Nathaniel Ford was sheriff of Howard County, Missouri, who owned a slave family and brought them by wagon train to Oregon over the Oregon Trail in 1844 — promising eventual freedom, but believing he had the right to keep three of their children longer.
They settled in Rickreal, about 10 miles west of Salem. Years later, his freed slave Robin Holmes, an illiterate black who signed his name with an “X” did the unthinkable — he sued his former owner to get his kids back.
“He does not furnish them with sufficient meat, drink or apparel,” Holmes said in a court document, demanding return of the children held as “wards” — a fourth having died while under Ford’s “care.”
If they were not returned, Holmes continued, he was fearful “that the treatment they now receive will materially injure their health, and eventually cause their death, or be the cause of their enduring great suffering.”
Ford acquired ownership of Robin and Polly Holmes and their daughter, Mary Jane, in 1841 when they were sold to pay a debt. In taking the Holmes family to Oregon, he promised them freedom after they helped build his square-mile farm — a promise Ford denied in court. He didn’t free them until 1849 — and only after Robin helped Ford’s son dig for gold in California.
But he kept three of four children born in Oregon and old enough to work, believing he could keep them until the girls turned 18 and the boy 21.
In the lawsuit filed in 1852, Holmes claimed Ford was planning to sell the children in Missouri under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Ford denied it, but a letter found 80 years later proved he was indeed planning to sell the children.
When the Holmes case reached the Oregon Territorial Supreme Court, Chief Justice George H. Williams ruled the Holmes children were free and would be returned to their parents.
It marked the end of thoughts of slavery in Oregon, but it didn’t end Nathaniel Ford’s hold on the Holmes family. In 1857, when their 16-year-old daughter Mary Jane wanted to marry, Ford made her husband-to-be Ruben Shipley pay him $700 for her.
It was tough going for the few African-Americans living in Oregon.
Oregonians in those early days had mixed feelings about slavery and African-Americans. Oregon was always a free state and mostly against slavery — but they also didn’t want blacks living there.
Oregon’s Provisional Government in 1844 passed laws declaring slavery illegal and required settlers who owned slaves to let them go within three years. Freed slaves who were children could stay until they were 18, but over that age had to leave Oregon — men within two years and women within three.
Those who failed to leave were to “receive upon his or her bare back not less than 20 nor more than 39 stripes, to be inflicted by the constable of the proper county” every six months “until he or she shall quit the territory.”
That lash law was soon changed before taking effect and replaced with punishment of six months of indentured hard labor. The employer then was required to remove the black from the territory or face $1,000 fine. That law was repealed in 1845.
Four years later another law disallowed blacks to settle in the new Oregon Territory, while allowing those already there to stay. The preamble to the bill stated that “It would be highly dangerous to allow free Negroes and mulattoes to reside in the Territory, or intermix with Indians, instilling into their mind feelings of hostility toward the white race.” That law was also repealed, with only one known black ever exiled.
In 1857 — the year Mary Jane was married — Oregonians voted lopsidedly for the new state Constitution which included clauses restricting blacks. The questions they voted on were, should Oregon have slavery, and should free blacks be allowed to live in Oregon? Statewide, 2,645 people voted yes to legalizing slavery, but 7,727 said no.
As to allowing them to live in Oregon, 8,640 voted to keep them out, while only 1,081 voted allowing them in. Those laws excluding African-Americans remained state law until 1926.
There were some bright lights during that ugly period. One of them was Reverend Obed Dickenson, a Congregational pastor in Salem and his wife Charlotte who taught blacks in her home, believing that they deserved an education. African-Americans — including the Holmeses — were welcomed into their church.
The Dickensons’ views on blacks and temperance were opposed by church members and in 1867 he resigned, built a prosperous seed business, and switched to the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
An 1892 obituary in the Capital Journal newspaper said, “Mr. Dickinson was a hard worker and acquired a fortune in the seed and nursery business. He gave liberally of his means to other churches, not long since donating quite a sum to Pacific academy at Forest Grove. He was a man of social qualities and charitable in his instincts.”
Chief Justice George Williams made the right decision in the Holmes v. Ford case, but he was no champion of African-American civil rights. In his so-called “Free State Letter” published in the Oregon Statesman in 1857 at a time when there was a growing number of Democrats in Oregon favoring slavery, William opposed the idea — but not for reasons acceptable today:
He said slavery was not adaptable to Oregon’s economy and would be disastrous. He said “Negroes are naturally lazy” and “ignorant,” and the cost of bringing them to Oregon would be prohibitively expensive and would harm the existing labor force.
An Oregon Secretary of State article says, “Only a handful of Oregon’s farmers could afford the cost of buying, transporting and providing for slaves. Moreover, the territory’s crops and economy generally were not suited for slavery or a plantation system such as was used with cotton in the South.”
