Holmes v. Ford
Holmes v. Ford was an American court case in the Oregon Territory that freed a slave family in the territory in 1853. The decision re-affirmed that slavery was illegal in the territory as outlined in the Organic Laws of Oregon that were continued once the region became a U.S. territory. In the decision, Chief Justice of the Oregon Territorial Supreme Court, George H. Williams, ruled against Nathaniel Ford, freeing the children of Polly and Robin Holmes.
Colonel Ford arrived in Oregon in 1844 from Missouri on the Oregon Trail. Nathaniel Ford was sheriff of Howard County in Missouri when he acquired the Holmes. Prior to immigrating to Oregon Country in 1844, Ford had promised his slaves Polly and Robin Holmes that he would free them when they reached the Willamette Valley of Oregon and help Ford establish a farm. At first Ford did not follow through on his promise to free the family. In 1849 Robin agreed to work the California gold fields for Ford’s son, and once he returned Ford relented to Holmes’ demands for freedom and freed Polly, Robin, and a newborn child. However, he did not free the couple’s four other children. Two years later one of those children, Harriet, died spurring Robin to seek legal action against Ford to free his family.
As Ford never freed the remaining children of Robin and Polly, and slavery was illegal in the new Oregon Territory, the Robin Holmes sued Ford in 1852 in Polk County court by requesting a writ of habeas corpus to compel Ford to free the children. Eleven months later after the new chief justice of the territorial supreme court arrived and the case was heard July 13, 1854. One duty of supreme court judges used to be "riding circuit" where they would act as presiding judges at the trial level when the supreme court was not in session. During the trial it was alleged, and years later proved, that Ford had planned on returning to Missouri to sell the children under the Fugitive Slave Act. Soon the case was decided and Chief Justice Williams ruled that the family was free, but never mentioned slavery. Slavery had been illegal in the territory and under the Provisional Government, which also tried to exclude blacks from Oregon.
This was the last challenge by pro-slavery elements in the territory to retain slavery. Then ten years later during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation that would lead to the freeing of slaves in the parts of the United States in rebellion. The Thirteenth Amendment officially freed slaves in the remainder of the United States and outlawed slavery.
- McArthur, Scott (August 1970). “The Polk County Slave Case”, Historically Speaking: A Periodic Publication of the Polk County, Oregon, Historical Society, Volume II.
- Classroom Law Project: Early Oregon History
- The Holmes v. Ford Case - Oregon State Archives
- Oregon Historical Quarterly