Slavery in Oregon: The Reuben Shipley Saga

Oregon in 1875
Courtesy David Rumsey Historical Map Collection (P1300)

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 Shipley.

“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 slaves.

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 minuscule 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 California.

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 constitutional convention.

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 sentiment.

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.