Whiskeytown, CA

How an Indigenous girl became Kate Camden, a slave in Whiskeytown

Built in the Bay

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(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

America's history is inextricably linked to the history of the Indigenous tribes that first made this land their home. In large swathes of the country, this link has been covered up with strip malls, industrial parks and high-rise apartment buildings. There are, however, areas in which that link is stronger despite the violent history between European settlers and First Peoples.

In the high country of Northern California, nestled among tall oak and pine trees, is the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. The Shasta County reservoir is roughly eight miles from Redding and the lake itself is formed by the Whiskeytown Dam on Clear Creek.

Long before the dam and the settlers though, the Wintu people made this area their home. They, as the vast majority of First Peoples did, lived off the land, garnering their subsistence and traditions from the natural ebb and flow of the seasons.

While settlers came to the area before 1848, as was the case for several Indigenous communities, the Gold Rush exacerbated the already staunch violence and colonialization. What initially started as a small cluster of tents quickly became a bustling town that made no room for the people who called this land home for thousands of years before them. The Wintu were violently pushed out and while many Wintu communities still exist in the area to this day, the debt of colonialization has yet to be fully repaid.

The Town and The Name

California is known in part, not unfairly, for the incorporation of colonial Spanish names into the naming of white settler communities. This begs the question, how did this town get its homage to alcohol?

While the evidence for this story is murky, residents tend to believe the name stems from a settler named Billie Peterson who faltered hauling his supplies back to his mine. As the story goes, Peterson's mule stumbled or the pack on its back broke, causing a barrel of whiskey to tumble down the rocks, breaking and spilling into the creek, which was aptly named Whiskey Creek. From this, the small settlement then came to be called Whiskeytown.

Tower House Historic District

Wintu history collides with Gold Rush history at Whiskeytown's Tower House district. Settlers like Levi Tower and Charles Camden built their homes in the area. The Camden House still stands along with a 150-year-old apple tree and a winding interpretive path alongside the beautiful Clear Creek.

The Camden House, home to Charles and Philena Camden, was also home to Kate Camden, the Wintu servant who lived in the two-story house as the Camden's nursemaid.

Legal Codification of Slavery

California's Act for the Government and Protection of Indians of 1850 laid the groundwork for Indigenous slavery in several ways. A loitering Indigenous person could be arrested and forced into labor to pay off fines. Indigenous children were forced into unpaid work in homes and on farms under the guise of guardianship and Kate Camden was one such child. The legal codification developed quickly into a bloody and violent industry in which white settlers kidnapped Indigenous women and children for free labor.

Critically, Charles Camden's writings do not reveal how Kate Camden came to live with the family.

Kate Camden's forced servitude

As settlers poured into the area during the mid-1800s, the Wintu people were not only pushed from their ancestral homes but many young Wintu women were taken from their families to serve wealthy settlers like the Charles Camden.

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(Courtesy of National Parks Service)

The story of Kate's life is unfortunately vague and unjust in many ways. Little information about her before her settler name or servitude is known beyond that she was a Wintu girl thought to be born a few years prior to the 1848 discovery of gold.

Kate's story, vague as it may be, is representative of the broader story of First Peoples in California during the Gold Rush era. Marked by slavery, violence and exploitation, the Indigenous people in California were killed and sold into slavery to make room for white settlers. Conservative scholars estimate that the First People's population in California dropped from 150,000 in 1845, already down from years of early settler violence, to just 30,000 in 1870.

Charles Camden made money early in the Gold Rush era owning a sawmill and investing in silver mines. He married Philena, a friend of prominent settler Levi Tower in 1852. Kate joined the Camden family before the birth of their first daughter, Ada, in 1854.

In a letter to his niece, Charles wrote about Kate.

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...

Philena mentions Kate just once in her diary.

"My Kingmand had sent Ada a table chair and Mr. Clark had bought Kate and Ada a doll apiece," Philena wrote.

Kate Camden was featured throughout the Camden's travels to Europe and the Bay Area from the early 1850s until her death in 1871 around 27 years old.

Kate likely lived a short brutal life of servitude and yet thousands of other First Peoples throughout California and the country were dealt a more violent fate. Kate's story was commonplace in an era that saw slavery as just another facet of economics. Her history, murky as it may be, informs us of the brutality and degradation that Indigenous peoples lived with.

The beauty of Whiskeytown Lake and the surrounding areas is underscored by the horror and violence on which the settlements there were built. One does not exist without the other and as travelers in a modern era, we owe a great debt to the First People who made this nation their home. Kate Camden's story will live on, provided we have the respect to retell it.

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