Up The Road: Dame Shirley, Another 'Girl Of The Golden West'

Jan 17, 2018

We appreciate Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe this week, a chronicler of the California Gold Rush better known as Dame Shirley.

Originally from New Jersey and Massachusetts, the dame came West with her physician husband during the heady early days of California statehood. Her descriptions of life in Rich Bar and Indian Bar, gold camps on the Feather River not far from Quincy, were published in the form of letters to her sister. (A “bar” in this case is an accumulation of sand or gravel in a river exposed at low water, the easiest place to find gold.) Clappe’s history was so apt that the well-known writer Bret Harte may have “borrowed” from it, liberally, in his own work. Ever generous, Dame Shirley called these “unconscious plagiarisms.”

A classic in early California literature

There’s not much left of Rich Bar these days, down in Feather River Canyon near Belden, with its handful of living residents and many, many folks permanently tucked into the overgrown cemetery. But imagine it as a booming tent and cabin city of 1,000 souls, as the total gold finds from Rich Bar, Indian Bar, and adjacent mining camps began adding up to some $23 million. In nearby Quincy, named after Quincy, Illinois, and by extension, John Quincy Adams, the town square is named for Dame Shirley.

Here are a few excerpts from the letter she wrote from Indian Bar on January 27, 1852, to describe how stir-crazy, soggy miners celebrated the holidays. She uses the term “saturnalia” to refer to the Roman winter holiday, often an unrestrained orgy, held to honor the god Saturn:

I wish that it were possible, dear M., to give you an idea of the perfect saturnalia which has been held upon the river for the last three weeks, without at the same time causing you to think too severely of our good mountains. In truth, it requires not only a large intellect, but a large heart, to judge with becoming charity of the peculiar temptations of riches. A more generous, hospitable, intelligent, and industrious people than the inhabitants of the half-dozen bars, of which Rich Bar is the nucleus, never existed; for you know how proverbially wearing it is to the nerves of manhood to be entirely without either occupation or amusement, and that has been pre-eminently the case during the present month.

Imagine a company of enterprising and excitable young men, settled upon a sandy level about as large as a poor widow’s potato-patch, walled in by sky-kissing hills, absolutely compelled to remain on account of the weather, which has vetoed indefinitely their exodus, with no place to ride or drive even if they had the necessary vehicles and quadrupeds; with no newspapers nor politics to interest them; deprived of all books but a few dog-eared novels of the poorest class, —churches, lectures, lyceums, theaters, and (most unkindest cut of all!) pretty girls, having become to these unhappy men mere myths; without one of the thousand ways of passing time peculiar to civilization, most of them living in damp, gloomy cabins, where heaven’s dear light can enter only by the door; and when you add to all these disagreeables the fact that, during the never-to-be-forgotten month, the most remorseless, persevering rain which ever set itself to work to drive humanity mad has been pouring doggedly down, sweeping away bridges, lying in uncomfortable puddles about nearly all of the habitations, wickedly insinuating itself beneath un-umbrella-protected shirt-collars, generously treating to a shower-bath and the rheumatism sleeping bipeds who did not happen to have an india-rubber blanket, and, to crown all, rendering mining utterly impossible, —you cannot wonder that even the most moral should have become somewhat reckless.

“Dame Shirley” chronicled life in California’s gold camps—what people would put up with for the chance to find even flakes of gold.
Credit Photo by Treemad Madagascar

The saturnalia commenced on Christmas evening, at the Humboldt, which, on that very day, had passed into the hands of new proprietors. The most gorgeous preparations were made for celebrating the two events. The bar was retrimmed with red calico, the bowling-alley had a new lining of the coarsest and whitest cotton cloth, and the broken lamp-shades were replaced by whole ones. All day long, patient mules could be seen descending the hill, bending beneath casks of brandy and baskets of champagne, and, for the first time in the history of that celebrated building, the floor (wonderful to relate, it has a floor) was washed, at a lavish expenditure of some fifty pails of water, the using up of one entire broom, and the melting away of sundry bars of the best yellow soap, after which I am told that the enterprising and benevolent individuals who had undertaken the herculean task succeeded in washing the boards through the hopeless load of dirt which had accumulated upon them during the summer and autumn. All these interesting particulars were communicated to me by Ned when he brought up dinner. That distinguished individual himself was in his element, and in a most intense state of perspiration and excitement at the same time.

I believe that the company danced all night; at any rate, they were dancing when I went to sleep, and they were dancing when I woke the next morning. The revel was kept up in this mad way for three days, growing wilder every hour. Some never slept at all during that time. On the fourth day they got past dancing, and, lying in drunken heaps about the barroom, commenced a most unearthly howling. Some barked like dogs, some roared like bulls, and others hissed like serpents and geese.

Towards the latter part of the week, people were compelled to be a little more quiet, from sheer exhaustion, but on New Year’s Day, when there was a grand dinner at Rich Bar, the excitement broke out, if possible, worse than ever. The same scenes, in a more or less aggravated form, in proportion as the strength of the actors held out, were repeated at Smith’s Bar and The Junction. . . . Nearly every day I was dreadfully frightened by seeing a boat-load of intoxicated men fall into the river, where nothing but the fact of their being intoxicated saved many of them from drowning.

And that was just Christmas week! The party continued well into the new year.