Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory (Paperback)

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Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory By R. Gregory Nokes Cover Image

Staff Reviews

Slavery is thought to be a southern shame. Nokes’ extensive research proves slavery affected far more of the country than just the south. Oregon harbored slave owners too, people who viewed others as chattel, property to be used as they saw fit, sold, or discarded. 

Nokes documents the only case every tried in an Oregon court with a black slave suing a white man.  Robert and Mary Holmes along with three of their children were brought as property with Nathanial Ford and his family on the Oregon Trail as Ford fled a mountain of debt back in Missouri.  Ford had already sold three of the Holmes children before leaving Missouri.  He promised the Holmes he would set them free after three years if they would help establish a farm in the Oregon territory.  The government was giving away 640 acres to homesteading couples, enough to put Ford back on his feet financially. 

Years passed without the promised release for the Holmes family.  Finally Ford granted freedom to the parents, keeping the children as his property.  Holmes did something courageous and daring, he filed suit in the white man’s court to get justice for his family and free his children.  It was not an even fight; Ford was well known and well regarded. Nokes details the court case and the prevailing political climate.  He tells us of other slaves living in the northwest and gives us a glimpse into their contributions to history.  He packs in a lot of information on Oregon in the mid to late 1800’s, if you enjoy history this book will be a treasure trove of information.


— Deon Stonehouse


When they were brought to Oregon in 1844, Missouri slaves Robin and Polly Holmes and their children were promised freedom in exchange for helping develop their owner’s Willamette Valley farm. However, Nathaniel Ford, an influential settler and legislator, kept them in bondage until 1850, even then refusing to free their children. Holmes took his former master to court and, in the face of enormous odds, won the case in 1853.

In Breaking Chains, R. Gregory Nokes tells the story of the only slavery case adjudicated in Oregon’s pre-Civil War courts—Holmes v. Ford. Through the lens of this landmark case, Nokes explores the historical context of racism in Oregon and the West, reminding readers that there actually were slaves in Oregon, though relatively few in number.

Drawing on the court record, Nokes offers an intimate account of the relationship between a slave and his master from the slave’s point of view. He also explores the experiences of other slaves in early Oregon, examining attitudes toward race and revealing contradictions in the state’s history. Oregon was the only free state admitted to the union with a voter-approved constitutional clause banning African Americans and, despite the prohibition of slavery in the state, many in Oregon tolerated it and supported politicians who advocated for slavery, including Oregon’s first territorial governor.

Breaking Chains sheds light on a somber part of Oregon’s history, bringing the story of slavery in Oregon to a broader audience. The book will appeal to readers interested in Pacific Northwest history and in the history of slavery in the United States.

About the Author

R. Gregory Nokes is the author of Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon, an Oregonian Pacific Northwest “Top 10” book. He travelled the world as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press and The Oregonian. He is a graduate of Willamette University and attended Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow. He and his wife, Candise, live in West Linn, Oregon.
Product Details
ISBN: 9780870717123
ISBN-10: 087071712X
Publisher: Oregon State University Press
Publication Date: May 1st, 2013
Pages: 240
Language: English