Illuminating history of slavery in Oregon a teachable moment
“Breaking Chains” explores the Northwest’s relationship to slavery and its impact on everything from politics to the course of individual lives.
Seattle Times staff columnist
History, like politics, is personal. It certainly is for the writer R. Gregory Nokes, who recalls taunting a neighbor because the boy had come to Oregon from somewhere in the South.
Nokes had just gotten a grade-school lesson on slavery and the Civil War that consisted of a few simple ideas, among them North good, South bad, so he acted on that in his all-white Portland neighborhood. He was an Oregonian and therefore unstained.
Well, there is more to it than that, and in his new book, Nokes adds to the ideas he and lots of other folks got in elementary school. “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory,” explores how the great American tragedy played out in the Northwest.
This is not his first effort at expanding Northwest history. His previous book, “Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon,” looked at another neglected piece of regional history, the killing of more than 30 Chinese miners.
When I called Nokes, who lives in West Linn, Ore., he said bringing that tragic incident to public attention had positive effects that motivated him to write more about regional history. There is now an annual Chinese Remembering conference in Lewiston, Idaho, and last year Nokes took part in dedicating a memorial at the Hells Canyon site along with people from Seattle to Los Angeles, Minnesota to Florida.
Nokes, who retired in 2003 after a 43-year journalism career (much of it reporting and editing for The Oregonian and The Associated Press), said he was talking over book ideas, when his brother suggested a book about Reuben Shipley. “I said, ‘Who is Reuben Shipley?’ and he said, ‘He was a slave brought out by one of our ancestors.’” Nokes had never heard there had been slaves in Oregon, let alone that a relative had been a slave owner.
He started researching. The book, “Breaking Chains” touches on many aspects of the expansion westward and the march toward Civil War, but it is built around the story of one group of migrants to the Northwest, Nathaniel Ford, a slaveholder from Missouri who became an influential settler, and the enslaved people he brought with him, in particular Robin and Polly Holmes and their children.
Slavery was not legal in Oregon (the law was amended in 1844 to allow people who brought slaves into Oregon to keep them for up to three years before having to free them), but Nokes writes there is no record of anyone ever being charged with violating the law against slavery.
He found many early leaders were proslavery, but most immigrants opposed it, on economic, rather than moral grounds. They didn’t want black people, free or enslaved, competing for work or resources.
Early on, the Oregon country was controlled by both Britain and the United States, with the U.S. having greater sway south of the Columbia River because of heavy migration to that area, and that is where slavery was unchallenged.
To encourage settlement and drive out the British, the U.S. government gave huge tracts of land to white citizens. When the Ford party arrived in the Willamette Valley in 1844, the Indian population in the area had been largely killed by disease, and remaining Native Americans were being pushed aside.
Many of the Oregon Territory’s early white immigrants came from slave states and a few brought enslaved people, at least 50, with them. The presence of enslaved people was mostly ignored.
The Holmes family worked for the Fords until 1850 when Robin and Polly were finally granted the freedom they’d been promised. They were allowed to take their infant, Lon, but Ford kept the four older children because they were able to work. One of the children, Harriett, died in 1851, and the next year the Holmes sued for custody of their remaining children.
The case languished for a year, giving Ford time to work on a plan to have the entire family taken back to Missouri and sold. But before that could happen a new judge took over the case and ruled the family was free under Oregon law and the children belonged with their parents.
Reuben Shipley, the man owned by a distant relative of Nokes, arrived in Oregon Sept. 1, 1853, six weeks after that ruling. Shipley’s wife and two sons belonged to other masters and could not leave Missouri with him.
But Shipley, who was freed upon reaching Oregon, as promised, worked and saved money with which he bought farmland and built a cabin. He then tried to buy his family — only to find his wife had died, and the owner of his two sons would not sell. Shipley married one of the Holmes daughters.
In the prologue, Nokes apologizes to the boy he harassed. The truth is we all are hurt when our understanding of history is distorted or substantially incomplete. We need to know history to see clearly the present shaped by it. Nokes’ book clears away some of the fog.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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