess table was covered with oilcloth. Candle boxes made a bookcase. The fireplace was of rocks and mud, with an inside chimney of sticks and mud. The mantel was a log covered with flattened tin cans, the gaily painted labels advertising various canned fruits.

In the bedroom, trunks or claret boxed were dressers. A mining pan was a washbowl. The bedstead was so massive that “in ponderously it leaves the Empire couches far behind.” The small window had no covering; glass could not come from Marysville till spring. Louise declared, however, that she was just as happy. She had always enjoyed sitting beside an open window, even in the winter.

But the biggest surprise was the long dining table. It was set with a white cloth and napkins were beside the plates and glasses. And Paganini Ned stood resplendent in a new blue flannel shirt and blue pants, ready to serve a dinner in her honor. The menu: oyster soup, fried salmon (from the river), roast beef and boiled ham, fried oysters, boiled potatoes and onions, mince pie and pudding (without eggs or milk), nuts and raisins, claret, champagne, and coffee. Of the coffee, Louise wrote that “Ned must have got the recipe for making it from the very angel who gave the beverage to Mahomet.” Ned served the meal with a grand air and ceremony. “It was one of those scenes,” Louise mused, “just touched with that fine and almost imperceptive perfume of the ludicrous.”

In late 1852, when the mines were failing and crime was on the increase, Louise and her husband returned to San Francisco. Dr. Clappe opened another practice and Louise turned to teaching. In 1854, the restless Fayette decided to return to the mining camps and when he had not been heard from for three years, Louise filed for divorce. Her health began to fail in 1878 and she moved to New York to live with her niece. She earned her living delivering lectures on art and literature.

In 1897 Louise entered a home for the elderly and remained there until her death on February 11, 1906 at the age of eighty-seven. Among the prized possessions found in her room were the letters that Alexander Everett had written to her more than seventy years before her passing.

The “Shirley Letters” have become classic and required reading for those interested in the early mining days of California.

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