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Breaking Chains

Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory

R. Gregory Nokes

Publication Year: 2013

Published by: Oregon State University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication, Quote

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pp. 1-6

Table of Contents

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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xv

I owe an apology to Billy Taylor. It’s not his real name, of course. Too much time has gone by for me to remember that. I believe he came from Virginia. But Billy had come to Portland to spend a summer with his grandparents. They lived on the corner of Everett Street and Thirty-Second Avenue, a half-block down Everett from where I lived. Billy was a friendly kid—lanky, sandy hair, ...


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pp. xvi-16

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First Slaves

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pp. 1-3

There are two versions of how Robin and Polly Holmes, both Missouri slaves, came to Oregon. One, told by Robin Holmes, is that his owner, Nathaniel Ford, persuaded him to come in exchange for his freedom. The other, told by Ford descendants, is that Holmes begged to come and Ford brought Holmes—Whichever version is correct, and Holmes’ version is certainly the most ...

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The Good Life in Missouri

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pp. 3-11

I learned of the Holmes family while researching the background of another Missouri slave, known as Reuben Shipley. I had recently discovered in a long-unread family genealogy that I am a shirttail descendant of the man who owned Shipley and brought him to Oregon.8 I was less than pleased to learn of this, and sought to know more. I was soon to discover that Reuben Shipley put his ...

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The Lure of Oregon

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pp. 11-20

...a female, $1,000.29 A slave in the hemp fields was expected to “break’’—or thrash—at least one hundred pounds of hemp a day, after which he typically was paid an additional penny for every pound over that amount. The process Whipping was not an uncommon punishment for slaves who failed to produce the minimum. Typical, apparently, was this recollection by a Lafayette ...

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On the Trail

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pp. 20-29

Nathaniel Ford’s fifty-four wagons set out from Independence, Missouri, on May 14, 1844. It was the second, or third, of the major emigrant trains to strike out across the prairie, headed for Oregon. Departing wagon trains were a national event, much like astronauts headed for the moon. Newspapers throughout the country ran accounts...

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Freedom Delayed

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pp. 29-31

Robin Holmes said he was promised freedom for himself and his family if he helped Nathaniel Ford develop his farm. Holmes upheld his part of the bargain—within a few years, the Ford farm became well established and, apparently, quite profitable. But Ford proved in no hurry to fulfill his part of the agreement. One reason may have been that Oregon’s new provisional government had changed its...

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Oregon’s Dixie

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pp. 31-37

Rickreall today is an unincorporated farm community of fewer than a hundred inhabitants eleven miles west of Salem in Oregon’s lush Willamette Valley. Modest homes and small businesses extend along both sides of busy Rickreall Road, which parallels the north bank of Rickreall Creek, known for years as La Creole Creek.1 Towering oaks shade the homes and creek, giving the community a quaint...

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Land and More Land

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pp. 37-41

...strengthen the American claim to the Oregon Country, still officially under Ford’s advice on when and how to travel, and what to bring, echoes advice given by Burnett: small groups of settlers were easier to manage than large companies; smaller herds of livestock were easier to feed than large herds; tension and conflicts over leadership were less likely to erupt in a smaller group ...

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The Applegate Trail

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pp. 41-47

...1850 and 1860 to a total of 52,465. But there were few African Americans, a mere one hundred and twenty-four counted in the 1860 Census.16 Denied the same access to land as whites, and with Oregon’s exclusion law in place for much of the decade, a free black would be hard-pressed to find a reason to Ford’s mention to John Lowery of a new and shorter trail to Oregon referred ...

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Oregon’s “Lash Law”

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pp. 47-53

As for Nathaniel Ford’s involvement, Pauline Burch said Ford and others had gone to present-day Winnemucca, Nevada, “to assist a wagon train of emigrants coming over the Oregon Trail.’’ But she said it proved to be “a wasted six months, as the emigrant train was late and the men were forced to If Burch’s account is correct—and there’s no reason to think otherwise—it ...

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The Cockstock Affair

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pp. 53-64

Oregon’s 1844 exclusion law was at least in part a knee-jerk response to a perceived threat of racial violence—how large a part is debatable. The threat allegedly came from a free black named James Saules, who had been arrested for his role in what became known as the Cockstock Affair. Saules had been a cook, or a cabin boy, on the USS Peacock, a sloop-of-war used as an exploration ...

