Breaking Chains

Missouri slaves Robin and Polly Holmes, and their children, are brought to Oregon from Missouri by their owner over the Oregon Trail in 1844, expecting to soon be freed in a region closed to slavery. But slaveholder Nathaniel Ford, destined to become an influential Oregon legislator, ignores the law and keeps them in bondage. Ford isn’t alone. Other Missouri slaveholders bring slaves to help them develop their Willamette Valley farms. Some slaves receive their freedom after a few years; others are held much longer. Holmes and his wife gain their freedom in 1850, but Ford refuses to give up their three children.

Mary Jane Holmes Shipley Drake was a central figure in an 1852 slavery case in which her father, a former slave, successfully sued his former owner, Nathaniel Ford, for the freedom of his three children, including Mary Jane. It was the only slavery case ever adjudicated in Oregon courts. The photo was taken shortly before her death in 1926. (Benton County Historical Museum).

Despite being illiterate and with the odds stacked against him, Holmes takes his former master to court in an attempt to get his children back. Finally, following an agonizing 15-month court battle, the third judge to hear the case, George H. Williams of the Territorial Supreme Court, rules in Holmes’ favor and returns his children.

Robin Holmes should be considered one of Oregon’s prominent historical figures because of what he achieved. Yet there are no photographs of this former slave, no letters left behind. It’s difficult to even find his name in the historical record. Yet his achievements can’t be denied.

Holmes vs. Ford, decided in 1853, is a landmark case in Oregon and the only slavery case ever brought in Oregon courts. That should have been the end of it, but it wasn’t. It was one thing to declare slavery unlawful. I was quite another to enforce the law in a climate of hostility toward blacks.

Nokes also tells the poignant and often painful stories of other slaves uprooted from their families in Missouri and brought to Oregon, including one man forced to buy his freedom. Another former slave, who later married one of Holmes’ daughters, was brought to Oregon by one of Nokes’ ancestors.

Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory is R. Gregory Nokes’ nonfiction account of the largely forgotten story of Oregon slavery. The book was a finalist for the 2014 Oregon Book Award for nonfiction.

Published in 2013 by Oregon State University Press. Order your copy:

“This is the way history should be written.” – Jane Kirkpatrick, author of One Glorious Ambition.