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Two authors inspired by same trial

Atkinson Church to host revelations on freed slave's quest to regain children


Two local authors, Phillip Margolin and R. Gregory Nokes, will discuss their books, which both relate to slavery in early Oregon, at 7 p.m. Jan. 30 at the Atkinson Church in Oregon City. This free event is sponsored by the Oregon City Public Library. by: TIDINGS FILE PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - West Linn author Greg Nokes will speak about his book 'Breaking Chains' in Oregon City on Jan. 30.

Margolin, an award-winning Portland author of best-selling legal thrillers, switches to the historical setting of 1860s Oregon in “Worthy Brown’s Daughter,” while Nokes, a journalist and nonfiction writer from West Linn, looks at slavery in Oregon’s early history from another point of view with his book, “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory.”

Both authors, who were inspired by the same legal case, will read from their works at the event and answer questions afterward.

‘Worthy Brown’s Daughter’

Margolin spent three decades researching his historical novel, inspired by a true story of frontier justice in 19th century Oregon, Holmes vs. Ford, and the horrors the Holmes family, who were freed slaves, went through to get their children returned to them.

In “Worthy Brown’s Daughter,” readers meet Matthew Penny, a lawyer who is mourning the loss of his wife while struggling to maintain his practice, and Worthy Brown, an ex-slave whose daughter is being held captive, in unexpected and suspicious circumstances. Surrounded by love, deceit, racism and, most importantly, the law, Penny, Brown and the rest of Portland get swept away by the court case of the century.

“In order to write the book I had to learn what it would have been like to practice law in Oregon in 1860. I was surprised to learn that there were no courthouses in the state and trials might be held in a field in summer or a tavern in winter,” Margolin said.

Another thing that surprised Margolin while researching “Worthy Brown’s Daughter” was the difference between the way law is practiced now and the way it was practiced in the Wild West of the 1800s, he said.

“I was a criminal defense attorney for 25 years. Lawyers in the 1800s had to know not only the law, but how to shoot a gun. They had to ride the circuit, which meant sleeping in the wilds, dealing with bad weather and wild animals,” he said.

‘Breaking Chains’

“Breaking Chains” tells the little-known history of slavery in early Oregon, focusing on an 1852 slavery case, the only slavery case adjudicated in Oregon’s pre-Civil War courts.

Nokes will show pictures “of some of the key figures involved in Oregon’s slave story and the 1852 trial, Holmes vs. Ford, in which a former slave sued his former slave owner for the freedom of Holmes’ children, still being held by Ford as slaves,” he said.

The trial was held in Polk County and was unusual for several reasons.

“The former slave, Robin Holmes, was illiterate and Nathaniel Ford, his former owner, was quite prominent, recently elected to the territorial Legislature. Ford had brought Holmes and his family of six to Oregon with him in 1844 from Missouri, traveling on the Oregon Trail to Oregon City and then on to what is today Polk County,” Nokes said.

He became interested in the situation, after learning that an ancestor of his, Robert Shipley, brought a slave with him to Oregon from Missouri in 1853.

He was most surprised during his research to learn how many of Oregon’s early leaders were pro-slavery, including Joseph Lane, Oregon’s first territorial governor and one of the first U.S. senators from the state.

“I was also surprised that Oregon, for much of its early history, had an exclusion law that prohibited African-Americans from settling in the territory, and later the state, even though these laws weren’t widely enforced,” Nokes said.

He added: “These events are important for getting the story of Oregon’s early slave and racial history into our public discourse. I believe we need to learn from our past to know how far we have come and how far we still need to go.”

Phillip Margolin

Phillip Margolin, who from 1972 until 1996 was an attorney in private practice in Portland, has been writing full time since 1996; all of his novels have been New York Times bestsellers. 

Margolin’s most recent work, “Worthy Brown’s Daughter,” was just published on Jan. 21.

Winner of the Distinguished Northwest Writer Award and the Spotted Owl Award for “Executive Privilege.” Margolin lives in Portland. For more, visit phillipmargolin.com.

R. Gregory Nokes

Nokes has traveled the world as a reporter and editor. He started his 40-year journalism career at the Medford Mail Tribune. He went on to work for The Associated Press in Salt Lake City; New York City; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and in Washington, D.C., where he covered the State Department. He joined The Oregonian in 1986 and retired in 2003 to begin a second career as an author and lecturer.

He has written two nonfiction Northwest histories: “Massacred for Gold: The Chinese in Hells Canyon in 2009,” and his newest book, “Breaking Chains: Slavery on Trial in the Oregon Territory in 2013.” “Breaking Chains” has been selected as the fall 2013 selection for the Oregon Book Club.

He and his wife, Candise, live in West Linn. For more information on Nokes, visit breakingchainsbook.com.

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