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Gold Miners and Slaves

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pp. 64-72

...their own accord. . . . Supposing a law was passed in every state driving them out . . . that there were laws excluding them from the entire continent, where would these unfortunate people go?’’ Such laws, he said, are “a disgrace to the When the exclusion bill came to a vote on January 9, the bill failed in the House by a vote of twenty-three to three. The issue could not be put to rest, ...

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“My Children Held as Slaves”

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pp. 72-75

Harriett’s death in 1851 seems to have galvanized Robin Holmes into taking action against Ford. Two of his children were dead, and he and his wife had little hope of ever being reunited with their three children in Missouri. On April 16, 1852, Holmes filed for a writ of habeas corpus in Second District Court in Polk County to require Ford to appear in court, with Holmes’ three children ...

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Holmes vs. Ford, Day-by-Day

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pp. 75-86

...them with sufficient meat, drink or apparel. . . .’’ He feared “the treatment that they now receive will materially injure their health, and eventually cause their death, or be the cause of their enduring great suffering.’’4Robin Holmes initiates his fifteen-month case against Nathaniel Ford by filing a writ of habeas corpus in Second District Court in Polk County, seeking the ...

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Ford’s Secret Strategy

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pp. 86-90

...his own children and further denies that he is harsh, or that his wife Polly is cruel to their children, but on the contrary avers that his and his wife’s reputation for kindness and parental care for their children is such that he can safely ask the court to enquire thereof, and that his character for honesty sobriety and industry is good as petitioner believes, and this he ...

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Enter Judge Williams

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pp. 90-96

I have by heavy exertions given my daughters a good English education—we have the finest country for a pore man to make a living in I have ever seen if the man is only able to labour. But now with bad helth and of the It isn’t known whether Shirley replied to Ford. The scheme may have seemed too bizarre for Shirley to take seriously, and he chose to ignore the letter. But ...

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Reuben Shipley

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pp. 96-98

...unanimously in the Council on January 5, 1854, and apparently without objection in the House two days later.15 The law, as written into the Revised Statutes of the Territory of Oregon for 1855, provided, “The following persons shall not be competent to testify: Negroes, mulattoes and Indians, or persons having one-half or more of Indian blood, in an action or proceeding in which ...

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They Weren’t Alone

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pp. 98-112

...likely was the largest African American landowner in the Willamette Valley at the time. He purchased an additional five acres for $50 from George Howell on November 10, 1865. Shipley’s farm extended in a rectangle across the high southeastern slope of what is today known as Neabeack Hill. The location offered, and offers still, an expansive view of the lush valley farmland south ...

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An Army Slave

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pp. 112-116

...comprehend, or chose to ignore, the impact of forced servitude on an individual when he or she is denied an education, freedom of movement, choice of labor, and, all too often, spouses and children. There was the added insult of not even Burch also blamed abolitionists for the problems that beset her family over the slavery issue: “The abolitionists and others who had prejudice against the ...

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The Free State Letter

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pp. 116-121

...lot, and could scarcely be prevented from doing those things.’’ As a result, some thought Johnson remained a slave. However, wrote Root, “such was not the case and only showed that Travis’ devotion to grandfather was not understood.’’ She also wrote of strong pro-slavery sympathies in the local If all that was known of Judge Williams was the road he paved, leading away ...

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Let Voters Decide

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pp. 121-127

Williams recognized in his opinion that Holmes had shown himself to be Reuben Shipley, the newly freed slave in Benton County, was another example of someone who, freed from bondage, would achieve success as a farmer and make a major contribution to his community. Louis Southworth was yet another. Perhaps Williams chose to ignore black success stories because ...

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The Great Slavery Non-Debate

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pp. 127-137

The Constitutional Convention convened in the Marion County Courthouse in Salem on August 17, 1857.24 The courthouse was a wood-frame building, sixty-eight by forty feet, built in 1854 in the center of a block facing High Street between State and Court streets. Its sole distinctive feature was four Doric columns at the High Street entrance. Next door, on the southeast corner ...

