I’ve known for years that African American George Washington Bush quickly moved his mixed race family north of the Columbia River upon arriving in Oregon in 1844 because of racism and hostile laws directed at blacks on the south side of the river.
But just how deep those feelings of hatred and distrust of blacks ran in the Oregon country was not clear to me until I read “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory,” by R. Gregory Nokes.
Nokes, an Oregon native and longtime journalist with The Oregonian and Associated Press, leaves no stone unturned in his pursuit of the truth about the conflicted relationships between whites and blacks in the pre-Civil War era in Oregon.
His rigorous research documents the presence of 37 slaves in the pioneer days — 36 in Oregon and young Charles Mitchell in Olympia. There were others that left no written record.
In the 10 years since Nokes retired from his newspaper career, he’s been on a relentless journey to set the Oregon early history record straight, exposing stories of exploitation and violence against people of color.
His first book: “Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hell’s Canyon” sheds a harsh light on the little known story of more than 30 Chinese brutally murdered in 1887 while gold-mining in Hell’s Canyon. The suspects, an unruly band of white rustlers and schoolboys, were never brought to justice, protected by a veil of indifference in the rugged mountains and rural outposts of Wallowa County where the crimes occurred.
You can’t read either of these books without feeling outrage and sorrow over two dark chapters in Pacific Northwest history.
“If I were in school again, I would want to understand the real history of our state, not a sanitized version that misleads us into myths and misplaced self-satisfaction,” Nokes writes in the prologue to his most recent book. “We can learn from our past. We should.”
The same year the Bush family’s wagon train arrived in Oregon from Missouri, Oregon’s provisional government — filled with many pioneers who held blacks in contempt — adopted a law excluding blacks from moving to Oregon. It included a “lash law” that called for free blacks and mulattos found guilty of not leaving the Oregon country within a set amount of time — two years for adult males, three years for females — to be whipped on their bare backs up to 39 times. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the lash law was repealed the following year before any punishment took place. But it was replaced with a forced-labor policy for free blacks who refused to leave Oregon. The exclusion law was repealed as well. But it was reinstated in 1849 by the Oregon Territorial Legislature, only to be repealed in May of 1854.
Bush and his family received the message loud and clear: They weren’t welcome in Oregon, so they moved north to a prairie near Olympia.
It’s likely Bush saw the writing on the wall during the wagon train’s eight-month journey from Missouri to Oregon. Along the way he probably had several icy encounters with Nathaniel Ford, the leader of another wagon train that left Missouri at the same time. Ford brought with him six slaves, including Robin and Polly Holmes and their three children.
Ford later set Robin and Polly Holmes free, but tried to keep the three children. In a landmark case Robin Holmes filed a custody lawsuit to free his children in 1852 and, remarkably, won. It was the only slave case to ever reach the Oregon courts.
Oregon voters rejected slavery by a 7,727- to 2,645-vote margin in November 1857 when they ratified a constitution for statehood, which was gained in February 1859.
But the voters were conflicted over who was welcome to live in their free state: They voted 8,640 to 1,081 to exclude blacks from moving to Oregon, the so-called exclusion clause in the state constitution.
Oregon had the dubious distinction of being the only free state with an exclusion clause.
And blacks already residing in the union’s 33rd state were not eligible to vote, hold public office, serve in the militia, serve on juries or file lawsuits.
Here’s another disturbing fact: While the exclusion clause was largely ignored, it wasn’t officially erased from the state constitution until 1926.
Nokes spoke about his latest book Monday to a small gathering at the state Capitol Museum. Then I took him to Bush Prairie in Tumwater to see where the Bush family found a new start to life nearly 170 years ago.
He marveled at the gigantic butternut tree that Bush brought with him as a seedling on the wagon train. He saw the hop plants that have survived countless decades.
A small piece of early black history in the Pacific Northwest that Nokes has so adroitly told came to life in the mid-October afternoon sun.
For more on Nokes and his two books, visit www.gregnokes.com.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444