By Oregon Black Pioneers Mary Jane Holmes Shipley Drake

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By By Oregon Black Pioneers | Photo credit: Courtesy Oregon Black Pioneers | Cover Illustration by Jeremy Davis

Mary Jane Holmes Shipley Drake was one of the first African Americans to live nearly their entire life in Oregon, and she was the matriarch of a large family of early black residents. She was born Mary Jane Holmes in Missouri in 1841, one of six children of Robin and Polly Holmes. The entire Holmes family was enslaved by Nathaniel Ford. Before leaving Missouri for Oregon, Ford promised the Holmes their freedom upon arrival if they would help him establish his new farm. The Holmeses joined Ford’s family in their trip west, bringing along their three youngest children, including Mary Jane. The Fords settled in Rickreall in 1844, and Robin Holmes helped build the family’s home as well as a cabin for his own family.

By law, Ford had three years to free the Holmeses upon entering Oregon. Ford, however, violated the law and continued to hold the family as slaves until 1850. That year, Ford finally granted Robin and Polly their freedom along with their newborn baby, but refused to free the Holmes’ three other children.

In a desperate attempt to free his children, Robin Holmes took the extraordinary act of bringing suit against Ford. Although he had little chance of victory, the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court ruled in Holmes’ favor in 1852. The court found that as a free territory, Ford had no legal authority to keep the Holmes’ children enslaved in Oregon. Victorious, the family was reunited as free persons.

Although free, the family was still poor. Robin and Polly moved to Marion County to start a farm, while Mary Jane continued to live with the Ford family, earning money as a domestic servant. When she was 16, Mary Jane met Reuben Shipley, a formerly enslaved farmer who had been emancipated upon reaching Oregon. Mary Jane and Reuben made plans to marry, but Ford refused to allow the marriage unless he was compensated for Mary Jane’s release – essentially demanding that Shipley buy Mary Jane’s freedom, despite Mary Jane being legally free already. Reuben paid Ford nonetheless. The $700 payment is equivalent to over $19,000 today.

For the next 18 years, Mary Jane and Reuben were active members of an agrarian community called Plymouth in present day Philomath. The couple established a large farm and raised six children there. In 1861, the Shipleys even donated three acres of land from their property to create the Mt. Union Cemetery in Philomath on the condition that blacks be allowed to be buried there. Reuben was later buried there himself in 1875.

Mary Jane would remarry the same year, wedding R.G. Drake. The couple would have five children together, making Mary Jane a mother of eleven. She continued to live near Corvallis the rest of her life, outliving both of her husbands and all but one of her children. She died in 1926 at age 85.

Oregon Black Pioneers is Oregon’s only historical society dedicated to preserving and presenting the experiences of African Americans statewide. To learn more, and to support this nonprofit, visit © Oregon Black Pioneers, 2023