Chapter in the history of racism in America added by a Visiting Scholar

In 1843, an African American pioneer, James D. Saules, gained ownership of a farm in Oregon. The previous owner had employed a Wasco man named Cockstock, to whom he promised a horse as payment. When Saules refused to honor the previous owner’s agreement, Cockstock took the horse and threatened the farmers. Saules complained to local officials, who began pursuit of Cockstock. Eventually, he returned to town with a small group of other Wascos and an interpreter to confront the settlers that had been looking for him. When one townsperson went to arrest Cockstock, a melee broke out, leading to the deaths of Cockstock and two settlers.

Local discourse following these events, which came to be known as the Cockstock Incident, veered in a direction one probably wouldn’t expect—a fear that African Americans would incite a violent uprising by Native Americans against white settlers.

In 1844, the territory’s provisional government passed a law purporting to ban slavery in Oregon, which was already prohibited. In addition to mandating, superfluously, that all slaves be freed, it also required that all freed slaves leave its borders within 2-3 years (2 for men, 3 for women) under penalty of lashing. It was the first of three exclusion laws aimed at African Americans in Oregon.

Eryk Salvaggio, Visiting Scholar at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University
Image: Eryk Salvaggio.jpg, by Eryk Salvaggio, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The laws were repealed by 1926, and although it appears the 1844 law was not enforced, its passage marks an important, chilling, chapter in the histories of America, Oregon, and African Americans. Until last month, coverage of these subjects on Wikipedia was scant. That’s when Eryk Salvaggio, Wikipedia Visiting Scholar at Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, created articles on the Cockstock Incident and Oregon black exclusion laws. Both articles have been featured in the “Did You Know” section of Wikipedia’s Main Page:

“[Did you know] … that an argument over a horse led to a law banning all black settlers from Oregon in 1844?” (August 15)
“[Did you know] … that an 1844 Oregon law required all slaves to be freed—and all freed slaves to leave Oregon?” (September 11)

Tracking down sources about historical subjects can be challenging, since so much is locked behind expensive paywalls or only available through particular institutions. That’s why we like the Wikipedia Visiting Scholars program so much. Wikipedia editors like Eryk gain access to the rich resources available through institutions like Brown, which wants to see those resources put to good use on the world’s most popular source of information.

For more information about the Visiting Scholars program, see the Visiting Scholars page on our website or email

Image: Oregon City and Willamette Falls, 1867.jpg, by Carleton Watkins, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.



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