Dame Shirley Becomes a "Mineress" for Day (1851)

by Louisa Clapp

Louisa Clapp was the wife of a doctor who moved into the California diggings several years after gold was discovered.  Historians know her name but little else about her - except what she wrote in a series of letters to a sister on the East Coast.  Signing them all as "Dame Shirley", Clapp provides an extraordinary view not just of life in the diggings, but particularly the role that women had - but as supporters to the miners and as "mineresses" themselves.

Nothing of importance has happened since I last wrote you, except that I have become a mineress; that is, if...having washed a pan of dirt with my own hands, and procured therefrom three dollars and twenty-five cents in gold dust (which I shall inclose in this letter), will entitle me to the name.  I can truly say, with the blacksmith's apprentice at the close of his first day's work at the anvil, that "I am sorry I learned the trade;" for I wet my feet, tore my dress, spoilt a pair of new gloves, nearly froze my fingers, got an awful headache, took cold and lost a valuable breastpin, in this my labor of love.  After such melancholy self-sacrifice on my part, I trust you will duly prize my gift.  I can assure you that it is the last golden handiwork you will ever receive from "Dame Shirley."

Apropos, of lady gold-washers in general - it is a common habit with people residing in towns in the vicinity of the "Diggings," to make up pleasure parties to those places.  Each woman of the company will exhibit on her return, at least twenty dollars of the oro, which she will gravely inform you she has just "panned out" from a single basinful of the soil.  This, of course, gives strangers a very erroneous idea of the average richness of auriferous dirt.  I myself thought, (now don't laugh,) that one had but to saunter gracefully along romantic streamlets, on sunny afternoons, with a parasol and white kid gloves, perhaps, and to stop now and then to admire the scenery, and carelessly rinse out of a small panful of yellow sand (without detriment to the white kids, however, so easy did I fancy the whole process to be), in order to fill one's workbag with the most beautiful and rare specimens of the precious mineral.  Since I have been here, I have discovered my mistake, and also the secret of the brilliant success of former gold-washeresses.

The miners are in the habit of flattering the vanity of their fair visitors, by scattering a handful of "salt" (which, strange to say, is exactly the color of gold dust, and has the remarkable property of often bringing to light very curious clumps of the ore) through the dirt before the dainty fingers touch it; and the dear creatures go home with their treasures, firmly believing that mining is the prettiest pastime in the world.

I had no idea of permitting such a costly joke to be played upon me; so I said but little of my desire to "go through the motions" of gold washing, until one day, when, as I passed a deep hole in which several men were at work, my companion requested the owner to fill a small pan, which I had in my hand, with dirt from the bedrock.  This request was, of course, granted, and, the treasure having been conveyed to the edge of the river, I succeeded, after much awkward maneuvering on my own part, and considerable assistance from friend H., an experienced miner, in gathering together the above specified sum.  All the diggers of our acquaintance say that it is an excellent "prospect," even to come from the bedrock, where, naturally, the richest dirt is found.  To be sure, there are now and then "lucky strikes"; such, for instance, as that mentioned in a former letter, where a person took out of a single basinful of soil, two hundred and fifty-six dollars.  But such luck is as rare as the winning of a hundred thousand dollar prize in a lottery.  We are acquainted with many here whose gains have never amounted to more than "wages"; that is, from six to eight dollars a day.  And a "claim" which yields a man a steady income of ten dollars per diem, is considered as very valuable.