Few Americans realize that the institution of slavery reached the
Pacific Northwest in the two decades before the Civil War. A small
number of the white settlers who followed the Oregon Trail from
Independence, Missouri to Oregon City brought bondservants. Oregon
historian R. Gregory Nokes, describes one enslaved person, Reuben
“Why don’t you write about Reuben Shipley?’’
I had just bounced several ideas for a new book off of my brother Bill
over an afternoon cup of coffee. He apparently hadn’t liked any of them.
“Who was Reuben Shipley?’’ I asked, puzzled.
“He was a slave brought to Oregon by one of our ancestors.’’
I was at once both dismayed and stunned. I felt for the first time there
was shame in my family, as I hadn’t had the slightest inkling there was
any family connection to slavery. And, I was stunned because it had
never occurred to me there were slaves in Oregon.
As a schoolboy, and much beyond, I had understood that Oregon had a law
against slavery from the earliest days of its provisional government in
1843.This was fact; taught in schools; no reason to question.
I was soon to discover there was much more to the slavery story. Bill
told me I could read about Reuben Shipley on page 359 of a 1964 family
genealogy, which I had never read, but my younger brother had.
And so I now read on page 359 that Reuben Shipley was brought to Oregon
as a slave in 1853 by his white owner, Robert Shipley, over the Oregon
Trail from Miller County, Missouri. The white Shipley—my distant
ancestor—had promised the black Shipley that if he helped him start his
farm in Oregon, he would give him his freedom.
A painful choice confronted Reuben Shipley. In exchange for the prospect
of being free, he faced leaving behind his wife and two sons, who
belonged to other slaveholders. But if he decided to remain in Missouri
near his family, he would be sold as a slave to another owner.
Two other slaves of Robert Shipley, both women, were offered the same
choice, but decided to stay close to their families, remaining as
Reuben Shipley was taken to Oregon, a six-month trip of 2,000 miles.
According to the family genealogy, he resolved that once free, he would
save enough money to buy his family’s freedom in Missouri and bring them
to Oregon. He never saw them again.
Shipley, who did get his freedom, was by no means alone as a slave
brought to Oregon. I was to learn over the next several years that there
were as many as 50 slaves who came with early settlers, most of them
from Missouri. Some were released soon after they arrived; others kept
much longer. Yes, the number is miniscule compared with the 115,000
slaves in Missouri in 1860, and the four million slaves nationwide. But a
slave is a slave. And this was Oregon, a free state which admitted to
the Union in 1859, and a solidly blue state today, jokingly referred to
as part of the nation’s “Left Coast,’’ along with Washington and
Most settlers who came to Oregon were opposed to slavery, but many also
didn’t want to live among blacks, whether free or slave. This prejudice
was born of the slave experience and explains the anti-black laws they
would soon impose. They didn’t seem bothered, however, by the few slaves
on farms usually miles apart. Opposition to slavery in Oregon was based
on economic issues, not moral considerations.
Oregon’s history, and not just distant history, was much different from
its liberal image today, so much different that one might reasonably
wonder whether the image reflects the reality. Witness:
Many of Oregon’s early leaders, as opposed to the general population,
were pro-slavery. These included the first territorial governor in 1849,
the first state governor in 1859, the first two U.S. senators, the
first U.S. congressman, and the president of Oregon’s 1857
Oregon was the only free state admitted into the Union with an exclusion
clause against African Americans in its constitution, a clause not
repealed until 1926. It was one of three exclusion laws in Oregon’s
history. The first, in 1844, threatened, albeit briefly and never
enforced, a severe whipping for a free black who refused to leave: “on
his or her bare back not less than twenty, nor more than thirty
‘stripes’ to be inflicted by the constable of the proper county.’’
Oregon voters, white males all, actually voted in 1857 on whether Oregon
should be a slave state. They solidly voted no, but solidly voted yes
on the exclusion clause.
The Oregon and California delegations walked out of the 1860 Democratic
convention in Baltimore to join southern delegations in nominating John
Breckinridge of Kentucky to run for president against Abraham Lincoln
and Stephen Douglas. They nominated for vice president Joseph Lane, one
of Oregon’s first U.S. senators. Isaac Stevens, the first territorial
governor of Washington, managed the Breckinridge-Lane campaign.
