"Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory" and Me

Jennifer and Greg on their wedding day.

Hand in hand, my future husband and I crossed the courthouse square, entering the sandstone edifice where the business of Polk County is conducted in my hometown of Dallas, Oregon. We intended to marry at a rural church in the countryside near the hamlet of Rickreall, so there we stood, applying for our marriage license on a beautiful summer day in 1988.

We completed the perfunctory information but before we could sign our names and pay the license fee, there were little boxes that needed checking.  The State of Oregon requested that each of us specify our race.  Options included white, black, several variations of Hispanic, Oriental, and Other with a line next to it for writing in a not-otherwise-listed designation.

What did our skin colors have to do with applying for a marriage license?  We were not getting married because I was white and my husband-to-be was black.  We were a public school teacher and a cook with a baby daughter, ready to marry and solidify the foundation for the family we already were.  We lived across the United States in Atlanta and were well aware of the attention our society paid to skin color.  Now we stood with a form before us that asked us to specifically delineate this. Sure, it was a relatively innocuous request, a method by which statistics were gathered so we would be counted amongst the scant 2% of American marriages that were interracial at that point in time.  And yet, something stopped us from automatically checking those black and white boxes.

It was not because we existed in some sort of iridescent bubble containing all the beautiful colors of the rainbow’s spectrum that somehow eclipsed such considerations. To the contrary, we were well aware of the harrowing reality of breaching a racial fault line. In our three years together, we repeatedly witnessed the disdain and acrimony of some who disagreed with our different skin colors loving the human beings contained within them.  Down South, we lived in the daily fishbowl of being noticed, commented about, and labeled with not always pleasant assumptions concerning why we were together. That we were a couple at all seemed to matter very much to many; most of the attention paid us was negative. Sometimes our togetherness engendered a senseless, illogical infuriation that also contained the capacity for instantaneous brutality. That fishbowl was a daunting place to swim.

Unfortunately, such ugliness was not limited to the Southern region alone. From the time I arrived in Dallas at the age of 13, I heard the rumor this small town was once the Ku Klux Klan’s purported command central for the entire Pacific Northwest, a possible precursor to the sadly-gained reputation of Northern Idaho.  Our high school mascot, the Dragon, was a supposed homage to the Grand Dragon of the KKK. I heard this story repeatedly; could it be true, or was it merely a “rural myth?”  Shadowy groups motivated by hatred do not leave easily traceable evidence of their prior existence, and I never saw any incontrovertible proof.  I did not search for it, either. While attending the junior high and high schools, I heard enough derogatory opinions and stereotypes about black people that was sufficient evidence of an insidious racism towards a population of people who didn’t even live there.

These attitudes were not confined to rural areas, however; 72% of the population of Portland, Oregon’s largest city, is white.  This is the highest percentage of the 50 largest cities in the nation, earning it the moniker of “whitest city in America.”  This may be related to circumstances from deep within Oregon’s past. Upon admission to the Union in 1859, Oregon was the only free state admitted to the Union with an exclusion clause against blacks written in its constitution.  What a dubious distinction for my home state.

So there Gregory and I stood in the courthouse, those boxes looking up at us from the application, awaiting our check marks.  We asked the clerks if we had to fill them in, they confirmed we did.  We asked if we could write in our choice, they said we could, but it would kick the application out of the statistical record-keeping once they forwarded it on to the State of Oregon. That was all the answer we needed. We designated that we were members of the same race as we wrote the same word in the Other line:  Human. Our marriage wasn’t going to be about labels and other people’s callous assumptions. We had chosen each other, members of the human race declared on our marriage application. And that was that.

Except it wasn’t over.  Experience has taught me that in matters of race, it’s never over. Following our wedding, just before returning to Atlanta, I dutifully dropped off our announcement and picture at the local newspaper situated across the street from the Polk County Courthouse. But the weekly newspaper did not print our happy news at all.  After three months of looking for the announcement, and upon the advice of a former reporter who affirmed we had a right to timely reporting, I called the newspaper from Atlanta to inquire about this omission.

The features editor claimed our information and picture had been lost. She requested I re-send it, but before I even finished the first draft of my letter of complaint I planned to enclose with another announcement and picture, the following edition of my hometown weekly arrived in my Georgia mailbox.

The wedding announcement. Click to enlarge.

And there we were in black and white, news of our sunny August wedding finally confirmed in gloomy mid-November.  Apparently they found what had been “lost,” and ran the picture and announcement only because I insisted.

Despite this, the memory of applying for our marriage license is a happy one.  I smile in recollection of my husband and me intentionally checking the same box on our application. We knew this small gesture made no tangible difference to anyone.  For us, though, beginning our marriage by affirming our commonality rather than our skin color difference was an excellent choice. I am grateful we started and continued our marriage with that important common ground and sense of purpose:  claiming and championing our shared humanity.

