A tribute to Reuben Shipley, who was brought across the Oregon Trail as an enslaved man in 1853, but wound up a well-to-do farmer and founding citizen of Benton County, will be unveiled this weekend in Corvallis.
The National Society of The Daughters of the American Revolution will raise Shipley’s visibility by dedicating a bronze plaque in his honor at his gravesite in the Mount Union Cemetery, 2987 Mount Union Ave., in Benton County
near Corvallis at 1 p.m. Saturday. The public is invited, said Jane Buck, of the Winema Chapter of the NSDAR.
“Mr. Shipley was a Black former enslaved person remarkable for his tenacity and achievements, having gifted two acres of his land for a cemetery where Black settlers would be buried alongside white settlers,” said Buck. “Our purpose is to show how Reuben Shipley rose above his background as an enslaved person to become an important member of his community.” He was the largest Black landowner in the Willamette Valley at the time.
The story of Reuben Shipley is as remarkable as it is little known. Shipley was his enslaved name, taken from his white owner Robert Shipley, who brought him to Oregon. His true surname, according to a son, was Ficklin.
His journey from slavery to freedom occurred at a time when Oregon’s fledgling territorial government sought to exclude free Black people – slavery was ostensibly unlawful, but the law was only loosely enforced, if enforced at all, and a number of Oregon farmers were known to enslave people. Shipley would marry another formerly enslaved person, Mary Jane Holmes, after Mary Jane had been freed by a court ruling.
Shipley would later donate two acres of land for an interracial cemetery in Benton County at a time when the practice of burying Black and white people alongside one another was rare.
The cemetery, now much expanded, is on Neabeck Hill adjacent to the city of Philomath. Its location provides a pastoral view of farm fields and stands of Oregon White Oak, representative of the entire valley. So popular was Shipley’s unifying gesture with his pioneering neighbors that members of at least three wagon trains are buried at the bucolic cemetery, including ancestors of the two authors of this article.
Shipley had taken advantage of an opportunity to gain his freedom. Given the choice of staying behind in slavery in Missouri, or working his way to freedom by helping his owner Robert Shipley cross the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains to Oregon, Reuben Shipley chose the latter, even though it meant leaving behind his then-wife and family, with whom he would never be reunited.
Robert Shipley kept his word to Reuben, granting him his freedom after Reuben helped Shipley develop his farm – when this occurred is unknown. Once freed, Reuben Shipley wasted no time. He went to work for a nearby farmer, Eldridge Hartless, and within a few years had saved enough money to buy his own land. He purchased 102 acres of prime valley soil, which quite likely made him the largest landowner of Black descent in the Willamette Valley at the time.
Reuben Shipley prospered as a farmer, and a local businessman. His children were educated with other local pioneer children. He was known in his community as “Uncle Reuben.”
Yet enslavement continued to curse Reuben Shipley. Nine years before he arrived in Oregon, five members of the Robin and Polly Holmes family were brought to Oregon, enslaved, from Missouri by their owner, Nathaniel Ford. They lived about 35 miles north of Philomath, in Polk County, near the present-day Dallas. One family member, Mary Jane Holmes, would become Shipley’s wife.
Robin and Polly Holmes, after later securing their own freedom, sued Ford for the freedom of Mary Jane and their other children and won. It was Oregon’s only slavery trial, Holmes v. Ford, in 1853. However, Ford still refused to give up Mary Jane.
One commonly accepted version of what happened next is that Shipley, against the counsel of his neighbors, purchased Mary Jane, by then an adult, for his wife. No one is sure of the amount, which was reportedly $400 to $700.
But once married, Shipley and Mary Jane began their life as prosperous Benton County farmers. They raised six children, who attended county schools at a time when Black children typically were barred from white schools.
The story of Reuben Shipley is told in greater detail in R. Gregory Nokes’ book, “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory,” published in 2013 by Oregon State University Press.