By Jonathan Cortez Jr.
The Pacific Northwest never had African American slaves. That was a fact that, as a resident of Washington, I grew up with. We were taught in school that Washington began as a free territory before becoming a free state in 1889. Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory by Gregory Nokes challenges that fact, and brings to light several unknown events and people. According to Nokes, a writer and lecturer on historical events of the Pacific Northwest, slaves did in fact exist in the region. He even compiled a list of 48 slaves who lived in the Pacific Northwest on his website (Nokes, Slaves List).
Breaking Chains goes into depth about two slaves in particular, Robin and Polly Holmes, who travel to Oregon from Missouri in 1844. Their owner Nathaniel Ford promised to give the Holmes their freedom once he had established a farm in Oregon. Slavers and slave owners rarely felt moral obligations towards slaves since they were considered property (Pittman, 12 Years A Slave). As such, Ford had mortgaged a number of his slaves to cover his debt in Missouri. Four of the Holmes’ children were sold or forfeited to the bank prior to Ford’s move to Oregon (Nokes, Breaking Chains 8).
During the era of slavery, many Southern states enacted Black Codes in order to limit African-Americans and keep them under control. As such, black people were unable to testify against whites in a court of law (Pittman, Slavery & Slave Resistance). But Oregon had never enacted any Black Codes (McLagan) since slavery was not legal in the state. The Holmes family followed Nathaniel Ford to Oregon where they helped him establish a farm. Ford kept his promise and released them. But unfortunately, Ford refused to free their children as well. In 1852, following the death of one of his children, Robin Holmes sued Ford in civil court since his children’s enslavement was illegal under Oregonian laws.
Holmes v. Ford is a prominent case for a couple of reasons. First, it provides a perspective of slavery from the slave himself. Many narratives from slaves’ point of views had been modified by their owners or racist whites (Dunaway 14-15). Yet here was an actual trial between slave and master where a court was able to hear live interpretations of what exactly transpired between the two. Secondly, this was a case involving an African-American testifying against his owner that was considered legal in the eyes of the government. During this time period, slaves could be whipped just for looking at a white woman incorrectly. Yet here was a legal case where an African-American could fight for his rights on equal terms with a white man though the odds were still against him.
The case was finally heard in 1854 by the Chief Justice of the Oregon Territorial Supreme Court, George H. Williams. It was alleged that Ford refused to free the Holmes children because he planned on returning them to Missouri in order to sell them. This accusation was later proven true following the 1930 publication of a letter that Ford had written (Holmes v. Ford). Following the trial, Chief Justice Williams ruled that the Holmes children would return to their parents. Though he never mentioned specifically whether they would be freed from slavery.
I find it astonishing that not only did we have slaves in the Pacific Northwest to begin with, but that one sued his previous master in order to achieve the freedom of his children. Robin Holmes fought alongside the law and won, instead of the law fighting against him as we tend to see today. As Nokes put it, Holmes demonstrated “-a determination to struggle for personal justice in the face of overwhelming odds (Nokes, Breaking Chains 1).”
It should be said that although slavery was illegal in Oregon and Holmes won his court case, that does not necessarily mean that Oregonians were sympathetic with the lives of slaves. As with the time period, their reasoning behind being anti-slavery was based in racism. The whites living to Oregon did not want to live near any blacks, freed or enslaved. And although Oregon made it illegal to own slaves, they did introduce three black exclusion laws which Nokes details in his book. The first is an 1844 lash law where African-Americans had to leave within 40 days or face being whipped. This law was eventually eliminated before being replaced in 1849 which excluded any newly arrived African-Americans. The 1849 law would be removed five years later, but returned in 1857. And in 1859 Oregon became the only Free State in the union with an exclusion law in place (Nokes, Breaking Chains xiv-xv). Unfortunately, this exclusion law would not be removed until 1926 (Nokes, Breaking Chains x).
The narrative of Breaking Chains describes events that most in this region of the United States never knew occurred: slavery, the abuse of Native Americans in order to develop towns and cities, the push into Oregon in order to take it from the British, and a trial against enslavement by a slave. The trial itself may not have made much of an impact in Oregon at the time since Oregon may have had only up to 50 slaves (Nokes, Breaking Chains 2), slavery was illegal in the state, and black exclusion laws were in place. But it is historically important since it was one of the last challenges that slaves faced against those who intended to retain slavery in the territory. Ten years following the trial, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation which freed slaves across the nation.
Years ago Gregory Nokes’ brother told him about Reuben Shipley. Shipley was also a slave brought to Oregon from Miller County, Missouri. It turns out that Shipley’s owner, Robert Shipley, is an ancestor of Nokes (Nokes, Slavery in Oregon: The Reuben Shipley Saga). Robert Shipley had also promised Reuben that he would receive freedom once he helped his master establish a farm in Oregon. When freed Reuben would go on to marry one of Robin and Polly Holmes’ surviving children that Ford wanted to sell in Missouri (Nokes, Breaking Chains Images), Mary Jane. Learning of the Shipleys’ existence lead Nokes on a journey to learn about slavery in the Pacific Northwest and then inspired him to write “Breaking Chains”.
I think what makes this book so interesting is not only the ability to read less augmented stories about slaves and their owners, but to also read the stories of those who genuinely wanted to abolish slavery. Throughout the book there are several stories where scores of people petitioned for blacks to be exempt from the exclusion laws, as well as those who fought for racial equality. Reverend Obed Dickinson, the pastor of Salem’s First Congregational Church, was very vocal in his favor for equality and wrote,
In that sermon I said there is a wrong public opinion in this town. It has closed the doors of all our schools against the children of these black families dooming them to ignorance in life. I said it was wrong to take away the key of knowledge from any human being (Nokes, Breaking Chains 150).
The book is a good reminder that although slavery was a horrible and tragic period for African Americans, they have always had those willing to support them. The Pacific Northwest’s past isn’t as pristine as I had believed, but we have are still moving forward. We need more stories like the Holmes family. Stories where black families fight and win against those who intend to keep them down. We need more people like Gregory Nokes. People who are willing to expose their families past in the pursuit of knowledge and freedom. And maybe one day we will reach a day where everyone will respect color.
Dunaway, Wilma A. The African-American Family in Slavery and Emancipation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Book.
Holmes v. Ford. Ed. Millner Darrel. n.d. 15 November 2015. <http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/holmes-v-ford-1853>.
McLagan, Elizabeth. The Black Laws of Oregon. n.d. website. 17 November 2015. <http://www.blackpast.org/perspectives/black-laws-oregon-1844-1857>.
Nokes, Gregory. Breaking Chains. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2013. Book.
—. Breaking Chains Images. n.d. Website. 13 November 2015. <http://gregnokes.com/books/?page_id=89>.
—. Slavery in Oregon: The Reuben Shipley Saga. 6 July 2013. Website. 13 November 2015. <http://gregnokes.com/books/?p=608>.
—. Slaves List. October 6 2014. Website. 10 November 2016. <http://gregnokes.com/books/?p=1111>.
Pittman, LaShawnDa. “12 Years A Slave.” African-American Studies 101. Seattle: University of Washington, 29 October 2015. Lecture.
—. “Slavery & Slave Resistance.” African-American Studies 101. Seattle: University of Washington, 3 November 2015. Lecture.