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Like most deep-rooted Oregonians, R. Gregory Nokes presumed America’s ugly racial history didn’t apply to him. Not personally, anyway. Slavery, the fifth-generation Oregon native assumed, was the South’s sin to reckon with.

A few years ago, Nokes, a former reporter for The Oregonian and the Associated Press, was shocked—and horrified—to learn that one of his ancestors had, in fact, owned slaves in Oregon, a supposedly “free state.” Even more disturbing, it was not an isolated case: As late as the 1860 census, there were a handful of people within our borders being kept as slaves. In his new book, Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory, Nokes details the only slavery case brought before an Oregon court. WW spoke to Nokes about this little-known period in state history, and just how close Oregon actually came to becoming a full-fledged slave state.

WW: How did you learn about there being slaves in Oregon?

R. Gregory Nokes: My brother suggested, “Why don’t you write about Reuben Shipley?” I said, “Who’s Reuben Shipley?” He said he was a slave brought to Oregon by one of our ancestors from Missouri. I had no clue there was any slavery in our family, and I had no idea there was any black slaves in Oregon.

In the course of my research, I discovered there were probably about 50 slaves in Oregon from 1843 to 1853 that were brought here, all of them from Missouri, for settlers to help get their farms started. Some of the settlers made a deal with their slaves: “You help us get the farm started and we’ll give you your freedom.” There were slave owners who did keep their slaves for much longer than a few years, some for almost 10 years, until there was a court case that resolved the issue.

How well-known is this particular case?

Not very well-known at all, but it is known. A former reporter for The Oregon Journal named Fred Lockley was interested in the slave issues. He had come across the case and he wrote about it for the Oregon Historical Quarterly in 1922. And then I traced it back and found the original trial transcript in Polk County. At the time, there wasn’t a whole lot of coverage of it. There weren’t many newspapers in Oregon. The case was brought in 1852 and decided in 1853, so there wasn’t much interpretative journalism going on.


How does this compare to the more famous Dred Scott case?

The Dred Scott case was one that kind of declared slavery legal and took away the rights of blacks to be citizens. The Holmes v. Ford case in 1853 had different issues.

Robin Holmes, the black former slave, contended that Oregon law prohibited slavery and therefore Nathaniel Ford, who was still holding [Holmes’] children as slaves, should have to give them up. The judge, George Williams, newly arrived in Oregon and chief justice of the territorial Supreme Court, ruled in Holmes’ favor and basically said that, without a law authorizing slavery in the state, it can’t exist. It was the only slavery case ever adjudicated in Oregon courts.

But in 1857, when Dred Scott came along, this became an issue, because 1857 was the year Oregon voters approved the new state constitution, which includes an exclusion clause that banned freed African-Americans from coming to Oregon. But to carry that forward, there was also a vote at the same time on whether Oregon should be a slave state.

This was incredible to me, that people in Oregon actually voted in 1857 on whether it would become a free or slave state.

What was the precedent for that, of putting the issue of slavery to a vote?

I know of no other instance where that happened. At the time, many of the leaders in Oregon were pro-slavery, but the general populace was not. A lot of the leaders were driving the slavery issue. The head of the Oregon Constitutional Convention, a fellow named Matthew Deady, was described by some people as the point man for slavery in Oregon. He wasn’t alone. There were quite a few others. They had a lot of influence, politically, in the state at that period.

Does that period in Oregon’s history still reverberate today?

I don’t think there is any doubt about it. I grew up in Portland at a time when there was redlining, where African-Americans had to live in a specific area—in the Albina area, as it was then known. And blacks who came to visit Oregon were denied places to stay, particularly in towns around Oregon where there were laws known as sundown laws. Nothing was written down, so it’s hard to know the specifics, but it was understood that blacks couldn’t stay in these towns overnight.

And then you had all the anti-miscegenation laws and the land laws, and the constitution not only banned blacks, but also banned them from voting. It denied them civil rights. As Oregon developed into statehood, into the modern era, blacks had two strikes against them. The exclusion clause [in the Oregon Constitution] shouldn’t be overlooked. Even though they were not generally enforced, they did sent a message to the rest of the world that African-Americans were not welcome here. And I’m sure that was part of what kept Oregon so white for so long.