As it turns out, there is historical backstory to this story, and as previously stated, in matters of race, it’s never over. This is history I only learned of last month, when I was in Salem to attend the Western Mennonite School Christmas concert with my son Malcolm to support the new choir director, Emily Grimes, herself a member of an interracial family.

Browsing a local bookstore, I picked up a copy of Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory, written by R. Gregory Nokes, a journalist with Portland’s Oregonian newspaper. The book was published in 2013 by Oregon State University Press.

In 1844, a long wagon train of about 400 settlers from Missouri came west along the Oregon Trail, directed by a man named Nathaniel Ford. He was a Missouri county sheriff with extensive land holdings that included ownership of at least 13 slaves, but financial misfortune set his sights west to the Oregon Territory. The arduous journey lasted eight months. Arriving in the Willamette Valley in December, Ford claimed a square mile of property in Polk County, where my sons and myself matriculated high school and college. Six slaves, a husband and wife named Robin and Polly Holmes and their three children, and an adult man named Scott, helped Ford and his family establish their farm along the banks of Rickreall Creek, the same stream that flows through my parents’ backyard.

The area where Ford settled was the homeland of the Kalapuyan tribes, but by the time he and others arrived in the mid-1800’s, the indigenous people had already been devastated by malaria and were unable to offer much resistance. Undeterred, settlers like Ford staked their square-mile land claims.

Robin Holmes would later tell a court that Ford had promised him and his family their freedom after they helped get his farm started. Keep in mind that the Oregon Territory was a “free” region. It took six entire years for Ford to finally get around to keeping that promise, but not before making Holmes first go to California to mine gold for him, essentially buying his freedom. And that freedom was only for Holmes, his wife, and their infant child. Ford kept four other Holmes children that had since been born, claiming they were obligated to work for him as recompense since he had fed and clothed them when they were too young to work.

Two years passed with Robin and Polly disallowed from seeing their four children, one of whom died. Robin Holmes, illiterate and barely free, took astonishing action by finding legal representation and filing a habeas corpus suit against his former owner in 1852. Alleging his three remaining children’s enslavement, Holmes sought paternal custody and their freedom. His timing was critical for at that point, no laws existed in the Oregon Territory to prevent African-Americans from bringing suits against whites. Holmes’ former owner is nonetheless a formidable opponent, not only because he had custody of his young children, but by this time, Nathaniel Ford is a prominent political leader. Elected to Oregon’s territorial legislature, Ford also helped form Oregon’s powerful Democratic Party, which, like the national Democratic Party, was pro-slavery.

Ford utilized his power by ignoring the writ for an entire year, refusing to bring the children to court so he could explain by what authority he was holding them. His stalling was with purpose, for during this time, he secretly tried to make arrangements to return the entire Holmes family to Missouri for selling back into slavery. He sought to elicit assistance from someone in Missouri to claim the Holmes family as runaways under the recently-passed Fugitive Slave Act. The fact of the parents’ legal and children’s  technical freedom since they resided in the Oregon Territory did not deter Ford’s effort; the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 required only a white claimant’s sworn testimony that an African-American was a runaway who belonging to them. Our history is littered with tragic stories of free blacks, some of whom had bought their freedom after years of toil, being sold back into slavery. The legal deck was further stacked against African-Americans because they were generally prevented from testifying on their own behalf. In his suit, Holmes stated Ford frequently threatened returning him to enslavement in Missouri during confrontations over the children.

Ford apparently did not get the cooperation he solicited from Missouri, and finally appeared in court a year later. Attacking his former slaves as poor, ignorant and unfit parents, Ford also claimed Holmes agreed to leave their children in his custody until they were 18-20 years old. The case appeared before three different judges, all of whom declined to rule, which heightened the Holmes family’s anxiety. Finally, in Portland on July 13, 1853, a fourth judge, recently arrived from the abolitionist state of New York, issued a landmark ruling in the only slavery case ever adjudicated in Oregon courts. The Holmes children were returned to their parents under the determination that although the Holmes family was held enslaved for several years in Oregon, “as soon as the laws of Oregon touched the parties, the relation of master and slave was dissolved.” Against all odds, Holmes is victorious.

Nathaniel Ford’s descendants, in their written recollections of him, perceive him as well-intentioned, which the author of this book skewers with his arsenal of well-researched documentation. The Ford descendants claim Robin and Polly Holmes begged to come to Oregon with his family, and he agreed only out of the goodness of his heart. They do not mention he sold the Holmes’ family’s three eldest children prior to departure from Missouri, none of whom they ever saw again. Nor do they make reference to the letter their ancestor wrote seeking to return the family to enslavement in Missouri once faced with a court case contesting his right to continue enslaving the Holmes children in Oregon.

The complexity and interdependence of human relationships is further demonstrated in this particular case as the eldest child in Oregon, Mary Jane, continued to live with the family of one of Ford’s children. Another emancipated slave, Reuben Shipley, sought to wed Mary Jane in 1857, but had to pay Ford $700 to do so. Mary Jane was legally free, but Ford’s power was apparently exploited to his economic advantage. Ford’s descendants deny he was paid by Shipley.

