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History: A Daring Rescue
A Daring Rescue
Story & Photos provided by Terry Ommen
By almost all measures, Donaldina Cameron was an unlikely fighter. She was tall, slender, and extremely shy. She was deeply religious and had the “gracious manners of a society belle.” But to those who crossed her, she was anything but timid. She could be as tough as nails when necessary, and her enemies knew it. They called her the “white devil.” But to those in need, her compassion had no limit. To them she was their “Little Mother.” Her home base was San Francisco, but her jurisdiction knew no bounds. In 1899, even Visalia made it into this freedom fighter’s travel plans—and her visit wasn’t a social call! She came to free a captive young girl.
Cameron was born in New Zealand in about 1869 to Scottish parents who were sheep ranchers. Shortly after she was born, her family moved to California. She grew up in San Francisco where, as a young adult, she began working at the Presbyterian Mission Home on Sacramento Street. The mission was there to keep young Chinese women out of the sex slavery business. It was a serious problem. All too often, unscrupulous men brought these girls to America strictly to be sex workers. It was a dirty but thriving business with these young girls often held against their will in dark, dingy, shacks and rooms frequented by men with loose morals. Many of these ladies contracted venereal disease, and suffered mental breakdowns and horrible indignities. Everyone seemed to know that these illegal and demoralizing conditions existed, but few, including public officials, were willing to act, which added to the importance of the work of the mission and Cameron. These women were desperately in need of someone willing to advocate for them—to free them from indignity and captivity.
Much of Cameron’s rescue work was done in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but she was willing to go anywhere in California and beyond when the circumstances required it.
In 1899, the Tulare County seat came up on Cameron’s assignment list. Visalia at the time was a half-century old with about 3,000 people, nearly 200 of which were Chinese. Most of them lived in the Chinatown district—an area established in the late 1850s.
Undoubtedly, mission workers were surprised when they heard that one of the recent residents living in Visalia was in trouble. The young lady named Fong Jar had lived under the protection of the mission in 1898. A young man named Gum You had frequently visited her and the two became good friends. Soon he proposed marriage. Jar liked him and staff at the mission did too, so the two were married in late 1898. Most predicted a long and happy marriage.
Shortly after their union, the couple moved to Visalia. Almost immediately, Gum You’s demeanor changed. He became “an idle and dissolute person…who engaged in gambling and the sale of lottery tickets.” And it got worse. He placed his new bride in a house of “ill repute”—presumably in Visalia’s Chinatown. Apparently his earlier show of affection toward Jar was an act. His plan was to control her and force her into the lucrative sex trade.
In early 1899, scared and desperate for help, Jar sent a message to her friends at the mission asking to be rescued. She wanted to be returned to the mission in San Francisco, and her plea for help did not go unanswered.
Fearing her arrival would alert Jar’s husband, Cameron arrived by train on the evening of March 8, 1899, without announcing her presence to the authorities. Using her secret contacts, she located Jar in her “den.” Cameron freed the young girl and the two secretly hid at the Visalia House, a commercial lodging establishment almost as old as the town. It was there they planned their next move.
Soon Jar’s husband discovered that she was missing from her quarters. He alerted the Chinatown leaders to what he considered to be a case of kidnapping. Jar was his property and he wanted her back. To prevent the girl’s “kidnapper” from leaving town with her, members of the local Chinese community watched the roads leading out of town. Others guarded the livery stables to be sure no buggies or wagons were used in her abduction. When it was learned that Jar was at the Visalia House with the “kidnapper,” a dozen Chinese men stationed themselves in front of the hotel. They would not let her and the kidnapper leave. When Cameron saw the community’s reaction, she decided to get local law enforcement involved. She met with Tulare County Constable D. R. Douglass and explained the purpose of her visit. Seeing the Chinatown response, the authorities became concerned for the safety of the young girl and her rescuer and thought it best that the two stay in the Tulare County Jail under protective custody. They stayed there until the evening of Thursday, March 9th. Under the cover of darkness, the two, quietly and with escort, boarded the San Francisco-bound train. Tulare County Deputy Sheriff Hall accompanied them as far as Goshen. Cameron and Jar arrived safely at the mission.
The sex trafficking incident created quite a stir in Visalia, but it appeared that no one, including her husband, was charged with any crime. The Daily Morning Delta, although pleased with her rescue, reported, “Miss Cameron made a mistake in not conferring with the officers on her arrival here. She would have been given assistance by the Sheriff’s office, and all the excitement, incident to the recovery of the woman would have been avoided.”
Donaldina Cameron retired from her mission work in the 1930s, and although no precise count exists of her rescues, it is estimated that she delivered about 3,000 young women out of sex slavery. On January 4, 1968, at nearly 100 years old, she died in Palo Alto, California, a hero to many. Today the Cameron House, named in her honor, continues to operate, empowering the San Francisco Chinese community.