|Offbeat Oregon History
For one Oregon slave, Civil War didn’t end bondage
ART: Yes, two current photos; see below
By Finn J.D. John
October 17, 2011
In a quiet little historical cemetery in the north hills of Corvallis, there’s a marble gravestone about the size of a large loaf of bread, with a simple and startling message carved upon it.
The stone reads, “AME, Slave of Mary and John Porter.”
There’s nothing more. The gravestone has none of the usual information. Ame’s dates of birth and of death are unknown. Until not too many years ago, information like that was considered unimportant.
If Ame’s date of death had been listed, though, it would have been within a year or two of 1874 – at least 10 years after the President of the United States declared her a free woman, and at least five years after the Fourteenth Amendment made slavery unconstitutional. Yet she died as she had lived, as a slave, albeit now an illegal one.
Born into bondage in Kentucky
Philomath historian May Dasch told Corvallis writer Theresa Hogue that Ame was born sometime between 1808 and 1818, in Kentucky. At some point, when she was a young woman, she was sold to the Johnson and Susan Mulkey family of Missouri.
When the Mulkeys came out west on the Oregon Trail in the mid-1840s, they debated what to do about Ame. At that time, the question of whether slavery would be allowed in Oregon was still unsettled. The Mulkeys decided they’d leave Ame behind with family members in Missouri – where, in any case, she had her own children to look after.
“When the start was made, Ame was not to be found,” recalled the Mulkeys’ granddaughter, Maude Cauthorn Keady, in an interview for the W.P.A. Writers Project in 1939. “Nor had she bade them goodbye. It was supposed that she was so sad or overcome with emotion that she could not watch them leave. Not so .... At the fourth camp, much to the delight of grandmother and the children, Ame appeared at the campfire, and was helping with supper when grandfather came to eat. There was nothing to do at this late hour but take her along. Her faithfulness to grandmother and the children was wonderful. She had left her own children to follow Miss Susan and the babies.”
Well, that was one interpretation. Hogue, for one, seems skeptical: “Whether it was loyalty or the fear of abandonment in a place where her only option was to become another family’s slave is impossible to tell,” she writes dryly.
And indeed, Ame had been passed around the Mulkey family quite a bit, and most people she’d stayed with didn’t like her. Perhaps she knew that if she stayed back in Missouri with her own children, she’d just be separated from them anyway and sold on the auction block, and would end up toiling in a cotton field for the rest of her (considerably shortened) life.
Whatever the reason, Ame left her own children behind and came to Oregon with her owner’s family. Along the way, her chief tasks were keeping the oxen in line and the children out of trouble.
The outlaw slave
Upon arrival in the Oregon territory, Ame found herself an outlaw, shielded from a hostile society only by the protection of a respected white family that was, itself, breaking the law by keeping her. Black people were simply illegal in Oregon at the time – slave or free, they were legally prohibited from coming to the territory. There was even a “lash law,” according to which African-American folks were to report for a whipping once every six months until such time as they took the hint and left the area (or went underground).
The “lash law” was blithely ignored in Corvallis. Ame continued serving the family, occasionally being lent out to help with neighbors’ chores. Keady said she seemed happy to be there with them – but did she really have a choice? Could she have walked away if she’d wanted to claim her freedom? Legally, she certainly could; keeping her in bondage was a crime. But as a practical matter, the community might not have allowed her to exercise that right. And, in any case, she herself was an outlaw, guilty of “being in Oregon while black.” What kind of support could she count on? A speedy repatriation to Missouri, most likely, to be handed over once again to the Mulkey family there.
She may have made the best of it, but Ame – and all other Oregon slaves – had been dealt a losing hand.
World changes, leaving Ame behind
Time passed. Ame got older and, according to Keady, feistier – although she’d apparently been plenty feisty to start with. Young Mary Mulkey grew up and married John Porter in 1858; Ame became the newlyweds’ property.
In 1859, Oregon became the only state ever admitted to the union with a law on the books excluding black people from living within its borders. So far as we know, though, this had no effect on Ame’s status.
Nor did the outcome of the Civil War change her life. In the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, President Lincoln himself declared her a free woman. In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment made her continued bondage an offense against the U.S. Constitution. Still she continued to live and work as a domestic slave.
But then, by that time she was probably in her 60s, too old to go forth and start a new life in “free” society. She probably counted herself lucky that she was far enough away from Washington, D.C., to continue living as she had lived.
Ame’s gravestone is a good metaphor for her life. She’s buried right next to the family she served, but not among them – on the edge of the plot, closest to the path. Her loaf-shaped marker is much more modest than theirs. It was probably a little controversial to bury her in the family plot at all; after all, before the Civil War, black people were considered little more than livestock, and nobody today thinks of burying a dog in the family plot.
But perhaps that controversy is what the family intended. Perhaps the younger Porters, in this bright new world, kept Ame in violation of federal law as a favor done for an old family friend who deserved better than to be thrown away like a worn-out buggy. It’s possible – remember, the people making these decisions were the “babies” she’d taken care of when she was a young woman.
John and Mary died a year or two before Ame did, in 1870 and 1872 respectively; yet nobody else seems to have taken “ownership” of Ame after their deaths. When she followed, she was buried there next to them, with that grave marker at her head, its short and disturbing message looking up at the free Oregon sky like a distant accusation.
(Sources: Hogue, Theresa. “A grave history lesson,” Corvallis Gazette-Times, 8-05-2002; www.rootsweb.ancestry.com, “WPA Historical Records, Benton County, OR/Reminiscences of the Mulkeys”; Fletcher, Randol B. Hidden History of Civil War Oregon. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011)
Finn J.D. John, an instructor at Oregon State University, writes about unusual and little-known aspects of Oregon history. He is currently working on a book about former Oregon resident Herbert Hoover during and after World War I, when he saved hundreds of millions from starving to death. To contact him or suggest a topic: firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-357-2222.
ART: Two photos, both fairly big.
IMAGE 1: Shot of a line of markers in a graveyard, 2100 x 1184 px.
CUTLINE: The John A. Porter family of grave markers, in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Corvallis, Ore. From near to far, the markers are for John Porter, Elsie Porter, Mary Porter, the younger Mary Porter, and family slave Ame. Ame's retention as a slave was a violation of federal law, all slaves having been emancipated more than 10 years before her death, as well as state law -- Oregon has never allowed slave ownership.
PHOTO CREDIT: Finn J.D. John
IMAGE 2: Detail of Ame’s gravestone, 1800 x 1006 px.
CUTLINE: This modest marker in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Corvallis denotes the final resting place of a "slave" woman named Ame, who died in the mid-1870s, more than 10 years after the Emancipation Proclamation.
PHOTO CREDIT: Finn J.D. John