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Slavery in Oregon: The Reuben Shipley Saga

Few Americans realize that the institution of slavery reached the Pacific Northwest in the two decades before the Civil War.  A small number of the white settlers who followed the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Oregon City brought bondservants.  Oregon historian R. Gregory Nokes, describes one enslaved person, Reuben Shipley.    

“Why don’t you write about Reuben Shipley?’’

I had just bounced several ideas for a new book off of my brother Bill over an afternoon cup of coffee. He apparently hadn’t liked any of them.

“Who was Reuben Shipley?’’ I asked, puzzled.

“He was a slave brought to Oregon by one of our ancestors.’’

I was at once both dismayed and stunned. I felt for the first time therewas shame in my family, as I hadn’t had the slightest inkling there wasany family connection to slavery. And, I was stunned because it had never occurred to me there were slaves in Oregon.

As a schoolboy, and much beyond, I had understood that Oregon had a law against slavery from the earliest days of its provisional government in 1843.This was fact; taught in schools; no reason to question.

I was soon to discover there was much more to the slavery story. Bill told me I could read about Reuben Shipley on page 359 of a 1964 family genealogy, which I had never read, but my younger brother had.

And so I now read on page 359 that 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 prospectof 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.

Two other slaves of Robert Shipley, both women, were offered the same choice, but decided to stay close to their families, remaining

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