1850 OR CENSUS - James, black, age 4, born in Oregon, living with his sisters Harriet, age 11 and Roxana age 8 in the household of Nathan Ford.
1860 OR CENSUS - J. R., age 16, day laborer, living with parents, R. and P. Holmes, sister, R. age 14, and brother L. age 4.
LOT- lot number not found, but assume it to be 202 because Robin Holmes, his father, owned the lot. James' sister Roxanne is buried there also.
James Holmes was the son of Robin and Polly Holmes, probably born in Polk County at the home of Nathaniel Ford.
"Robin and Polly Holmes and their three year old daughter Mary Jane arrived in Oregon Territory in 1844. Typical of the way many black people came to Oregon during this time, they traveled overland in the company of another black man, Scott, as slaves of Nathaniel Ford and his family. Little is known of their earlier life. According to Robin's court testimony, they had been slaves of a Major Whitman, an army paymaster in Howard County, Missouri. In 1841, when Nathaniel Ford was sheriff of that county, they were sold to pay their master's debts. Never delivered to their new master, they became the slaves of the Ford family. In 1844 Ford was in financial difficulties and moved to Oregon. Robin believed that by helping his master establish himself he would eventually earn his freedom and that of his family. While living with Ford in Oregon, Robin and Scott raised vegetables to sell to the neighbors. Three more children were born to Robin and Polly Holmes: a son, James, in 1845, a daughter, Roxanna, in 1847, and a son, Lon, in 1850.
In 1849, Robin asked for his freedom. Ford requested that he go to the California gold fields with Mark Ford, promising him freedom and a share of the gold when they returned. Robin agreed and went to California, where he served as camp cook. He also mined gold worth $900. On the return trip, Mark Ford and Scott were drowned.
In 1850, Robin and Polly and their infant son Lon moved five miles away to a house near Nesmith's Mills. Ford refused to allow Mary Jane, James and Roxanna to leave with their parents. Two years later, Robin, a poor and uneducated man, but mindful that Oregon was free territory, began a long legal battle to regain custody of his children.
Ford was served with a summons to appear at the next term of the District Court in April, 1852, to answer the charge that he was holding the Holmes children unlawfully. The case was not heard until one year later, when Ford and Holmes appeared in court to present their arguments. Ford claimed that he was the legal owner of Robin, Polly, and Mary Jane, and that he had brought them to Oregon as his slaves. He argued that James and Roxanna were his wards by an agreement he made with Robin after his return from California, which gave him custody of Mary Jane and Roxanna until they were eighteen, and James until he was twenty-one. Ford said he had raised the children at great expense when they were too young to be of any value to him, and now he had a right to their services as compensation. He claimed he could take the family back to Missouri and sell them as slaves. He said finally that the children would suffer if they were to live with their parents, as Robin was poor, ignorant, and unfit to care for them.
Robin told the court the circumstances under which he and his wife became Ford's slaves, repeated Ford's promise of freedom in Oregon, and related the circumstances which led him to seek legal redress against his former master. He said that whenever he asked Ford for his freedom, Ford threatened to take the family back to Missouri and sell them. Robin denied the agreement concerning his children, and said he was able to support them.
The judge, Cyrus Olney, ruled that Ford must bring the children to the court, where they would be held until their status was decided. He failed to bring them to a hearing in April, 1853, promising instead to give Holmes a $3,000 bond to guarantee that the children would not be taken out of Oregon. He requested a delay until Joseph Lane, witness to the agreement about the children, could return to Oregon to testify. Lane was then in Washington, D.C.
Two months later, Holmes renewed his petition to the courts. He feared that the children were mistreated and that Ford intended to send them back to Missouri. He complained of the long delay and the reluctance of the presiding judge to make a decision. Cyrus Olney ruled that Ford must release the children either to the court or to the local sheriff. Ford ignored this court order and, two weeks later at the next court appearance, the children were still in his custody.
Justice Olney attempted to postpone the case for another six months. In the meantime, he ruled that Mary Jane would be free either to stay with Ford or to go to her parents. He awarded temporary custody of Roxanna to Ford, and James to his father. Both were required to post a $1,000 bond to insure that the children would be produced at the trial date.
Robin, being poor, did not have the bond money, and remained dissatisfied with the delaying tactics of the judge. He presented his case to lustice George H. Williams, who had just arrived in Oregon, appointed chief justice of the Supreme Court of Oregon Territory by President Zachary Taylor.
Joseph Lane presented his testimony to the court, but his recollections were vague. He remembered offering a job to Robin and Polly and that his offer had led to the conversation with Ford concerning the children. Lane was only able to say that he was left with the impression that the children were to remain with Ford.
Two days after Justice Williams heard the evidence in the case, he awarded full custody of the three children to their parents and the family was reunited. How close they came to a permanent separation is indicated in a letter Nathaniel Ford wrote to a friend in Missouri, a year before the case was finally decided.
You know I brought some negroes with me to this country which has proved a curse to me . . . Robin and his wife done very well untill the spring of '50 when the abolitionists interfered-and the country is full of them--the interference was so great that I had to let them go... you know Crigler the sheriff had leveyed an execution on the negroes and they were brought off to this country. I am of the opinion that the execution may be so renewed as to send it here and take the negroes back to Missouri under the fugitive slave law... Robin and his wife Polly are very likely--they have five likely children if you can make the arrangement you may make some 1500 to 2000 out of them and do me a great favor. If the negroes can be taken under the fugitive slave law I will make the arrangements to send them to you in short order.., if the ca~e of the negroes can be attended to it will releave me and my fambly of much trouble and you may be benefitted by it . . . I should like if there can anything be done to have the writ here by the first of October next--that is the time of the setting of our district court."
From A Peculiar Paradise, by Elizabeth McLagan, chapter 3.
NOTE - Salem Pioneer Cemetery Black Pioneer Omnibus dedicated by the Oregon Northwest Pioneers on 1 Feb 2007.