As part of African-American History Month, we’ll be linking to a series of true stories that also involve the Oregon Trail and the American West like the characters in The Promise.
Reuben Shipley was brought to Oregon as a slave in 1853 by his white owner, Robert Shipley, over the Oregon Trail from Miller County, Missouri. The white Shipley—my distant ancestor—had promised the black Shipley that if he helped him start his farm in Oregon, he would give him his freedom.
A painful choice confronted Reuben Shipley. In exchange for the prospect of being free, he faced leaving behind his wife and two sons, who belonged to other slaveholders. But if he decided to remain in Missouri near his family, he would be sold as a slave to another owner.
Reuben Shipley was taken to Oregon, a six-month trip of 2,000 miles. According to the family genealogy, he resolved that once free, he would save enough money to buy his family’s freedom in Missouri and bring them to Oregon. He never saw them again.
Shipley, who did get his freedom, was by no means alone as a slave brought to Oregon. I was to learn over the next several years that there were as many as 50 slaves who came with early settlers, most of them from Missouri. Some were released soon after they arrived; others kept much longer. Yes, the number is miniscule compared with the 115,000 slaves in Missouri in 1860, and the four million slaves nationwide. But a slave is a slave. And this was Oregon, a free state which admitted to the Union in 1859, and a solidly blue state today, jokingly referred to as part of the nation’s “Left Coast,’’ along with Washington and California.
Sources: Greg Nokes, Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2013); Quintard Taylor, “Slaves and Free Men: Blacks in the Oregon Country, 1840-1860,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 83:2 (Summer 1982).