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Abner H. Francis to Frederick Douglass, November 13, 1851



FREDERICK DOUGLASS—MY DEAR FRIEND: Since my last letter to you, mailed at San Francisco, I had in part written out two communications intended for publication.—Before their completion, I was brought to the knowledge of the fact, and experienced the result of an existing law in this "free territory" of Oregon, so unjust and devilish in all its features, that I waive other matter that you may immediately give publicity to the facts relating to it. After a two months' tour from Buffalo via New York, to Chagres, through New Grenada, Mexico, California and Oregon, I concluded, in connection with my brother, to locate, for a time, in Oregon. In accordance therewith, we rented a store and commenced business at a very heavy expense. After the expiration of ten days, I was called away for three weeks. Shortly after my departure, my brother was arrested through the complaint of an Englishman, (said, by some, not to be naturalized,) on charge of violating one of the laws of the territory. And what do you suppose was the crime? That he was a negro, and that one of the laws of the "free" territory forbid any colored person who had a preponderance of African blood from settling in the territory. He was tried before a Justice of the Peace, and, I must say, very generously given six months to leave the territory. The law says thirty days. The second day after my return, Sept. 15th, the complainant, not being satisfied with the past decision carried the case up to the Supreme Court, Judge Pratt presiding. Before his Judgeship we were summoned. After a formal hearing, establishing the fact of negro identity, the court adjourned, to meet the next morning at 9 o'clock. At the hour appointed, the room was crowded, showing much feeling of indignation and wrath against the complainant. Judge Tillford, late of San Francisco, (a Kentuckian,) appeared as counsel for the defense. To be brief, he conducted the case with the ability and skill rarely seen by the legal profession, showing, by the constitution of the United States, the right of citizens of one state to enjoy the right of citizens in another. To be understood upon this point, his argument rested that citizens of one state had a right to enjoy the same privileges that the same class of citizens enjoy in the state which they visit. This he contended was the understanding or meaning of that article in the constitution. He demanded for us, under this clause, all the rights which colored people enjoyed in the territory prior to the passage of this law. (Those in the territory at the time of the passage of this law are not affected by it.) He then took the position, and clearly proved it, that the law was unconstitutional, on the ground that the law made no provision for jury trial in these arrests, showing that any person, no matter how debased had the power to enter complaint against any colored persons and have them brought before any petty Justice of the Peace and commanded to leave the territory. Did space permit, I should gladly follow the Judge further in this branch of his interesting argument. At the close of it, the whole house appeared to feel that the triumph was complete on the part on the defendants, that unconstitutionality of the law must be conceded by Judge Pratt. But alas! self-interest or selfishness led him to attempt to override the whole argument, and prove the constitutionality of the law; and it is none the less true that we now stand condemned


under his decision, which is, to close up business and leave the territory within four months. This decision produced considerable excitement. Some said the scoundrel (the complainant) ought to have a coat of tar, while the mass have agreed to withhold their patronage from him, as desire of gain had led him to proceed against us. The people declare we shall not leave at the expiration of the time, whether the Legislature repeal the law or not. Petitions are now being circulated for its repeal. The member from this district, Col. King, one of the most influential men in the house, declares, as far as his influence can go, it shall be repealed at the commencement of the session, which takes place on the first of December, next. Thus you see, my dear sir, that even in the so-called free territory of Oregon, the colored American citizen, though he may possess all the qualities and qualifications which make a man a good citizen, is driven out like a beast in the forest, made to sacrifice every interest dear to him, and forbidden the privilege to take the portion of the soil which the government says every citizen shall enjoy. Ah! when I see and experience such treatment, the words of that departed patriot come before me, "I tremble for my country when I remember that God is just; and that his justice will not always sleep." I find, upon examination, that more than half of the citizens of Portland were ignorant of any such law. The universal sentiment is, that it shall be repealed. God grant that this may be the case. If I have been one who, though suffering severely, has had the least agency in bringing about this repeal, I shall freely surrender, and be well pleased with the result.

Yours, for equal rights, equal laws and equal justice to all men,



Francis, Abner H.




Abner H. Francis to Frederick Douglass. PLSr: Frederick Douglass' Paper, 13 November 1851. Reprinted in Ripley, Black Abolitionist Papers, 4:102–04. Describes racial discrimination against blacks in Oregon Territory.


This document was calendared in the published volume and has not been published in full before.


Frederick Douglass' Paper



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Frederick Douglass' Paper