Every month, our department hosts and helps coordinate History Nights at various McMenamins venues. These events are always free and open to guests of all ages, featuring regional historians and experts talking about incidents, characters, events, architecture and more that influenced Pacific Northwest history.
On April 29 and May 5, two of our events have an interesting connection – Oregon's involvement in slavery prior to the Civil War and resulting Emancipation Proclamation. Holmes v. Ford (1853) was the only Oregon legal case dealing with slavery. One event will be led by a historian/author, while the other will feature a best-selling novelist.
Tuesday, April 29 · Edgefield
Author R. Gregory Nokes will present a historical perspective on this tragic and important Oregon case.
In 1844, Missouri slaves Robin and Polly Holmes and their children were brought to Oregon by their owner, Nathaniel Ford, with the promise of freedom in exchange for developing his Willamette Valley farm. However, Ford ignored the Oregon Territory's largely unenforced law against slavery, and didn't free Robin and Polly (along with an infant) until six years later – and never did free the three Holmes children, keeping them on as indentured servants! (Eighty years later, in 1930, a letter was found and published which confirmed that Ford had actually planned to sell Holmes's son and two daughters to a slaver, under the Fugitive Slave Act.)
When one of Holmes's daughters died while under Ford's ownership, Holmes took his former master – an influential Oregon farmer and legislator – to court.
In his book Breaking Chains, Nokes (author of Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon) tells the story of the only slavery case adjudicated in Oregon's pre-Civil War courts. He follows the largely unknown experiences of other Oregon slaves and explores the historical context of racism in the West.
It was another ten years, during the American Civil War, 'til President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), which would lead to the freeing of slaves in the parts of the United States in rebellion. The Thirteenth Amendment officially freed slaves in the remainder of the United States and outlawed slavery in 1865.
Monday, May 5 · Mission Theater
We welcome New York Times best-selling novelist Philip Margolin to the Mission to read from his latest mystery/thriller, Worthy Brown's Daughter (2014). This event is part of a summertime historical literary series coordinated by the Oregon Encyclopedia. Margolin's novel is based on the same Holmes v. Ford case that historian Nokes explored, as noted above.
In his review of the novel, The Oregonian's Steve Duin wrote that it was a "'labor of love' that took [Margolin] 30 years to complete. A former Portland criminal defense attorney, Margolin has long been intrigued by the story of Col. Nathaniel Ford, a slave owner who moved to the Willamette Valley before Oregon became a state in 1859... When Margolin read of the Holmes' legal battle to regain their children, he recognized a bountiful storyline... And while Margolin provides a rather monochromatic view of 19th-century Oregon, he captures both the haphazard legal theater – when judges ride the circuit, Portland's 'courthouse' is a loft on the third floor of the Coleman Barrel Company and the daunting racism of the times."
These April and May events, offering two different takes on an important moment in Oregon history, are free and all are welcome. We hope to see you at one or both nights.