Louise Amelia Knapp Smith was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and raised in Massachusetts. She attended public schools and the Catherine Fiske female seminary in Keene, New Hampshire. In 1837, following her mother's death, Louise returned home to care for her siblings. After a year, the children moved in with a long-time family friend, and Louise was able to continue her education.
In 1849, she moved to California with her new husband, Dr. Fayette Clappe. The Gold Rush was on, and Louise Clappe was offered the opportunity to write about it and her travel adventures. She chose "Dame Shirley" as her pen name.
As Dame Shirley, she wrote a series of 23 letters to her sister Mary Jane, also called Molly, in 1851 and 1852. The "Shirley Letters," as the collection later became known, were first published in separate issues of Pioneer, a California literary magazine. They provided a woman's perspective of life in two gold mining camps in Northern California and the vast, beautiful landscape around them. After 15 months, Louise and her husband left the mining camps and moved to San Francisco. Louise taught for 24 years in the local public schools and retired in 1878. In 1922, the Shirley Letters were published in book form. The Shirley letters also have been noted as an inspiration for many of Bret Harte's stories.