The Forgotten Pioneers
Author R. Gregory Nokes ’59 explores little-known – and unpleasant– aspects of Oregon history
By Sarah Evans
No photos exist of Robin Holmes. He left no letters, diary or family genealogy. Beyond finding his name in a few U.S. Census records and in some historical documents from the Salem church he attended, we know virtually nothing about his personal life.
Holmes easily could have disappeared from history were it not for a 162-year-old, handwritten court transcript stored on microfilm in the Polk County courthouse. Yet, as author R. Gregory Nokes ’59 recently discovered when he read that transcript, Holmes represents an important but little-known piece of Oregon’s past that often surprises people.
Holmes was a black slave, brought from Missouri in 1844 and kept in bondage for six years in Oregon, despite a law banning slavery in the region. And he wasn’t the only one suffering that fate.
After being freed, Holmes took a dangerously bold step in 1852. He sued his former owner to gain his children’s freedom. Following a 15-month court battle, Holmes prevailed — despite a predominantly white population in Oregon that, at the time, was generally hostile to African Americans. In fact, Oregon had the distinction of being the only free state admitted to the Union with a constitution that excluded blacks from living in the state. Although the clause wasn’t enforced, it remained in the document until 1926.
“The history hasn’t been covered up, but it’s just been easy to forget because it’s unpleasant,” Nokes says. “We’ve been in denial and haven’t wanted to talk about it. Then if you don’t talk about it for a while, a generation goes by and it’s forgotten.”
Nokes is not one to let stories languish. He wrote a book about Holmes’ court case, “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory,” for which he was named one of five finalists for this year’s Oregon Book Award for General Nonfiction. Nokes’ first book, “Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon,” also exposed a long-forgotten part of Oregon’s history. And before he became an author, Nokes spent 43 years chronicling politics and world events as a reporter, first for The Associated Press and later for The Oregonian.
“Greg is persistent, and he’s not satisfied until he explores to the very roots of the issues and events that have gained his attention,” says Darrell Millner, professor emeritus of black studies at Portland State University, a Western black history expert who advised Nokes on “Breaking Chains.” “I was very impressed with his energy and with his commitment to doing a thorough job of exploring this kind of history.”
A Surprising Family History
Born and raised in Portland, Nokes, 76, remembers learning in elementary school the oft-told story of the brave pioneers who loaded up their wagons to travel the arduous Oregon Trail and start new lives in the Northwest. His ancestors were among those who traversed the trail.
No one ever mentioned that the pioneers included black slaves.
“My modest knowledge of Oregon history meant that I did know there’d been a law against slavery from day one of the provisional government,” says Nokes, who now lives in West Linn, Ore., with his wife, Candise. “That was true, but in the early days, nobody paid any attention to it.”
About four years ago, Nokes met with his brother, Bill, over coffee to discuss ideas for a new book. Bill suggested he write about Reuben Shipley, a slave one of their ancestors brought to Oregon from Missouri in 1853.
Dismayed by the news of a slave in his family history, Nokes asked his brother how he knew about Shipley.
“You can turn to page 359 of the family genealogy written by our grandparents,” Bill told him.
Nokes had received a copy of his family’s 3-inch-thick genealogy in the 1960s, and he carried it with him from country to country during his career as a journalist. But he had never bothered to read it.
Sure enough, it referenced a slave known as “Uncle Reuben Shipley,” whose “owner promised him his freedom if he would come to Oregon and help them get settled.”
The story of slaves in Oregon had all of the elements to ignite Nokes’ curiosity: It had a deep connection to his home, the general population might not know about it, and it gave him a chance to expose an injustice.
His focus on such a topic came as no surprise to his son, Deston Nokes ’81.
“When we were very young children, we’d hear racial slurs in the neighborhood, and he’d tell us never to use those words,” Deston says. “I remember when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, we were in Puerto Rico at the time, and we went on a march in his honor. My dad has always been very outspoken on civil rights.”
Around the World and Back
Nokes’ propensities for writing and investigating run in the family. His late father, J. Richard Nokes, was a noted civic leader and writer who worked for The Oregonian for 46 years. He retired in 1982 as the paper’s editor.
But when Greg chose to attend Willamette, journalism wasn’t on his mind. He didn’t even write for The Collegian on campus. He wanted to travel the world as a diplomat, so he chose to major in political science.
