Breaking Chains: Slavery on trial in the Oregon Territory, by R. Gregory Nokes is an important addition to Oregon’s history. For three generations, my mixed-race family has known that Oregon’s legal relationship with its African American citizens was rocky, but details were elusive. Much of Oregon supported an apartheid-like atmosphere well into the 1960s. When my children and my students ask for specifics, I can now give a more complete answer. I can offer them Breaking Chains.
This untold part of Oregon’s history came to Nokes’s attention because a former slave was mentioned in his family genealogy. Nokes soon learned that Oregon, though admitted to the union as a free state, also tolerated slaveholding and had a constitution that supported a ban on African Americans. Its citizens voted for pro-slavery politicians, including the first territorial governor. Even when slavery was opposed by white Oregonians, it was often for reasons more self-preserving than selfless.
Nokes’s deep research, his interviews of slave’s descendants and his incisive story-telling style delves into the history of Robin Holmes who, with great perseverance, successfully sued his owner for his freedom, and of Reuben Shipley who was forced to choose between remaining near his enslaved family in Missouri and his tenuous hope of freedom in Oregon. There is a wealth of information about the life of Oregon’s early African Americans in Breaking Chains.