Mount Union Stories: Reuben Shipley (1811-1872)

Published as it appeared on Sept. 27, 1872 in the Weekly Corvallis Gazette, Page 3, Column 2.

SUDDEN ILLNESS. — On Tuesday evening of this week, a colored man, Reuben Shipley, familiarly known as “Reub,” residing about three miles west of this city, was suddenly seized with a fit of paralysis. Dr. J.B. Lee was called and remained all night. On returning to the city Wednesday, he reported the case doubtful. Since then we have heard no particulars. Reuben Shipley owns a nice little farm, is industrious and respected.

(Editor’s note: The grave marker shows the name R.E. Ficklin. An obituary could not be found, only this notice of his illness. The doctor visited on Tuesday, Sept. 24 and Mr. Shipley died Wednesday, Sept. 25, two days before this notice appeared in print).

Located near the main entrance to Mount Union Cemetery is this plaque about Reuben Shipley and Mary Jane Drake. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)
The following account of Reuben Shipley’s life, published in 1920, contains language and references that some may find offensive.

Published as it appeared on March 5, 1920, in the Daily Gazette-Times, Page 6, Columns 1-2.

Story of Benton
County Slave
Recalled Again

— — —
One Time Home of Reuben Shipley Goes Down Beneath Weight of Snow

— — —
Noble-Hearted Black Man Saved Money and Bought His Freedom Here
— — —
Was Remarkable Man With History That Makes Interesting Story
— — —
Recently the old shanty, or farm home of Benton county’s one-time slave — Reuben Shipley — fell beneath the weight of the one heavy snowfall that has come to this county in a quarter century. The final passing of the landmark calls attention to an interesting story of early days here written by Historian J.B. Horner, who tells it thus:

Reuben was a native of Kentucky and the slave of Robert Shipley. He was born in the year 1800. In accordance with the custom of the times, the slave inherited the master’s surname; hence, ever afterwards he was known as Reuben Shipley. Being strong of body, well trained and willing, he was valuable. Therefore, when Robert Shipley moved to Missouri, Reuben was taken along as his master’s most valuable chattel, the price of the slave being $1,500 at that time. The slave was faithful and devoted to master’s children, giving special care to a son named Robert.

The strong attachment between the slave and Robert was such that the father, Robert Shipley, resolved never to separate the two. Hence, upon the death of the master, it was found that Reuben had, in the provision of the will, been given to Robert who in after years granted the slave his freedom. As the six sons of Robert grew up, Reuben governed them better than did their father, and he managed the Missouri plantation more profitably than did anyone else. He was the master’s first man in the affairs of the plantation. Accordingly, a strong friendship developed between the master and his slave. Such were the friendly relations between the two that Robert Shipley often said he did not know whether Reuben lived with him or he with Reuben.

Pretty Negress Becomes Bride

But the story would not be complete without a romance. Reuben married a pretty negress, who was a slave on a neighboring plantation and two sons were born of the marriage. It is related that Reuben was granted a week-end holiday each month, which he passed invariably with his family. It is also said that the respect for the colored man was such that in passing back and forth between the two plantation, a distance of 30 miles, he was accorded the unusual courtesy “of eating with the white folks.”

Indeed it was not uncommon for white men’s sons to care for the negro’s horse when Reuben came as a visitor, inasmuch as he was welcome in all the homes. With a happy family and the confidence of his master and neighbors, the Southland was full of sunshine for Reuben, so the story goes, until the sad message came to him one day that his wife was mistreated. These tidings were more than the noble son of Ham could calmly bear.

Hence his manhood asserted itself and Reuben resolved upon gaining freedom for himself and family. His plan was to purchase his own liberty, then that of his family. He conferred with his master, and was promised an opportunity to pay a ransom. Hence he looked hopefully to his own freedom, so that he could ransom his wife, and two sons. Strange to say, however, one evening as the moon was looking into the faces of the two sleeping children, the mother was sobbing bitterly.

The strong arm of Reuben supported her as he gave her assurance that he fully believed God would help them all to enjoy freedom and make it possible for them to live happily in a home of their own. But a simple-minded people would have their premonitions and signs; hence she replied that something said to her that those things Reuben hoped for could never take place.

War Cloud Then Distant

This incident occurred in Missouri some 10 years before the war of the Confederacy. The war cloud had not yet begun to lower over the land, but there were those who, like Reuben’s wife, imagined that they, too, saw strange signs in the heavens that portended troublous times; and one of these was Reuben’s master — Robert Shipley. Calling his friend and counselor into his confidence, the master said, “Reuben, I am going to move to Oregon. You nursed me in my childhood, and befriended me in my manhood. I could sell my interest in you for $1,000, but I can not go without your aid. If you will help me move to Oregon and build a home, I will remit your indebtedness to me and grant you your freedom.” To this offer Reuben ready assented, although it implied that he was to be taken away from his family.