Oregon’s legislature approved the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery
in 1865, and the Fourteenth Amendment granting citizenship and equal
rights to African Americans in 1866. But it rescinded ratification of
the Amendment in 1868 and didn’t re-ratify it until 1973. Not until
1959, did Oregon legislators ratify the Fifteenth Amendment granting
voting rights to blacks.
Out of all this came my 2013 book, Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory, published by Oregon State University Press, which also published my 2009 book, Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon.
This earlier book told of the long-forgotten 1887 massacre of nearly
three-dozen immigrant Chinese gold miners, a crime for which no one was
ever held accountable.
My research led me to an 1852 court case I absolutely knew nothing about and which became the centerpiece of my book. This was Holmes v. Ford,
the only slavery case ever adjudicated in Oregon courts. The case
involved Robin Holmes, a former slave, and Nathaniel Ford, his former
owner. It is a remarkable case in several respects; it provides a rare
look at the relationship between a slave and his owner from the slave’s
point of view.
Robin Holmes and his family were slaves in Missouri belonging to
Nathaniel Ford, a four-term sheriff of Howard County with extensive land
holdings and at least thirteen slaves. But when Ford fell on economic
hard times, losing much of his land and some of his slaves, he decided
to try his luck in Oregon, where land was free for white settlers. He
led a wagon train of 54 wagons and nearly 400 settlers along the Oregon
Trail in 1844. Ford brought with him his family, and his remaining six
slaves: Robin Holmes and his wife, Polly, three of their children, and
an adult named Scott. Three other Holmes children were left behind, sold
to other owners.
Ford settled on a square mile of land in Oregon’s fertile Willamette
Valley that was the homeland of the Kalapuyan tribes. These tribes had
previously been devastated by disease and were unable to offer much
resistance. Settlers like Ford ignored them or simply pushed them aside.
Ford built a home for himself and his large family, and cabins for his
slaves, who worked his farm and did the household chores. The Ford farm,
much of it still farmland, is in present-day Polk County, about 60
miles south of Portland.
Holmes would later tell a court that Ford had promised him and his
family their freedom after they helped get his farm started. But it was
not until 1850, six years later, that Ford finally relented, and this
after ordering Holmes to first go to California to mine gold for him.
And freedom was only for Holmes, his wife, and an infant child. Ford
kept four other Holmes children, they then had five in Oregon, claiming
they were obligated to work for him because Ford had fed and clothed
them when they were too young to work.
After one child died, Holmes in desperation took matters into his own
hands. He filed a habeas corpus suit against Ford in 1852, seeking
freedom for the children in Ford’s custody. The odds against him must
have seemed overwhelming. He was illiterate. He had lived most of his
life as a slave in a slave culture, bought and sold at the whim of
others, and surely knowing little about legal procedures.
Moreover, he was up against a prominent political leader in Oregon. Ford
had recently been elected to the territorial legislature, the first of
his five terms. He had earlier been appointed chief judge of Oregon’s
provisional government, but turned it down. He was among organizers of
Oregon’s powerful Democratic Party.
Holmes, however, was a risk-taker who would prove this again in later
years when he and several other former slaves integrated a white church
in Salem. For his suit against Ford, Holmes persuaded the new
prosecuting attorney for Oregon, Reuben P. Boise, to take his case.
Boise had recently arrived from Massachusetts, a hotbed of abolitionist
The case played out over 15 months, heard by four different judges,
three of whom declined to rule. The fourth, New York-born George H.
Williams, decided for Holmes only weeks after arriving in Oregon from
being appointed by President Franklin Pierce as the new chief justice of
the Territorial Supreme Court. In his landmark ruling on July 13, 1853,
Williams returned the children to the Holmeses, declaring that “without
some positive legislative enactment establishing slavery here, it did
not and could not exist in Oregon.’’
It was far from the end of the issue, however, as several unsuccessful
attempts followed in the territorial legislature to legalize slavery.
The issue wasn’t finally resolved until voters approved the 1857
Constitution. Even so, Oregon’s 1860 Census listed two adults and one
child as slaves.