Blacks in Oregon Meet Hostility

A painting of York
Western artist Charles Russell painted this view of Indians marveling at the sight of York during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Arriving with the expedition in 1805, York was one of the first blacks to come to Oregon.
The harbingers of the growing national divisions over slavery were imported to Oregon in the 1840s as waves of white settlers traveled west with potently racist attitudes. These immigrants, betraying their Midwest and border state experiences, brought their hatred of slavery and free blacks across the plains to their new homes. The great majority of these new Oregonians simply wanted to create an all-white society free of the racial problems threatening to cause an American civil war. By strength of numbers they soon passed legislation prohibiting slavery and banning free blacks. Although the laws were not really enforced, they still sent a message. Thus, while small numbers of blacks were tolerated in Oregon throughout the 1840s and 1850s, they struggled on the margins of society with few friends and fewer rights.

The Fur Trade Era

Before the first large influx of settlers from the Midwest in the early 1840s, blacks and other people of color played important roles in the development of Oregon despite the presence of fundamental racism in white culture. Obviously, Indians had existed throughout the Oregon Country for millennia. Throughout the first decades of the 1800s, they interacted in a generally peaceful way with white explorers and fur traders before eventually falling victim to diseases and land grabs. Hawaiians, also known as Kanakas, were highly valued as sailors, laborers and domestic servants by the Hudson's Bay Company and as farm laborers, kitchen workers, and blacksmiths by Methodist missionaries in the 1830s. The first black person known in Oregon was Marcus Lopius, a cabin boy for Captain Robert Gray who was killed by Indians near Tillamook Bay in 1787. He was followed by York, William Clark's reliable and hardworking slave, who came west with the Corps of Discovery in 1805. Other blacks, including some trappers, arrived in the 1830s. During this period, interracial families, such as French-Canadian trappers with Indian wives and their offspring, added to the mix of color in pre-settler Oregon. Indeed, the Fort Vancouver area was a colorful place.

New Settlers Bring Harsh Laws

A portrait of Peter Burnett
Peter Burnett worked to exclude blacks from Oregon in 1844. He went on to serve briefly as California's first governor. (Image courtesy
But acceptance of blacks and other people of color eroded as waves of settlers migrated to Oregon carrying numerous resentments and hatreds. Many had lived in the border states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri and wanted to leave behind what they saw as the economic and political domination of slaveholders. There, nonslaveholders commonly resented the institution for reducing the value of white farmers, artisans, mechanics and laborers. Most immigrants to Oregon from the states of Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio also shared the hatred of slavery and free blacks. Both groups commonly saw blacks as inferior and a threat to a free white society. As a result, during the period of 1830 to 1860, several states passed laws to restrict or exclude free blacks. Footnote 1 One immigrant in 1844 gave voice to the attitude by remarking that "I'm going to Oregon, where there'll be no slaves, and we'll all start even." Footnote 2 Peter Burnett, a former resident of Tennessee and Missouri and a new settler to Oregon in 1843, spoke of the desire to escape from the problems of the past: "The object is to keep clear of that most troublesome class of population [blacks]. We are in a new world, under the most favorable circumstances, and we wish to avoid most of those evils that have so much afflicted the United States and other countries." Footnote 3

Whip marks on a man's back
The legislature passed a bill that called for whipping blacks who refused to leave Oregon but never enforced it. The law was later amended to replace whipping with forced labor.
Attitudes quickly turned into action upon arrival in Oregon. The 1843 provisional legislature passed a measure prohibiting slavery but made no mention of free blacks. The next year, Burnett, bolstered by a new wave of Midwestern settlers, introduced a bill that extended new restrictions against blacks. One section required people holding slaves in Oregon to remove them within three years or the slaves would be freed. Another section required free blacks over 18 to leave Oregon or be subject to trial. If found guilty, the person was to "receive upon his or her bare back not less than twenty nor more than thirty-nine stripes, to be inflicted by the constable of the proper county." The punishment was to be repeated every six months until the person departed. This "lash law" passed but was soon changed to replace the whipping provisions with ones calling for forced labor followed by removal from Oregon. After a shift in the makeup of the legislature, the law was repealed in 1845. Footnote 4

Drawings of Cayuse Indians Tiloukaikt and Tomahas
Cayuse Indians Tiloukaikt and Tomahas led the attack on the Whitman Mission. Some whites worried free blacks would join in Indian hostilities.
The first territorial legislature re-enacted a variation of the exclusion law in 1849 as racial fears among the settlers grew in the wake of the Whitman Massacre and other events. The preamble to the bill stated that "it would be highly dangerous to allow free Negroes and mulattoes to reside in the Territory, or intermix with Indians, instilling into their mind feelings of hostility toward the white race." Footnote 5 The law allowed any current black residents and their offspring to stay but required new arrivals to leave within 40 days. The only enforcement of the law came in 1851 when Jacob Vanderpool, the black operator of a Salem saloon and boarding house, was exiled. The exclusion law was unintentionally repealed due to a clerical error in 1854 and, despite efforts, did not return until after the constitutional convention.