In the Spring of 1853 the master with his family began the long wearisome journey across the plains and his prediction regarding the importance of Reuben’s assistance proved true, inasmuch as the master’s wife was bedfast all the way. That Fall the family arrived in Oregon, where they built a home two miles south of the present town of Philomath. In the course of time the conditions imposed by the master were satisfactorily met and Reuben Shipley was proclaimed a free man.

It was a joyous day for Reuben Shipley when he sat alone in a little fir grove within sight of the Shipley home for the first time in all his life as a free man, counting the months by the tear drops that fell as he as he reckoned the time until his wife would be by his side a free woman. Then he planned how the two could work together in gaining the freedom of their two sons; and the Oregon sky was beautiful to Reuben Shipley as he looked forward to the time when all his family could breathe the free air of a home they might call their own.

Wife Dies Before She Is Freed

However, sometimes men awaken from their sweetest fancies to find that they were only dreaming. Correspondence for the purchase of the wife began, and word was returned to Reuben that after a brief illness she had been free, but that her freedom was not of this world. Like a bird long encaged she had taken her flight to other scenes. To gaze into the pitiful face of Reuben Shipley at that moment was to witness an expression that comes only in the face of a strong man in deep distress.

There was apparently only one thing left to hope for. That was the kindled anew; and with the vigor of freedom of his two sons. Hope was a man in the zenith of his strength, Reuben determined upon the holy enterprise of rescuing his sons. Correspondence for their freedom began, but the cold-hearted master said he would never part with them. Hence, their ransom was impossible, and amid the turmoil that followed in the South further knowledge of them was lost, and what became of them may never be known.

There are moments that sweep through a man’s life when it seems that his being will respond no longer and that no one can give further comfort; for the “heart knoweth its own sorrow and the stranger intermeddleth not therewith!” Such was the despair of Reuben Shipley when he fully realized that he could not purchase the freedom of his own offspring and that he and his family could never gather in a free home of their own. “But all roads take a turn,” said the good Robert Shipley encouragingly to Reuben one day; and with the gentle advice and unfailing of the former master and others, the broken-hearted Reuben undertook to purchase an Oregon home in order that he might begin life anew. Being a superior workman, he commanded the highest wages paid in those days. In course of time a clear title to a farm was signed in favor of Reuben Shipley; and the former slave of the South was now not only a free man, but also an Oregon landlord.

New Bride is Taken

In conversation one day in the year 1857 between two strangers, Reuben overheard mention of a beautiful young negress then living in Polk county, Oregon. Inasmuch as she was of his own race, he determined to form her acquaintance. When they met she was attractive in his eyes. But although he was free, she was still enslaved, inasmuch as it had not yet been decided that Oregon was free territory. When he beheld her condition of bondage he was touched with pity. But sympathy somehow kindles love. This is possibly how it came about that Reuben Shipley after gaining his own freedom married an Oregon slave.

Following the nuptials, Mrs. Reuben Shipley was denied the privilege of remaining in her new home unless she was purchased. Eldridge Hartless, who had been Reuben’s employer, and Rev. T.J. Connor — one of the founders of Philomath College — earnestly protested against the payment of the ransom. But Reuben Shipley had already lost a wife in slavery. Hence, his experience taught him to pay the ransom. Therefore he advanced the sum of $400 or more to his wife’s master in Polk County, that Mrs. Mary Shipley might live unmolested in her Benton County home.

Home is Falling to Decay

In the little cottage that remains as the relic of a happy home surrounded with native oaks and trees planted by the negro there grew a family of two sons and a daughter. These children received their weekday and Sunday School training with the white children in the Newton neighborhood, and the neighbors came with entertaining story and with song to the hut in which “My Old Kentucky Home” and hymns of praise were peculiarly attuned to the chorus of voices that gathered there. No one was too proud to visit this home, for no home was more respectable.

In 1873 (1872) when Reuben Shipley had fully passed the psalmist’s first limit of age, it was announced that following a brief illness he suddenly died. One of the most solemn funerals ever held in the community was that of the prosperous negro who had once been a slave. Eventually his family moved elsewhere and the home of the colored man was occupied by others. But in all the years since then, the settlers who knew Reuben Shipley have pointed with mingled respect and pride to the old cabin home as they passed by; and they have recalled pleasant memories of the black man who obtained his freedom from slavery.

Philomath
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