Cameron, Donaldina (1869–1968)

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Cameron, Donaldina (1869–1968)

American California mission superintendent and social reformer. Born Donaldina Mackenzie Cameron on July 26, 1869, in Otago Land District on the South Island of New Zealand; died on January 4, 1968, in Palo Alto, California; daughter of Allan Cameron (a sheep rancher) and Isabella Mackenzie; attended Castleman School for Girls and Los Angeles Normal School; never married; no children.

Donaldina Cameron was born on July 26, 1869, on a sheep station near the Clutha River in Otago Land District on the South Island of New Zealand. In 1871, her family moved to the San Joaquin Valley of California. Three years later, following the death of her mother, Cameron moved with her family to San Jose, California, then to Oakland in 1878, and to La Puente, near Los Angeles, in 1885. In 1887, after her father's death, Cameron left the Los Angeles Normal School where she was a student and returned to live with her siblings in La Puente.

In 1895, she began to work with Chinese women, joining Margaret Culbertson , under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church, at the mission home of the Woman's Occidental Board of Foreign Missions in San Francisco. In 1900, Cameron became superintendent of the home, a position to which she devoted the rest of her professional life.

Located on the fringe of San Francisco's Chinatown, the mission house provided her with a base of operations from which she effectively waged her campaign against Chinese female slavery. Cameron broke into brothels and gambling clubs, bringing the captive women and girls to the mission house. She developed educational programs and found jobs, homes, and schools for them. In 1925, she established a second mission house in Oakland as a refuge for young children. As the Chinese slave trade diminished, these mission houses grew into educational and community centers.

Obeying the National Board of Missions' mandatory retirement age of 65, in 1934 Cameron retired from the mission, but she remained in the San Francisco area and worked with the mission as a volunteer until 1939 when she returned to Oakland to care for her three remaining sisters. In 1942, she and her two surviving sisters moved to Palo Alto. That same year, the mission house at 920 Sacramento Street in San Francisco was renamed the Donaldina Cameron House. In and around the Palo Alto area, Cameron was very involved in civic activities in volunteer positions until her death from a pulmonary embolism at the age of 98 in 1968.

In 1969, the California State Legislature introduced a memorial tribute for her work. While regarded as a model of selfless missionary behavior by many, some critics propose that she was intolerant, unsympathetic, and possibly racist. They cite the fact that she never learned to speak Chinese and that she frequently referred to the Chinese as "heathens." Whatever the grounds and validity of these concerns, Cameron remains personally responsible for the rescue of thousands of Chinese women and young girls held as slaves in sweatshops and brothels, and she was primarily responsible for the eventual demise of the Chinese slave trade in America. She established educational and community organizations that taught, trained, and placed women in employment and safer living conditions, providing over the years employment and education for consecutive generations of Chinese-American women in San Francisco.


Martin, Mildred Crowl. Chinatown's Angry Angel: The Story of Donaldina Cameron. Palo Alto, CA: Pacific Books, 1986.

McClain, Laurene, "Donaldina Cameron: A Reap-praisal," in Pacific History. Vol. 27, no. 3, 1983, pp. 24–35.

Wilson, Carol Green. Chinatown's Quest: The Life and Adventure of Donaldina Cameron. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1958.

suggested reading:

Wilson, Carol Green. Chinatown Quest: 100 Years of the Donaldina Cameron House, 1874–1974. San Francisco: California Historical Society, 1974.


Papers relating to the Woman's Occidental Board of Foreign Mission are housed at the Donaldina Cameron House, San Francisco; personal papers held privately by her niece, Caroline Bailey.

Amanda Carson Banks , Vanderbilt Divinity School

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Cameron, Donaldina (1869–1968)

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