The state of Oregon and the entire Pacific Northwest has a dicey connection with the practice of slavery. On this day, two significant things took place in relation to slavery, ending positively for one man in what was the only slave case tried in Oregon courts.
On July 13, 1787, the Northwest Ordinance was enacted to help establish the territory and open it up to white settlers from the South and East. While slavery was outlawed, free Blacks who found themselves in the region were lawful residents but not welcomed.
As expected, white settlers came to the Northwest in search of new opportunities and the land itself was free to them. Those who traveled from the slave-keeping South kept their slaves in tow, employing them under the of the ordinance. As states began forming in the territory, Oregon temporarily permitted slavery in 1844 excluding free and enslaved Blacks from its constitution, which wasn’t repealed until 1926. Under the law, a free Black person could only reside legally in Oregon for a limited number of years.
Robin Holmes and his family traveled northward with his owner Nathaniel Ford, doing so under the impression that he would earn his family’s freedom after helping the poor farmer set up his land. That promise was ignored, with Ford granting freedom to Holmes, his wife, and an infant, but keeping their remaining children not already sold off, enslaved. After the death of one of his children, Holmes filed a suit against Ford, citing that the man reneged on the deal.
The trial actually began in 1852 and for 15 months, four judges saw the case. It was only when a New York-born judge that newly arrived to Oregon that Holmes would finally get his justice and the family was restored.
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