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Drake, Mary Jane Holmes Shipley (1841–1925)

Image Ownership: Public Domain
Mary Jane Holmes Shipley Drake, born in Missouri in 1841, was one of six children of Robin and Polly Holmes. From 1852 to 1853 Mary Jane was the subject of a fifteen-month legal battle known as Holmes v. Ford to obtain her freedom.  That battle also helped determine the status of slavery in Oregon Territory.  

The Holmes family was owned by Missouri farmer Nathaniel Ford.  In 1844 Ford brought the family west on the Oregon Trail, promising Robin and Polly their freedom if they would help him establish a farm in the Oregon Territory.   Ford refused to honor his promise for five years after their arrival, finally relenting in 1849.  He freed the parents and their newborn son but refused to release nine-year-old Mary Jane and her other siblings including two who had been born in Oregon Territory.  Ford intended to sell each of the four children when they reached adulthood.

Ford’s refusal to release Mary Jane Holmes and her siblings prompted Robin and Polly Holmes to file suit to regain custody over their children.  The case worked its way through lower courts and finally reached the bench of Chief Justice George A. Williams of the Oregon Territory Supreme Court.  Chief Justice Williams ruled that slavery could not exist in the territory without specific legislation to protect.  He then declared the Holmes children free.  The Holmes case was the last attempt to establish slavery in Oregon through the judicial process.    

Mary Jane Holmes voluntarily remained with the Fords as a servant for another four years to provide income for her impoverished parents. In 1857, however, when she was sixteen and wanted to marry, Ford demanded that the prospective groom, Ruben Shipley,  pay him $750 to marry Mary Jane even though she had been liberated by the Territorial Supreme Court four years earlier.  Fearing a protracted legal battle with Ford, Shipley agreed to pay the $750.  

Ruben and Mary Jane married and later bought an eighty-acre farm near Corvallis, Oregon. They had six children and became well-respected members of their community. After Ruben’s death, Mary Jane married R.G. Drake in 1875.  Mary Jane Holmes Shipley Drake outlived her second husband and all but one of her children.  She died in 1925.

Sources:

Tricia Martineau Wagner, African American Women of the Old West (Guilford, CT: TwoDot, an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press, 2007); Fred Lockley, “The Case of Robin Holmes vs. Nathaniel Ford,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 23:2 (June 1922):111-137; Elizabeth McLagan, A Peculiar Paradise: A History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940 (Portland: Georgian Press, 1980).  

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