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“Consecrate!!!” Oregon for Whites

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pp. 137-139

...members of the secretive Know Nothing party, which at the time was an emerging threat to the Democratic Party.19 But public voting was also a way to enforce party discipline. The requirement to vote publicly on the constitution and the slavery and exclusion clauses, rather than by secret ballot, was opposed To this point in the debate, little had been said about the moral implications ...

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Voters Do Decide

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pp. 139-149

Chadwick: . . . the people of the Willamette [Valley] had not found the Chinamen to be an evil, and might vote against excluding them . . .Watkins: . . . withdrew his amendment—said he would offer it another We don’t know why Watkins withdrew his motion after arguing so forcefully in favor, and receiving support from other delegates. Possibly it was because ...

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A Voice for Equality

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pp. 149-153

There were those in Oregon opposed to slavery and racism on moral grounds. One of the most notable—and most controversial—voices was that of the Reverend Obed Dickinson, pastor of the Salem’s First Congregational Church from 1853 to 1867. The Salem church had only four members and held services in a log house when the Massachusetts-born Dickinson was assigned ...

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Reuben and Mary Jane

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pp. 153-157

Only a few details are known of the lives of Robin and Polly Holmes following the 1853 court decision that gave them back their children. But a great deal is known about their eldest daughter, Mary Jane, who was soon to meet another When Judge Williams returned to the Holmeses the custody of their children, only Roxanna and James went to live with them in Salem. Another ...

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Who Was Reuben Ficklin?

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pp. 157-161

As for Ford, it should be noted that his descendants dispute the notion that Shipley paid Ford for Mary Jane’s hand, or that Ford had given her to his Nathaniel Ford had no contact . . . with Mary Jane or her husband before or after they were married. In fact he had no desire to, and made no attempt to get control of any one of the negro children after they had gone ...

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Mary Jane’s Final Trial

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pp. 161-164

Three years after Reuben’s death, Mary Jane married Alfred Drake, another African American from Missouri. But more tragedy had already befallen the family. Leonidas, or Lon, the youngest son of Robin and Polly, “apparently” was lynched—“apparently” because there is some confusion about whether it Leonidas Holmes had lived for a time with the Shipleys in Benton County, ...

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Slaveholders’ Last Stand

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pp. 164-172

...decided against being buried with the rest of his family in Philomath and is instead interred at Lincoln Memorial Park in Portland. If Minnie Junkin was correct in saying he wanted to escape his color, perhaps that was the explanation. Ficklin was not a pauper; he left behind a life insurance policy in It is a sad irony that after their struggles to win their freedom, the Shipleys—...

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Moving On

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pp. 172-183

Robert and Mary Holmes—Robin and Polly—lived out their lives in Salem. In the 1860 census, three of their children resided with them, Roxanna, James, and Leonidas. The Holmeses were not poor. The census listed Holmes’ wealth at $500 in real estate and $200 in personal property. His occupation was given as “day laborer.’’ There is no record of what happened to the Holmeses’ nursery, ...

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pp. 183-184

The late Alvin M. Josephy Jr. faulted history books, which—at the time he wrote, although less so in later years—offered to American school children a distorted view of the settlement of the United States, wherein white men who protected their property were called patriots, while Native Americans doing the same were called murderers. In an article entitled “The Forked Tongue in ...

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pp. 184-186

Many people deserve my heartfelt thanks for their help, encouragement, and understanding as I worked on this book. Especially deserving is my wife, Candise, who read the manuscript and encouraged me every step of the way while patiently enduring my need for solitude to write. A special thanks also goes to my brother, Bill Nokes, who started me on this journey when he asked ...


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pp. 186-189


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pp. 189-190


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pp. 191-214


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pp. 215-220


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pp. 215-224

E-ISBN-13: 9780870717130
E-ISBN-10: 0870717138
Print-ISBN-13: 9780870717123
Print-ISBN-10: 087071712X

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Slavery -- Law and legislation -- Oregon.
  • Slaves -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- Oregon.
  • Slaveholders -- Legal status, laws, etc. -- Oregon.
  • Oregon -- Social conditions -- 19th century.
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