Former Oregon Slave Lou Southworth
Slavery in the Willamette Valley, Oregon
Most African-Americans who came to Oregon on the overland trail were free, coming to Oregon hoping to get away from the racial conflict of the east and move to a place where they would have greater opportunities—but some were enslaved, came to Oregon with their owners.
Daniel Delaney came from Tennessee with his family and at least one slave, Rachel Beldon. Rachel worked in the fields, garden, and house, and nursed the invalid Mrs. Delaney. Rachel was listed in the 1850 census as a “slave” of the Delaneys, and continued to live with them until the end of the Civil War. She had two sons, Noah and Jackson, and later married Nathan Brooks, another African-American. They worked on Daniel Waldo’s farm and later moved to Salem where they raised two other sons, Samuel and Mansfield.
Despite being a former slaveholder, Daniel Delaney had a reputation of being friendly with blacks. In 1865, after a dispute about some cattle, some of Delaney’s neighbors took advantage of this; they blackened their faces and went to kill Delaney, hoping that the authorities would pin the crime on blacks. Rachel Beldon’s son Jackson (also identified as Jack De Wolf) who worked for Delaney, witnessed the murder; his testimony helped convict the killers.
Mary Jane Shipley Drake, ca. 1924, Former Enslaved Oregonian and Widow of Reuben Shipley (Image: Benton County Oregon Historical Society)
Another infamous incidence of slavery in Oregon took place in Rickreal, about 10 miles west of Salem. Robin and Polly Holmes, and their three-year-old daughter Mary Jane, came to Oregon from Missouri in 1844. They were the slaves of Nathaniel Ford, who settled in Rickreal. Robin and Polly believed that they would be freed in Oregon, and they eventually were--after several years of unpaid service, and after Robin went to California and mined gold for Holmes. Robin and Polly eventually gained their freedom, moved into their own house, and started a nursery business in Salem, but Ford retained custody of three of their four children. In 1852, after one of the children died in Ford’s custody, Robin Holmes took Ford to court to get custody of his children. In the first legal decision against slavery in Oregon, Oregon Supreme Court Justice George H. Williams granted custody to Holmes in 1853.
In spite of the court’s decision, Ford apparently remained convinced that he held some power over the Holmes children. In 1857, when the eldest daughter Mary Jane Holmes got married, Ford made her husband, Reuben Shipley, pay $700 for her. Mary Jane and Reuben Shipley lived in Salem and Corvallis for many years. After Reuben died, Mary Jane was remarried to R. G. Drake. She died in 1925, the year before Oregon’s last exclusion law overturned. Technically, Mary Jane Holmes Shipley Drake had lived illegally in Oregon for 81 years.
In 1857, the year of Mary Jane’s wedding, the new Oregon Constitution came to a vote. Oregonians had the opportunity to voice their opinion on two pressing questions: Should Oregon have slavery, and should free blacks be permitted in Oregon. Statewide, 2645 people voted to legalize slavery, and 7727 voted to ban it. While Oregon was decidedly anti-slavery, the opposition to free blacks was even stronger. 8640 voted to exclude free blacks; only 1081 voted to allow them. Voters in Marion County followed the same pattern: 1044 voted against slavery, versus 214 for slavery, while 1115 voted against free blacks, versus only 76 for free blacks. (source: Salem Online History)
Oregon's Exclusion Laws
Race was central to the debate over Oregon statehood. In November 1857, Oregon Territory voted overwhelmingly in favor of a new state constitution, which was to be submitted to the U.S. Congress in a bid to gain statehood. They also approved a clause prohibiting slavery and another excluding free blacks from living in Oregon. The territory had a history of excluding blacks through a series of exclusion laws. The first law, in 1844, outlawed slavery but ordered all blacks out of the Oregon territory, and in 1849, a bill excluded black settlement. Blacks were also denied the right to vote.
The U.S. Senate quickly approved Oregon’s constitution, but the question of statehood lingered in the House, where both northern Republicans and southern Democrats objected the would-be state's constitution. The exclusion of free blacks was by far the most controversial of the constitution’s provisions. Ohio Representative Bingham called this clause “injustice and oppression incarnate,” while Massachusetts Representative Henry L. Dawes charged that Oregon’s constitution “makes odious distinctions among classes of men and among individuals of the same class. It ruthlessly tramples the rights of the citizen in the dust.”
Despite these objections, the Oregon Constitution retained its exclusion laws until 1926, when it was voted out of the Bill of Rights. In 1959, Oregonians voted in favor of the Fifteenth Amendment—almost 90 years after its addition to the United States Constitution.
On November 11, 2008, a majority of Oregonians (57 percent) voted for Barack Obama for president, making him the first black president of the United States. (source: Oregon Historical Society)