Tolerated in Small Numbers

Even with the legislative bans, whites continued to tolerate a small number of slaves and free blacks in Oregon before statehood. Meanwhile, other territories, such as New Mexico and Utah, enacted similar bans. California, with by far the largest population of blacks and mulattoes in the West, tried to pass comparable laws in the 1850s but failed. Still, the goal was to suppress black migration and the message was clear that blacks would be expected to live on the margins of society with virtually no rights. Indeed, in the words of historian Egbert Oliver, "African Americans were essentially illegal aliens in Oregon, without citizenship, without legal rights." Footnote 6

A school house
This 1858 Salem school excluded black students. Charlotte Dickenson taught some black students and former slaves in her home. (Image no. pcds032 courtesy Salem Public Library)
According to to the U.S. Census, there were about 56 blacks and mulattoes in Oregon in 1850 and 124 in 1860. They held a range of occupations including barber, laborer, miner, bootblack and shinglemaker. Two were specifically listed as slaves in the 1860 census. In spite of the lack of legal rights, some blacks managed to acquire considerable property and wealth but had little recourse in case of disputes. For example, Abner H. Francis amassed real estate worth 16,000 dollars and personal property worth 20,000 dollars as a Portland merchant and businessman in the 1850s before falling into debt to creditors and moving to British Columbia. Footnote 7

Fighting Racism in Salem

While the common attitudes of both supporters and opponents of slavery were blatantly racist, a small number of white Oregonians championed black equality and abolition. The American Home Missionary Society sent Congregational minister Reverend Obed Dickenson to Salem in 1852. He and his wife, Charlotte, challenged conventional thinking in the small community and regularly found themselves in controversies related to the degree to which they welcomed blacks as church members and their advocacy of equality. Among other blacks they welcomed into their church were the newly freed slaves, Robin and Polly Holmes, who opened a nursery in Salem after gaining their freedom. One church member later remembered seeing Polly and other blacks among the white congregation: "A half dozen or more of the colored people always clustered around the stove. ...Dear old Aunt Polly, as she swayed to and fro with her sincere singing, and 'Brudder Johnson' mighty in prayer, were as sincere worshippers as any." Footnote 8

An abolition image
Abolitionists wanted Americans to recognize the humanity of slaves. (Image no. cph 3a44497 courtesy Library of Congress) Enlarge image.

To help rectify the problem, Charlotte Dickenson taught black children and illiterate former slave women at her home in the evenings and reported excellent results. The general community was appalled by these and other kindnesses shown to blacks. Asahel Bush and leading political figures berated Dickenson on issues such as abolition and temperance as well as what Bush would describe as the problem of "ministers meddling in politics." Even within his own church, opposition grew from those who believed Dickenson's actions were bringing the scorn of the community down on the congregation.

At one point, members of the church drafted a resolution saying "that we therefore respectfully recommend to our Pastor that he abstain from these exciting topics, slavery, etc. in his future labors with this church." Dickenson resisted, writing that "I am stubborn because I would not yield to their counsel in having a separate meeting for the blacks to join the church. I am stubborn because I maintain the rights of blacks to an education for their children, against the popular opinion of the place. I am stubborn because I set myself firmly against hanging boys before they are proved to be guilty." That he officiated a so-called "nigger wedding" only added fuel to the flames. But the Dickensons persevered through years of turmoil before leaving the church in 1867. In that 15-year period, they left their indelible mark against racism on the Salem community. Footnote 9

Antique decoration


  1. Eugene H. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967) 77-78.
  2. David Peterson Del Mar, Oregon's Promise: An Interpretive History (Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 2003) 82.
  3. Eugene H. Berwanger, The Frontier Against Slavery: Western Anti-Negro Prejudice and the Slavery Extension Controversy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1967) 81.
  4. Quintard Taylor, "Slaves and Free Men: Blacks in the Oregon Country, 1840-1860," Oregon Historical Society Quarterly 83 (Summer 1982): 155.
  5. "A Bill to Prevent Negroes or Mulattoes from Coming to, or Residing in Oregon," Oregon Provisional and Territorial Government Records #6075, Oregon State Archives, Salem.
  6. Egbert S. Oliver, "Obed Dickenson and the 'Negro Question' in Salem," Oregon Historical Society Quarterly 92 (Spring 1991): 8.
  7. K. Keith Richard, "Unwelcome Settlers: Black and Mulatto Oregon Pioneers," Oregon Historical Society Quarterly 84 (Spring 1983): 35-40.
  8. Egbert S. Oliver, "Obed Dickenson and the 'Negro Question' in Salem," Oregon Historical Society Quarterly 92 (Spring 1991): 15.
  9. Ibid., 13-28.