How slavery was put on trial in the Oregon Territory

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 11, 2013 

Back east this summer, there are commemorations galore in conjunction with the Civil War sesquicentennial. One hundred fifty years ago, the bloodbath at Gettysburg had just taken place and the siege of Vicksburg had just come to a close. It is appropriate that our generation should take the time to look back and consider the sacrifice and turmoil of those times and how it has shaped our nation today.

Just because the Pacific Northwest has no Civil War battlegrounds doesn't mean debate and agitation over the issues of slavery and states' rights didn't happen here.

Earlier this year I reviewed "Free Boy," a book by historians Lorraine McConaghy and Judy Bentley about Washington's Underground Railroad.

In today's column I'd like to let you know about "Breaking Chains," a book that covers the historical presence of slavery in our neighboring state to the south.

After a long and distinguished career as an international correspondent for Associated Press and then as a reporter for The Oregonian, R. Gregory Nokes has spent his retirement researching some of the long-forgotten stories of injustice that have taken place in Oregon. In 2009, he wrote "Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon," an account of an 1887 massacre of dozens of Chinese gold miners, whose killers were never brought to justice.

Now Nokes has written "Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory."

This story is about two black slaves who had been brought from Missouri to Oregon in 1844, although that was the very year Oregon's territorial government passed its first exclusion law, completely prohibiting blacks in the territory. The clause was rarely enforced and, on the flip side of the coin, although slavery was officially prohibited, many Oregonians tolerated it and some actually practiced it.

Such was the case for Robin and Polly Holmes, who toiled to develop the Willamette Valley homestead of their master, Nathaniel Ford. They had understood he would give them their freedom in exchange for their labor. But it took Ford six long years to live up to his promise, and when he finally released them from bondage, he refused to free their children.

"Breaking Chains" is the story of how Robin Holmes, illiterate but resolute, sued his former master and succeeded in winning his children's freedom, despite Ford's delay tactics and dissembling, and despite a territorial government and court system that was staffed by many people who openly approved of slavery.

This book is peculiar in its presentation - it reads as one long essay with loosely distinguished sections.

On the plus side, it contains seldom-seen portraits of some of the Oregon Territory's earliest black settlers. And Nokes' research is impeccable, drawing on court records, family letters, newspaper reports and other documents to piece together a revealing glimpse into the injustices that were institutionalized early on in the establishment of an American presence in the Pacific Northwest, and how - also early on - determined individuals began chipping away at those injustices.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

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