Typical rhetoric surrounding slavery in the United States evokes images of sprawling Southern plantations, white brutality and black resistance and flight to freedom in the North. Examining the lexicon surrounding American slavery, author Gregory Nokes noticed that rarely is the Pacific Northwest observed for its participation in the slave trade.
An Oregon native, Nokes investigated the history of slavery in his own home state. Through his research he found that Oregon was host to slaves until 1857 when slavery was finally prohibited by law. Nokes became fascinated by the 1852 case of a former slave who sued for custody of his three enslaved children. This research led to the discovery of other examples of slavery in Oregon. The result is a fascinating and compelling book called Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory.
Nokes’ thorough attention to detail and meticulous research helps pull together well-rounded stories that explore Oregon’s deep involvement with slavery. At the crux of this research is the story of Robin and Polly Holmes. In 1844, their owner, Nathaniel Ford, brought Robin and Polly to Oregon from Missouri with the promise of freedom for them and their three children. After spending six years helping develop Ford’s Willamette Valley farm, Ford finally released Robin and Polly, but he kept their children in bondage. Robin, after living for two years in freedom, filed a custody suit against Ford with the state of Oregon for his children’s freedom and, despite all odds, Robin won.
Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory
Oregon State University Press (2013)
Holmes was unable to read or write, but he was able to mount a credible case against Ford with the help of sympathetic attorneys. Oregon’s position on slavery was in flux at the time, so taking on Ford was a risky move, especially considering Ford was recruited to become a regional chief judge in 1845. Ford declined the office, but many influential leaders who wanted Oregon open to slavery remained in office. Slaving had been practiced in the Oregon Country even before the Oregon Trail brought settlers to the area.
At times the narrative is dry due to the academic nature of the subject, but Nokes manages to construct a story thought-provoking enough to maintain interest. His frequent use of letters, photos and primary sources helps provide authentic voices for people suffering under slavery in Oregon. Nokes observes the research process as he attempts to cobble these narratives together, remarking on how the slaves’ histories and narratives were intentionally eliminated from the history books. Through these original texts, Nokes offers a unique insight into the relationship between the Holmes family and their master, from the slaves’ point of view. Breaking Chains is simultaneously a deconstruction of historical documentation and a narrative construction of slavery in the Oregon Territory.
Nokes describes Holmes’ feelings as his case is ignored by the courts in 1853: “Holmes grows increasingly frustrated that after a year still nothing has been done to resolve this case. There has been delay after delay. One scheduled hearing was never held. He also suggests there has been complicity between Judge Nelson and Ford’s attorneys.” Nokes provides an affidavit transcribed by one of Holmes’ attorneys: “Deponent (Holmes) further says he has been informed, and believes, that said Ford ill treats deponent’s children, that he does not furnish them with sufficient meat, drink, or apparel, and that deponent is fearful that unless said children are placed in a situation that they may be provided for by their parents, and that the treatment they now receive will materially injure their health, and eventually cause their death, or be the cause of the enduring great suffering.”
Holmes’ 14-month legal battle highlights the ongoing erasure of black history in the Pacific Northwest. Many would be surprised to know that Oregon even was a slave state. Nokes first learned of the Holmes family while researching the background of another Missouri slave named Reuben Shipley. It was only after deeply researching Shipley’s life that he discovered the story of the Holmes trial.
Nokes writes in his introduction, “Ask any school teacher about our past sympathies and flirtations with slavery. You are likely to get a blank stare. Ask residents of liberal Lane County if they know of the pro-slavery background of one of Oregon’s first U.S. senators, Joseph Lane, for whom the county was named in 1851… If I were in school again, I would want to understand the real history of our state, not a sanitized version that misleads us into myths and misplaced self-satisfaction. We can learn from our past. We should.”
On January 1, 1863, President Lincoln set the Emancipation Proclamation into effect, freeing slaves in the Confederate states. Oregon followed suit two years later by ratifying the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery. The Holmes children were freed, but they and other Oregon African-Americans still endured years of political turmoil and uncertainty regarding Oregon’s laws on slavery, citizenship and equal protection of laws. Oregon finally granted African-Americans the right to vote in 1959.
This book is not only an important and informative collection of stories that fill in many gaps we fail to see in Western American history. It is a collection of stories that share the narratives of slaves from their perspectives using original documents, diary entries, and letters. This is not an easy task, since sparse evidence of the slaves’ history on the Pacific Coast exists.
Reading this book was like peering through another prism of history — one that strips away the heavy-handed, deliberate masking of these atrocities and observes a history that we often don’t want to see.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.