“I had a few discipline problems,” Nokes admits, “so going to a smaller school benefited me a lot. I liked the confined geography of Willamette — smaller classes, more hands-on professors — and that worked out well for me.”
Several of his professors — including Robert Gatke, Ted Shay and future U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield — helped him focus and fueled his interest in a career in world politics and government. He ended up in that field, although not in the way he expected.
After he struggled to pass the Foreign Service Officer Test to become a diplomat, his father suggested he apply for an opening as a reporter at the Medford Mail Tribune. Nokes got the job and found that journalism was a natural fit.
Several years later, he went to work in the Salt Lake City bureau of The Associated Press — the start of a 25-year AP career that stationed him in New York, Puerto Rico, Argentina and Washington, D.C. His assignments brought him face-to-face with power and geopolitical hot spots around the world. He rode on Air Force One with Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan; interviewed Fidel Castro in Cuba; and traveled to the Middle East multiple times to cover U.S. involvement in the region.
“I probably ended up going to more embassies and more countries as a reporter than I ever would have as a diplomat,” Nokes says.
In 1986, he left AP and returned to Portland to work for The Oregonian. “I’d stood on the Great Wall of China, climbed a pyramid in Egypt, flown in Air Force One — what more could I really do? My mom and dad were still in Oregon, and I’d been away from them for a long, long time. So it was really the pull of home that drew me back.”
He continued traveling the world during his 15 years covering politics and writing features for The Oregonian before retiring in 2003 to become an author and lecturer. He already had his first book topic in mind, something he’d found while roving the state as a reporter.
Nokes had read an article in the weekly newspaper in eastern Oregon’s Wallowa County about a clerk who’d found an old safe that held records of a long-forgotten local murder trial. The trial involved accused horse thieves who had allegedly murdered nearly three dozen Chinese gold miners in Hells Canyon in 1887. No one was convicted of the crime.
Nokes began his own investigation into the massacre and wrote several stories for The Oregonian before fully diving into the story after his retirement. His discoveries turned into “Massacred for Gold,” published in 2009.
“This was one of the worst crimes in Oregon’s history, and almost nobody knew about it,” Nokes says. “Very few people even know the history of the Chinese in the region. I told the story of the Chinese: who they were, what they did, how they were treated and what became of them.”
Nokes’ research and his initial articles in The Oregonian led to the murder site being formally designated Chinese Massacre Cove in 2005. In 2012, Nokes and others established a memorial to the Chinese at the site, on the Oregon side of the canyon along the Snake River, south of Lewiston, Idaho.
Slavery on Trial
Energized by the research and writing involved in “Massacred for Gold,” Nokes was ready to take on a new topic: the existence of slaves in the Oregon Territory.
As he began digging through records at historical societies across the state to learn more about Reuben Shipley, he found references to another slave: Robin Holmes.
Similar to Shipley, Holmes was a slave from Missouri. He and his family had been promised freedom in exchange for helping their owner, Nathaniel Ford, develop a farm in the Willamette Valley.
Nokes soon came to understand that multiple slaves were brought along the Oregon Trail from Missouri for similar reasons. At the time, no one bothered to enforce the region’s antislavery law — partly because many of Oregon’s early leaders, including first territorial governor Joseph Lane, actually supported slavery.
Ford eventually freed Holmes and his wife — albeit six years after they arrived — but refused to release their children. For that, Holmes took Ford to court. Holmes was represented by prosecuting attorney Reuben Boise, who later became chief justice of Oregon’s Supreme Court.
A series of delays caused by both Ford and several judges dragged out the case for 15 months. Finally, Territorial Supreme Court Chief Justice George H. Williams decided in Holmes’s favor using simple reasoning: Oregon law did not allow slavery, so the children must be freed. Holmes v. Ford is the only case regarding slavery ever adjudicated in Oregon courts.
Holmes went on to join with a small group of other former slaves to integrate a white church in Salem in 1861.
“It’s a remarkable story because Holmes was illiterate, raised in a slave culture, bought and sold at the whim of others, and yet he managed to prevail at this trial,” Nokes says. “He’s a heroic figure, and we know almost nothing about him.”
