Dame Shirley, Queen of the Mining Camps

It’s always a thrill for me to read firsthand descriptions of different places and times in history. When you find a primary historical document that is also a great read, well that’s a real thrill.

I just started rereading “The Shirley Letters” by Louisa Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp, a.k.a. Dame Shirley, who traveled with her doctor husband to the mining camps of Rich Bar and Indian Bar in the Sierra Nevadas in 1851, right when they were just getting started.

Louisa, an orphan from Amherst, Massachusetts, wrote a series of letters to her adoptive sister Mary Jane which are not only an important historical source, but a real delight from beginning to end. Louisa’s lovely, lilting style describing the coarse and often brutal nature of life in the camps give it a feel like “Ann of Green Gables visits Dodge City.”

I haven’t been able to discover any connection between Dame Shirley, the orphan who wrote “The Shirley Letters,” and Anne Shirley, the orphan in “Anne of Green Gables,” written in 1908; but the two are an awful lot alike in their cheery disposition and their love of literary allusion.

Dame Shirley’s letters were published in a San Francisco magazine called “The Pioneer” in 1854 and 1855, where they caught the eye of Bret Harte, who purloined from them freely for his famous story, “The Luck of Roaring Camp.”

They were published in book form in 1922 and 1949, but these editions are rare. The one I have was published by Peregrine Smith, Inc. in 1970.

The first time I read this book I couldn’t put it down. And I can’t put it down this time either. Here are the opening lines:

“Rich Bar, East Branch of the North Fork of the Feather River, September 13, 1851

“I can easily imagine, dear M__, the look of large wonder which gleams from your astonished eyes when they fall upon the dateline of this letter. I can figure to myself your whole surprised attitude as you exclaim, ‘What in the name of all that is restless has sent Dame Shirley to Rich Bar? How did such a shivering, frail, home-loving little thistle ever float safely to that far away spot and take root so kindly, as it evidently has, in that barbarous soil?

“‘Where in this living breathing world of ours lieth that same Rich Bar? And, for pity’s sake, how does the poor little fool expect to amuse herself there?’

“Patience, sister of mine. Your curiosity is truly laudable; and I trust that before you read the postscript of this epistle it will be fully and completely relieved.”

There are a number of selections from this charming book that I will be posting, but the one that I think best shows the contrast between Dame Shirley’s affected delicacy and the brutish reality of her subject matter is her account of the execution of one William Brown, who was convicted of stealing:

“The execution was conducted by the jury, and was performed by throwing the cord, one end of which was attached to the neck of the prisoner, acrosss the limb of a tree standing outside of the Rich Bar graveyard; when all who felt disposed to engage in so revolting a task lifted the poor wretch from the ground in the most awkward manner possible.

“The whole affair, indeed, was a piece of cruel butchery, though that was not intentional but arose from the ignorance of those who made the preparations. In truth, life was only crushed out of him by hauling the writhing body up and down several times in succession by the rope that was wound round a large bough of his green-leafed gallows.

“Almost everyone was surprised by the severity of the sentence; and many with their hands on the cord did not believe even then that it would be carried into effect, but thought that at the last moment the jury would release the prisoner and substitute a milder punishment.

“It is said that the crowd generally seemed to feel the solemnity of the occasion; but many of the drunkards, who form a large part of the community on these Bars, laughed and shouted as if it were a spectacle got up for their particular amusement…

“The body of the criminal was allowed to hang for some hours after the execution. It had commenced storming in the earlier part of the evening; and when those whose business it was to inter the remains arrived at the spot, they found them enwrapped in a soft, white shroud of feathery snowflakes, as if pitying Nature had tried to hide from the offended face of heaven the cruel deed which her mountain children had committed.”