The article further noted that slaves would have to be supported during winter time when they would be out of work. “What could a Negro fitted by nature for the blazing sun of Africa, do in an Oregon winter?”
Justice Williams further declared that southern slaveholders would only sell their most troublesome slaves, raising the question “Would these slaves, once in Oregon, escape to the free state of California or the free territory of Washington? Or worse yet, would they flee to the refuge of hostile Indians, perhaps forming an alliance to attack isolated and poorly protected white settlements in Oregon?”
Nathaniel Ford did not go down in history as a monster — his notoriety was bringing slaves to Oregon and being embroiled in an historical lawsuit.
Before coming to Oregon he was a surveyor, schoolteacher, flat-boatman and sheriff. He and his wife Lucinda had two sons and eight daughters — four of the children dying before the family moved west.
Ford treated the Holmes family well, building them their own cabin and letting them sell produce they grew on his land.
For the rest of his life, Ford worked mostly as a surveyor, but also served as one of Oregon’s early legislators. The Provisional Legislature asked him to be the Supreme Judge of Oregon but he declined. Years later he was elected as a Democrat member of the Territorial Legislature representing Polk and Tillamook Counties — and later other counties. He ended his political career in the state Senate after Oregon became a state.
Oregon researcher Arlie Holt wrote, “I think he is one of the most important men in Polk County history.”
Nathaniel Ford died in Rickreall (new spelling) in Polk County in 1870 at the age of 75. (Rickreall was called “Dixie” during the Civil War because of the many southern sympathizers living there.)
Once freed, Robin and Polly Holmes moved to Marion County, bought a home and started a successful plant nursery in Salem. He died in 1892. The 1870 census listed Polly Holmes as a patient of the Oregon Hospital for the Insane in Portland.
Their daughter Mary Jane and husband Ruben bought an 80-acre farm near Corvallis, had six children and became well-respected in the community. After Ruben’s death, she married R.G. Drake in 1875.
Mary Jane died in 1925, outliving him and all but one of her children.
Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
They called him “Colonel”…
In the Polk County Museum, a copy of the manifest for the wagon train that “Colonel” Nathaniel Polk led across the Oregon Trail from Missouri records 358 persons that included 55 married men with wives, 80 single men and 168 children, 54 wagons, 500 cattle, 60 horses and 28 mules.
New Oregon settler Peter Burnett from Tennessee and Missouri framed a common sentiment of the 1800s, saying “The object is to keep clear of that most troublesome class of population (blacks). We are in a new world, under the most favorable circumstances, and we wish to avoid most of those evils that have so much afflicted the United States and other countries.”
Nathaniel Ford the surveyor…
Much of Ford’s career in Oregon was as a surveyor helping newly arrived pioneers locate land claims and also helping them settle disputes. Ford also helped the Applegate brothers pioneer the new Applegate Trail—considered a safer branch of the Oregon Trail into Oregon Territory.
While at an Oregon college, student Jim Musgrave wrote about one incident when Ford and another man were surveying along the Idaho-Oregon border: “As the story goes, they got so drunk that by the time they reached the Idaho border, they were six miles off!”
Success in the classroom…
“What is better? My wife who has taught school for fifteen years says she has never seen such rapid improvement. They labor under great disadvantages for one is a wife, and has all the cares of a family, and two others are servant girls, yet they are all beginning to read intelligibly. Three have learned their figures and are going on well in the first questions of mental arithmetic. All this in five weeks!"
Oregon Ku Klux Klan…
“Fiery crosses and marchers in Ku Klux Klan (KKK) regalia were common sights in Oregon and the nation during the 1920s. The social and economic problems following World War I only partly explain why this organization, with its southern heritage of racism and violence, appealed to the overwhelmingly white, native-born, and Protestant population of Oregon.”
---The Oregon Encyclopedia
OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Nathaniel Ford’s home and post office built 1849 (Photo 1939).
George Henry William (1823-1910), Oregon Territorial Supreme Court Chief Justice who freed the Holmes family from slavery.
UNIVERSITY OF OREGON LIBRARIES
Lithograph of George and Kate Ann Williams’s Victorian
mansion, 18th and Couch streets, Portland, Ore.
OREGON HISTORICAL SOCIETY
Ku Klux Klan marching down East Main St., Ashland, Ore., in 1920s.
OSU SPECIAL COLLECTIONS & ARCHIVES
Rickreall, Ore., where Robin and Polly Holmes and children lived.
Photo by SUMIO KOIZUMI/National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center
Slave-owner Nathaniel Ford brought the Holmes Family to Oregon from Missouri over the Oregon Trail in 1844, promising to set them free.