The original transcript of this extraordinary case is filed in the same courthouse where Gregory and I obtained our marriage license in 1988. Its significance lies in the rare illumination it provides of the peculiar relationship between owner and enslaved, told from the enslaved point of view. This is particularly valuable given that most African-Americans were legally prevented from bringing suit against white people, slaveowners or otherwise. That all of this occurred in the same landscape where I grew up, but never learned of before now, is powerfully affecting. It has also left me wondering whether the vestiges of racism I witnessed in Dallas in the 1970’s and ’80’s have anything to do with the history of slaveholding families that settled in the same area.

As I have shared about this book with others, high school classmates amongst them, I am struck by some of the dissociation I hear. While one classmate empathized as she imagined the horror of being irretrievably cut off from her children, another dismissed, “Unfortunately it’s been going on since the beginning of time. Someone enslaved someone to do the work others don’t want to do. Not just black people.”

Yet it is here, in this nation, that slavery occurred, even in the backyard of my Oregon youth where it was unlawful, and black people were the ones we white people chose to bear this disgraceful ignominy. And we seem to still lack the capacity to acknowledge and atone for that, as if we cannot make room for more than our singular narrative. We saw this past year in Ferguson and Staten Island how painful and costly this inability remains. How can we peaceably dwell together if we are unable to listen deeply to each other’s stories, difficult as they may be to hear? Difficult more-so for those having lived the story that is hard to hear. If we are unwilling to listen to stories we do not know, our willful unawareness diminishes us.

Nathaniel Ford was not the only white man who brought enslaved people into Oregon Territory. A single sentence on page 20 of the book leapt into my family. It said, “There was also a woman slave belonging to William M. Case, who settled in Marion County.”

Myself and my four children are direct descendants of William Milner Case. He is my maternal great-great-great-grandfather. Like Ford, he also emigrated to Oregon in 1844, settling near Champoeg Park along the Willamette River. He served eight years as a Marion County commissioner. His house is situated on Case Road, which runs parallel with Case Creek, and is listed on the National Historic Register. His daughters matriculated at Willamette University.

My mother has always been proud of our prominent pioneer ancestor, but I have never heard any reference to his owning at least one slave. My sister has been involved in extensive online genealogy research for several years now, but this pertinent fact did not turn up for her before I read of it in this book. Now it is my turn to not diminish the import of this sentence, and learn, as the author has done, the identity of this heretofore unknown woman.

We all want to land on the right side of history as we discern the issues of our time — and we want our ancestors to be on that side, too. Our expectation is that they somehow divined and did the right thing, and our inheritance is thus because they knew and acted correctly. But we must remember they lived in times we do not, and were subject to attitudes and conditions we do not endure today. Some of these bygone practices, slavery in particular, have taken their rightful place in the dustbin of history. Our forbears were just as errant and fallible as we find ourselves, a product of their time much as we are a product of ours. And they didn’t always make the right call, much as we may wish otherwise. It diminishes neither them nor us to learn the truth of their lived history.

The woman my ancestor owned is unnamed. Who was she, and what became of her? Does she have descendants, and if so, am I related to them? I long to find her and make room for her story to be known. My great-great-great grandfather’s papers are stored at the University of Oregon, awaiting my perusal to discover if there is any mention of her. She matters, too, as surely as my ancestor has mattered and is remembered in Oregon’s history with geographic names and a home on the historic register.  We need the truth and remembrance of that unnamed woman’s existence to provide a fuller picture of our history, both familial and nationally. This is our collective story, the truth of where we have been, and how that complexity contributes to what and where we are now.

Gregory Nokes wrote this book when he learned one of his Shipley ancestors brought a slave named Reuben Shipley to Oregon Territory. He uncovered this incredible story about the Holmes family Shipley married into, a drama of a rare African-American court victory in advance of the Civil War. I applaud the author’s willingness to step away from our tendency to romanticize our pioneer forbears and relate a story far more compelling and true.

In the book’s epilogue, Nokes cited an article written by Alvin M. Josephy called “The Forked Tongue in US History Books,” which faults the history offered to American school children as distorted. White men who protected their property were called patriots while Native Americans doing the same were called murderers. I am profoundly grateful for the opportunity Sarah Augustine and Dan Peplow gave our church to undo these distortions, and I hope what I have shared today is another dimension of this important work we have undertaken. May God’s will be done as we carry forward. Thank you for the time you have afforded me this morning to share about this–I know I’ve been up here for quite awhile, but I am so glad that now you know this story, too.

The Holmes vs. Ford case of Oregon Territory is a victory that stands on the right side of history. It is not only a story for us to know, it’s a story for us to celebrate. And beginning with my mother and stepfather, everyone I know from that area is getting a copy of this book.

Jennifer Delanty

January 2015