After four years of digging through old census data, historical societies’ archives, newspapers and property records, Nokes found evidence of at least 35 black slaves in Oregon, and he suspects there were others for whom no records exist. “Breaking Chains” tells the story of Holmes and Ford in the context of the political climate at the time — including the details of Oregon’s black exclusion clause.
“I think everybody should read this book,” says Millner, the black history expert. “We look around Oregon today and there are certain things impressed on us, such as the small number of the black population and the way our politics unfold. These are reflections of our earlier political decisions about race. Greg explores that and gives people a lot of information to work with, and he brings that back to the surface of our awareness.”
In the epilogue for “Breaking Chains,” Nokes writes: “General interest history books have had little to say about the slaves, exclusion laws, or other discriminatory legislation during Oregon’s early years. Isn’t it about time we catch up?”
Since his book’s release, Nokes has been working with a group called Beyond the Oregon Trail to revise an alternative curriculum for the state’s eighth-graders. Their goal is for young Oregonians to learn the full story of the state’s history with slavery and racism — to learn the stories of people like Robin Holmes.
“My goals as a kid were shaped very early — one was to see the world, another was to write and the third was to make a difference,” Nokes says. “I certainly have seen the world, I certainly have written a lot, and I like to think that I’m doing my little part to leave the world a better place than I found it.”
An Uncommon Request: My Connection with Mark Hatfield
By R. Gregory Nokes
I couldn’t have been more unprepared for the request I received in a telephone call from Mark Hatfield one day in 2002, shortly before I was to retire from The Oregonian.
He wanted to know if someone could choose the person to write his obituary, and, if he could so choose, he wanted it to be me.
No, he reassured me with a laugh, he was not anticipating it would be needed anytime soon. But he had turned 80, and he wanted to be prepared.
To say I was deeply honored would be an understatement. I had known Mark for nearly five decades, since I first walked into his political science course in Willamette’s then-new, now-old Fine Arts Building during my freshman year in 1955.
Of course I would write his obituary, I told him. We had three long interviews as I gathered information on his life — the things he wanted me to know, and a few he didn’t especially want to talk about.
Oddly, in all the years I knew Hatfield — years during which he was the most prominent political figure in Oregon, as secretary of state, as governor, as a five-term U.S. senator — and my 43 years as a journalist, I hadn’t written a single article about him.
Hatfield had taken a liking to me, as he had so many other students. Handsome, sharply dressed, personable, always remembering your name, he stood out as the near-perfect role model. He was a proud Willamette graduate and returned to serve as professor, dean and trustee.
After graduation, during the years I worked as a journalist elsewhere, we had little contact. But when I arrived in Washington, D.C., with The Associated Press in 1972, Mark invited me to lunch and a tour of the U.S. Capitol. Among the highlights he wanted to share were statues of Oregon leaders and others in the Capitol Rotunda.
We would talk occasionally, meeting in his office or over lunch, and also at Willamette alumni gatherings in Washington. We had one final lunch shortly before I returned to Portland to join The Oregonian in 1986.
I did write and file the obituary in 2002 for future use, but by the time Hatfield passed away in 2011, my version was too dated. One of my former colleagues at The Oregonian crafted a new obituary that included only a modest contribution of what I had written.
A recent proposal from the Oregon Legislature would place a statue of Hatfield in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda, near the spot where we stood many years ago, admiring the statues of others. It would be a fitting honor for a man who provided such great service to Willamette, to the state and to the nation.
R. Gregory Nokes stands outside Salem Pioneer Cemetery, where Robin Holmes is buried.
“We’ve been in denial and haven’t wanted to talk about it. Then if you don’t talk about it for a while, a generation goes by and it’s forgotten.”
– R. Gregory Nokes, on slavery in Oregon
Robin Holmes’ owners, Nathaniel and Lucinda Ford. (Oregon Historical Society, #ba000447)
“General interest history books have had little to say about the slaves, exclusion laws, or other discriminatory legislation during Oregon’s early years. Isn’t it about time we catch up?”
–R. Gregory Nokes
Mary Jane Holmes Shipley Drake, daughter of Robin Holmes, photographed in 1924, two years before her death. Robin Holmes took Nathaniel Ford to court when Ford refused to grant freedom to Mary Jane and two other children. (Benton County Historical Society and Museum)
“Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory,”
2013, Oregon State University Press
“Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon,”
2009, Oregon State University Press