The Story of Kate Camden: Native American in a Gold Rush Family

Kate Camden
Kate Camden.
Kate Camden, a Native American girl, was nursemaid for the family of prominent Shasta County pioneer Charles Camden.The family's two-story, Gold Rush era home stands in the Tower House Historic District of Whiskeytown National Recreation Area.

Kate's time with the Camdens is told through two photographs, a few sentences written long ago and a time-worn headstone. There are no details of her life before she was named Kate and before she came to live in a place and among a race so different from what she had ever known before. But her story exists in the shadow of a larger story that is well documented, a brutal time when California Indians, particularly children and young women, were captured and sold for labor.


Kate is believed to have been born a few years prior to the 1848 discovery of gold in California. The Gold Rush dramatically impacted indigenous people. The vast majority were killed in campaigns of extermination or died from disease and starvation. Scholars estimate the population went from 150,000 in 1845 to 30,000 in 1870.

Charles Camden was among those drawn to California by gold. He settled on the banks of Clear Creek in 1850 and mined successfully. He also made money with a sawmill, toll road, water ditch, silver mine and investments. Camden lived to age 95. His obituary described him as "the most prominent man in the business affairs of Shasta County from the earliers days."

Charles married Philena Tower, sister of friend and mining partner Levi Tower, in 1852. Kate joined their household near the time of first daughter Ada's birth in 1854. In a letter to a niece, Camden wrote:

We have a little Indian girl whom we have had with us four months and who takes a great deal of care of the baby. We call her Kate. She is about 10 years old as near as we can judge. She was perfectly wild or at least had never seen any civilized life before we got her, but she very quickly learns to work and is a great deal of help to me. I am learning her to read...She is very much pleased with her clothes and a good warm dry house. She already speaks the English language so that I can understand...


An Indian girl working in the home of a white family was nont unusual. California's Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850 created a framework for forced Indian labor. A loitering Indian could be arrested and bound to work to pay off fines. Under the euphemism of guardianship, children were unpaid workers in homes and on farms. This de facto slavery was widely accepted. A violent trade with killings and kidnappings developed. In 1861, the Marysville Appeal wrote that, "these vile kidnappers in human flesh are making a regular business of killing the Indians in the mountains, or running them off, and kidnapping their children, packing them about the country, like so many sheep or swine to sell, at retail or wholesale."


Charles Camden's writings do not reveal how Kate came to be with the family. Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is Wintu territory and the history of the indigenous people of the area goes back thousands of years. Kate may have been Wintu but also could have been taken and relocated from somewhere else.

Philena refers to Kate in an 1855 journal entry, recounting her husband's return from San Francisco. "My Kingmand had sent Ada a table chair and Mr. Clark had bought Kate and Ada a doll apiece," Philena writes.

Charles' autobiography mentions Kate just once:

...we made a trip east to England, taking Ada and Grace (our two children), and the Indian girl Kate with us...On arriving in England we left the children and Kate with friends, which enabled us to go around with more freedom, even into France. We returned Nov. 1, 1859, having been gone six months.

A family photograph, probably taken near the time of the Europe trip, shows Kate holding Grace, born in 1856. The only other photograph of Kate, circa 1865-70, is a portrait as a young woman.

By 1868, the Camdens lived the winters in Oakland. The 1870 Census records Kate living and working not for the Camdens but for Adoram and Donna Cooeman, who had a one-year-old son. Kate had attended school within the year and could read and write, according to the Census. Donna Coleman was one of the first teachers in Shasta and the first woman in California elected as a county schools superintendent.


Kate died in 1871 and is buried within the Tower House Historic District (to protect the site and abide by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, we do not disclose the location). Kate's headstone reads:
In Memory of
Kate Camden
Died Dec. 1st
Aged 27 Years
Poor Katie Rest

Written by Laura Christman, Park Volunteer

Last updated: September 18, 2020

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