Breaking Chains Author to Discuss Oregon’s Forgotten Relationship With Slavery

Author Gregory Nokes speaks next Tuesday, October 8th, at the Jack London Bar to discuss his new book, “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory.” The event is part of the Jack London’s free weekly lecture series titled “Stumptown Stories.” The Jack London Bar is located at 529 SW 4th Avenue and doors open at 6:30 p.m. The venue is located towards the back of the Rialto Pool Hall.

Author Gregory Nokes

Author Gregory Nokes

In the tradition of Timothy Egan and Ivan Doig, “Breaking Chains” seeks to share a piece of Northwest history that isn’t familiar to many in the Pacific Northwest. The book tells the story of Missouri slaves Robin and Polly Holmes who are brought to Oregon by their owner over the Oregon Trail in 1844. Expecting to be freed in a region closed to slavery, their slaveholder Nathaniel Ford, destined to become an influential Oregon legislator, ignores the law and keeps them in bondage. Read more here.

Nokes, a former reporter with the Associated Press and The Oregonian, dives into his subject matter with the ferocity of a journalist – which makes sense, considering the greater part of his career working as one. Earlier this week “Breaking Chains” was picked as a summer Oregon Book Club selection for 2014 by Oregon Writer’s Colony.

I’m a big supporter of the Jack London Bar’s weekly Stumptown Stories series and find Nokes’s work to be quite interesting, so I took a few moments earlier this week to learn more about his book and career.

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MP: “Your career included 25 years with the AP and 15 with The Oregonian. How has your journalism career influenced your writing style?”

GN: In both of my recent books, I write in short chapters, seldom more than 10 pages, which I’m certain reflects my journalism background, where one is constrained by space limitations. A few critics have objected to this style, but most readers seem to like it. I’ve constructed both books so that the narrative of the main story is interspersed with chapters that provide necessary background. In Breaking Chains, I intersperse chapters about a slave family with chapters on national developments relating to slavery, such as the 1857 Dred Scott decision. Similarly, in (my book) Massacred for Gold, the narrative of the massacre is interspersed with chapters on the Chinese immigrant history, such as the 1882 exclusion law. It seems to work for most readers. Certainly does for me.

MP: “How do you feel about the changes in journalism in recent years? Have you been following Richard Read’s dispatches from Syria?”

GN: Rich is a friend and a favorite writer of mine, and I do skim his stories. But I confess I’m not intensely interested in the story of the refugees. It hurts me to say this, but there are so many refugees in so many places, such stories become a blur after a time. Moreover, I’m so turned off by developments at The Oregonian that I find it difficult to read the paper at all. I don’t believe The Oregonian had to cut back its product–it was still profitable. And I’m completely disgusted by the layoffs of so many good people, who have dedicated much of their lives to making the paper a success. They include superb, talented journalists with whom I’ve worked in the past. I fail to understand why the paper couldn’t have retrained the existing staff to fill the new digital jobs for which it is hiring new workers.

MP: “Who are some contemporary journalists/writers that you admire?”

GN: Among journalists, I admire Rich Read. Among writers, I must mention Jean Kirkpatrick who writes of women in our region’s history. She’s working on a book, out next fall, on one of the slave women mentioned in my book. There’s also Tom DeWolf of Bend who has co-written Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade:. Phil Margolin is at work on a novel relating to the region’s slave history. It will be out in the spring with the title Worthy Brown’s Daughter. Another book I highly recommend is Isabelle Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns, which details the immigration of African Americans from the South to the North in the early 19th century. It’s a marvelous book, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Breaking Chains cover MP: “How did you first learn of slavery on the Oregon trail?”

GN: My brother, Bill, told me about it. Turns out that my grandparents had written in a family genealogy about a slave named Reuben Shipley who was brought to Oregon by one of our ancestors from Missouri in 1853. I was astounded to learn this, since I’d never heard of any slavery in our family background, nor, for that matter, any slavery in Oregon. We had a law against slavery from the earliest days of our provisional government, but it was ignored by some slaveholders. By the way, I had a copy of the family genealogy, which was written in the 1960s, that I’d carried around for years on my assignments to Puerto Rico, Argentina, New York, Washington, D.C., and so on, and never read, until my brother brought it to my attention.

MP: “What made you decide to turn this story into a book?”

GN: As I pursued the life of Reuben Shipley I learned there were probably as many as 50 African American slaves in Oregon during the early years of white settlement, most brought to Oregon by settlers from Missouri. I went on to learn of the several exclusion laws against African Americans in Oregon’s history. Did you know that Oregon was the only free state admitted into the union with an exclusion law in its constitution? And the clause wasn’t removed until 1926? Moreover, many of the leaders in the Oregon Territory and early statehood were pro-slavery. How could I not turn this into a book? The racist attitudes in our state’s history is a story that cried out to be told. It explains to me why there are so few African Americans in our state today

MP: “What are some of the challenges of writing historical nonfiction?”

GN: Creating a narrative that captures people’s interests has been the biggest challenge. I didn’t want to write a dry history that ends up on dusty library shelves. I wanted to write the history of slavery in Oregon that engaged the reader with more than just the facts, ma’am. As a non-academic historian, I have an advantage over academics in that I can create scenes that may not be at all factual, but are entirely plausible. For example, in Breaking Chains, we know that the former slave, Robert Holmes, found a prominent white attorney, Reuben Boise, to help him pursue a suit against his former slave-owner, Nathanial Ford. The connection between the two is a pivotal moment in what was the only slavery case ever adjudicated in Oregon courts. But we don’t know how Holmes and Boise connected in the first place. I wrote a scene that is entirely invented–indeed, I tell the reader it is invented—but it is also, as I said, entirely plausible. It gives the reader an image to hold on to as he and she read into the facts of the court case itself.

MP: “What do you enjoy most about telling this story?” 

statute unveiling GN: My goal is to bring to light historical events that have been hidden in the shadows of our region’s history. This was the case with the long-forgotten massacre of nearly three-dozen Chinese gold miners in Hells Canyon in 1887, and it’s the case with the state’s background of slavery and racist attitudes. Few people, other than a handful of academic historians, know about them. My satisfaction comes in exposing them to the light of day. And, I might add, we have had some impressive results. In June of 2012, a group of us installed and dedicated a memorial in Hells Canyon at the site of the massacre of the Chinese miners. That was huge.

MP: “Do you have any advice for up and coming writers?”

GN: Pay attention to what is going on around you. Learn your craft. Write about everything, and practice, practice, practice. Follow writers whose work you enjoy. Don’t let rejections discourage you. Learn from them. During my career as a journalist, I have written whenever I could. I’ve kept journals. I have two published novels in my desk drawer, and a dozen short stories. In my journals, I’ve written my impressions of everything going on my life, or the life of others.

MP: “Will you be at the Wordstock Festival this weekend?”

GN: Yes, you can find me Saturday afternoon (October 5th) at the Oregon Writers Colony booth and the Fishtrap booth. I’ll also be around the booth of Oregon State University Press, which published both of my books. I’ll be happy to sell books or visit with anyone who wants to talk.