They were brought in bondage from Missouri

Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory focuses on slaves brought to Oregon from Missouri in the mid 1800s. It is told against the background of the national controversy over slavery that led to Civil War in 1861.

Racism in Oregon’s 1857 Constitution

Few may know that Oregon’s 1857 Constitution included a clause banning African Americans from the state. Although it was never enforced, Oregon became the only free state admitted into the union with such a clause in its Constitution. It wasn’t removed until 1926.

The book is certain to shock the many readers who will be unaware that the question of whether Oregon would be a free or slave state once  dominated the political discourse, and, moreover, that even into statehood, prominent Oregon leaders were defenders of slavery.

The issue was even put to a vote in 1857.

Relying on court testimony, Nokes’ book also includes a rare account of the relationship between a slave and his master from the slave’s point of view. He recounts the 15-month court battle in which former slaves Robin and Polly Holmes sought to free their three children held by Missouri emigrant Nathaniel Ford.

List of Oregon and Washington slaves


Oregon: Could it have become a slave state?

“At this distance it may seem almost inconceivable . . . that there was any danger of Oregon’s becoming a slave state. Whatever may be the mature conclusions on this point after the lapse of a half-century, the fact remains that there was apparently very serious danger at the time.’’
— Historian Walter Carleton Woodward,
the Oregon Historical Quarterly, 1911.