Paper pub. date
May 2013
ISBN 9780870717123 (paperback)
6 x 9 inches, 240 pages. Illustrations. Index.

Breaking Chains

Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory

R. Gregory Nokes

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, slaveholder 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 ever adjudicated in Oregon courts—Holmes v. Ford. Drawing on the court record of this landmark case, 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 against slavery, many in Oregon tolerated it, and supported politicians who were pro-slavery, including Oregon’s first territorial governor.

Told against the background of the national controversy over slavery, Breaking Chains sheds light on a somber part of Pacific Northwest history, bringing the story of slavery in Oregon to a broader audience.

About the author

R. GREGORY NOKES is the author of Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory and Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon. He traveled the world as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press and the Oregonian. A graduate of Willamette University, he attended Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow. His reporting on the 1887 murders of more than thirty Chinese gold miners in Hells Canyon resulted in a formal designation of the site as Chinese Massacre Cove and was the basis for an Oregon Public Broadcasting documentary. Greg and his wife, Candise, live in West Linn, Oregon.

Read more about this author

To see an excerpt of Breaking Chains, click here.

"Rich with historical fact, fascinating characters, and often shocking personal narratives, "Breaking Chains" is an excellent telling of Oregon's convoluted flirtation with 'our peculiar institution.'" —Marc Covert, The Oregonian

"Breaking Chains" review: The Slavery Issue in Oregon. —Oregonian, 5/18/13


"We need to know history to see clearly the present shaped by it. Nokes’ book clears away some of the fog."—Jerry Large, Seattle Times

Illuminating history of slavery in Oregon a teachable moment. —Seattle Times, 5/22/2013


"R. Gregory Nokes, author of Massacred for Gold, about the death of Chinese gold miners on the Snake River, brings his substantial research abilities to bear on the little-known history of slavery in Oregon with his most recent release, Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory"

Slavery a Shameful Part of Northwest's History.—East Oregonian, 5/13/13


"Breaking Chains is well researched, and the author wisely added a timeline and an index to help readers more easily track and navigate the material. This book is essential for library collections serving populations with an interest in the Oregon Trail, slavery or law stories highlighting trials." -- Kristina Alayan, Law Library Journal


"Nokes combines a rich and impressive level of research with his own familial connections and personal stories to provide an intimate portrait of Oregon's broader struggles with slavery, race, and exclusion throughout the Civil War era. Breaking Chains is to be credited for bringing Oregon's understudied black community to life. Nokes has assembled a rich tapestry of black experiences in Oregon Territory before the Civil War." -- Jesse J. Gant Pacific Northwest Quarterly

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