Writing About Race in Historical Fiction

As a writer of historical fiction, one of the issues I struggle with is how to portray interactions between characters of different races. I could ignore the topic by not having characters of different races in my novels, but I think part of the purpose of writing historical fiction is to show the time period of the novel in all its facets. Race has been an issue in American life since our earliest days.

The Bogle Family, African American emigrants to Oregon

The Bogle Family, African American emigrants to Oregon

I made one of the families in my novels about the Oregon Trail an African American family. They want only what the white families want—a better life for themselves and their children in a new land. How the white characters treat the Black family, both along the Oregon Trail and after they arrive in the West, is one of the issues dealt with in my books.

But as I wrote, I faced many decisions as a writer:

  • What do I call African Americans in the novel?

The term African American was not used in the 1840s. Black? Colored? Negro? Do I use racial epithets of the day? The challenge is to be accurate to the historical period, yet not offend modern readers. The texts and speeches of the 19th century about African Americans sound horribly condescending and prejudiced to today’s ear, even those by whites intending to “help” Blacks.

  • How much detail do I include about the laws of Oregon regarding non-whites?

As a novelist, I have to be careful to relate only what is relevant to my story. This is true with any research done for a historical novel—the author includes only a fraction of the history learned through research. I need to know what the law was at each point in my story, so that I can be accurate, but the reader doesn’t need to know every detail.

My first book takes place entirely in 1847, but my second spans 1848-1850. Here is a summary of what I learned in my research, though not all of this finds its way into the novels:

The early years in Oregon were full of confusion. The Provisional Government of Oregon (the first territorial government) enacted the Exclusion Law of 1844, which banned African Americans from settling in the territory. To its credit, the Provisional Government also banned slavery and required any slaveholders bringing slaves into the territory to free their slaves within three years of coming to Oregon or remove them from the territory. But the Exclusion Law required any free Blacks over the age of 18 to leave the territory—men within two years, and women within three years. Black children could stay until they turned 18.

The original 1844 Exclusion Law provided that any African Americans who remained in Oregon after being freed would be whipped and expelled. The “Lash Law” as it was called was repealed within months as being too harsh, and a new law passed that substituted forced labor for the whipping. The labor of Blacks who were in the territory illegally was to be sold at auction, with the purchaser of the person’s services required to remove the individual from the territory within six months after the involuntary servitude ended. This law in turn was repealed in 1845, even before it took effect.

But imagine the turmoil of African American emigrants during this time.

In 1849 another exclusion law was passed.  This one allowed Black residents already in Oregon to remain, but banned further African Americans from coming to live in the territory. African Americans who moved to Oregon would be arrested and ordered to leave. Only one Black resident of Oregon is known to have been exiled—Jacob Vanderpool, a boarding house and saloon owner, who in 1851 was convicted and told to leave the territory within 30 days.

Thus, despite very harsh laws on the books, it appears they were mostly ignored. Still, the threat of expulsion loomed over those African Americans who chose to emigrate to Oregon.

[NOTE: The rest of Oregon’s history of racial exclusion is not relevant to my novels, but here is a summary: In 1854, the Exclusion Law was repealed, although some think the repeal was accidental. In any event, the first Oregon Constitution passed in 1859 included a racial exclusion banning Blacks from emigrating to Oregon or owning land in the state. This remained state law until the post-Civil War Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution made such restrictions illegal. The Oregon Constitution was not formally amended to repeal these restrictions until 1926.]

  • How much do I show the prejudice of even sympathetic whites of the day? By showing racial prejudice, do I make my characters repellant to modern readers?
Mary Jane Holmes Shipley Drake, African American emigrant to Oregon

Mary Jane Holmes Shipley Drake, African American emigrant to Oregon

The abolition movement was strong by the late 1840s, but many—if not most—whites who abhorred slavery still did not approve of integration, and prejudice was strong in most white communities. Blacks tended to work in jobs requiring little education, such as service or manual labor. They tended to live separately, unless they were working for a white family.

Clearly, even non-slaveholding states have a checkered past when it comes to racial prejudice. The challenge for the writer of historical fiction is to present a faithful picture of the past, while letting the story come first.

I want my characters to be likeable to modern readers, but I also want them to be true to their times. One of my main characters comes from abolitionist New England, the other from a slaveholding family in the South.

For more on the racial exclusion laws of Oregon, see the following:








Have you noticed novels written about earlier eras that seem inaccurate about those time periods, and how do you react? Or do the characters’ beliefs that were common in the earlier era, but are unacceptable today, make you dislike the novel?

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  1. I’ve thought about this off and on throughout the day. I think it’s a valid question, and an important one, that probably needs an historian’s answer. You might call the Bruce R Watkins Center and see if you can find the number of an African American historian to call. You could also probably call the main library and ask them who you could contact. That’s what I’d do.

    You could also watch “12 Years a Slave” for authentic language patterns from that time and see how they solved the problem. It’s also a remarkably good film and gives historical information I didn’t know.

  2. This is very interesting information and so important to an understanding of where we have been in regard to race in this country. I certainly understand your dilemma. I think it is so important to be authentic in every way. Is there some way you can add notes at the end of a chapter, for example, without taking from the flow of the novel? I respect your research and feel it reflects the truth.

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