One morning, in June of 2016, an e-mail popped into my inbox from the grandniece of Donaldina Cameron, one of the main characters in The White Devil’s Daughters, my nonfiction account of the women who fought slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
I’d already been researching and writing my book for more than three years by that time. Ann told me that while cleaning out her brother’s home for a move, she’d discovered a box filled with photos, letters, and other genealogical material about her great aunt Dolly, as Donaldina was known.
In her funny, understated way, Ann wrote “There is lots of genealogy stuff by lots of folks…letters from and to Dolly, a dead pheasant from a special hat…several Bibles…family photo albums from Scotland…Not sure how useful any of this stuff is at this stage by am happy to have you paw through it if you like…”
Did I ever! I called her within minutes of getting her note and arranged to come the next day to her home to look through the box. I was excited by the prospect: I’d already scoured the Bancroft Library’s massive collections for material on Cameron, as well as Cameron House in Chinatown’s private files, and Stanford University’s special collections.
Finding primary material like this is every researcher’s dream. Dolly Cameron has had three biographies written about her already and this newly discovered cache offered the prospect of finding out something new about her. I rushed over to meet Ann at her home and she kindly insisted I take a box of materials home with me. Some of it dated to the 1840s.
Ann had loaned me this treasure trove of new material for my book. Two years later, after finishing the final edits of the manuscript, I reached out to her and her sister Catherine, a professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I asked whether they might consider donating the material to the Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley, the preeminent repository of materials relating to the American West.
To my delight, the Cameron sisters decided to gift the box of family materials to this great library and Theresa Ann Salazar, the curator of the Bancroft’s Western Americana collection, was happy to accept it as a natural addition to the library’s Presbyterian Church in Chinatown collection.
So, in early December, I hopped in my car, drove over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge to Berkeley, and handed off a crate of photographs, correspondence, family Bibles, and other materials. It was an early holiday gift from the Cameron family to the many authors, historians, and students who regularly use the Bancroft Library.
Julia Flynn Siler is a New York Times best-selling author. Her new book, The White Devil’s Daughters: The Women Who Fought Against Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is forthcoming from Alfred A. Knopf in May of 2019. For more information, please visit www.juliaflynnsiler.com
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