By Roger Blair
In the span of a year, three Oregon authors wrote books about Oregon Trail pioneers who brought slaves to Oregon and the efforts of those slaves to gain freedom for themselves or their loved ones.
Two of those books, Jane Kirkpatrick’s A Light in the Wilderness (2014) and Phillip Margolin’s Worthy Brown’s Daughter (2014), are fiction based upon actual events.
The third, R. Gregory Nokes’s Breaking Chains (2013), is non-fiction and discusses the events fictionalized in the other two. Nokes carefully discusses the background leading up to the 1852 trial of Nathaniel Ford’s slave Robin Holmes versus Ford to gain the promised, but unfulfilled, freedom of Holmes’s children. This background includes the history of Oregon’s lure; the land laws and laws against blacks in Oregon whether free or slaves; and other black history in Oregon before 1852. Using previously published sources and Ford family history, the author describes Ford’s 1844 wagon train over the Oregon Trail. He then goes on to cover Ford’s and Holmes’s settlement in Polk County, and Ford’s involvement in establishing the Applegate Trail, also called the Southern Route.
The bulk of the book covers the unique trial in 1852 when Holmes sued for and won the freedom of his children, whom Ford had refused to surrender as promised. The trial is detailed from actual court records, the only slavery case to be decided in an Oregon court.
Nokes goes on to discuss the stories of other blacks in Oregon during the Oregon Trail era, including one person brought over by his ancestors. The author states that his interest in this story started with a mention of slaves in his own family genealogy. He is a direct descendant of 1853 emigrants, including one who brought a slave to Oregon from Kentucky. Nokes, of West Linn, Oregon, was a reporter for the Associated Press and editor of The Oregonian newspaper. Nokes includes two quotes in his prologue to explain the purpose of writing this book. The first, from Darrell Millner, professor of black studies at Portland State University, says “We shouldn’t necessarily apply today’s standards to events of the past. But we shouldn’t hide our past either.”
The second, from Nokes, says “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.” This reviewer very much agrees.