The Scotts were among the enslaved people taken by their army owners to Fort Snelling in the 1830s. The U.S. Army supported slavery there by allowing its presence and by paying a supplement to employ servants (including enslaved people). U.S. Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro owned Harriet Robinson. Army Surgeon John Emerson, not previously a slave owner, purchased Dred Scott in St. Louis.
The pre-statehood community in the 1830s–1840s included enslaved and free blacks, a larger number of white army personnel and fur traders, and a still larger population of mixed-race and métis people. The majority population was Dakota and Ojibwe. This diversity, along with the absence of a cash-crop economy, made for more fluid race dynamics than elsewhere in the U.S. In addition, enslaved people exercised greater independence and freedom of association than was common in the plantation south.
Like all enslaved people, those at the fort were owned as property. Even so, Dred Scott earned independent income. He and Harriet Robinson married, lived together, and formed a family.
When the army reassigned Emerson to the South, the Scotts eventually joined him. For a time, they lived at Fort Jesup in Louisiana. In 1838, they returned to Fort Snelling via St. Louis. Eliza, the first of the couple’s daughters, was born during this trip. Their second daughter, Lizzie, arrived around 1846. Though Eliza was born in free territory, Lizzie was not.
After Emerson’s death in 1843, his widow, Irene Sanford, assumed ownership of the Scotts. She rejected Scott’s attempts to buy freedom for himself and his family, leaving them afraid that they would be sold and separated.
Supported by abolitionists and inspired by court precedents (including the Missouri Court’s 1836 decision to free a woman named Rachel based on her residence at Fort Snelling), the Scotts pursued their case. They brought suits in a Missouri court in 1846/1847, then filed in federal court in 1853 while trying to keep themselves and their daughters out of harm’s way. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney handed down the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in 1857.
In Scott v. Sandford, the Court decided that African Americans—enslaved and free—were not citizens “within the meaning of the Constitution.” Therefore, the Scotts had no right to sue. It further ruled that slave owners could take their “property” anywhere, thereby declaring that Congress could not determine what was free territory.
In addition to denying the rights of African Americans, the decision contributed directly to the sectional fury already inflamed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, “Bloody Kansas,” and the Fugitive Slave Law. It nullified the Missouri Compromise and the Northwest Ordinance. It strengthened the new Republican Party and helped elect Abraham Lincoln in 1860. It challenged the American nation’s idea of itself as a “free country.”
The decision also strengthened divisions in Minnesota. From the 1840s Minnesota was home to fervent abolitionists. Its vibrant tourist economy catered to a summer population of slaveholders. After Scott v. Sandford, local abolitionists both pushed for laws to declare black men citizens and helped enslaved people escape. Minnesota joined other northern states in adopting personal liberty laws that protected African Americans brought into free territory. The new, anti-slavery Republican Party took deep root in Minnesota.
Ultimately, the Scotts secured their freedom. Taylor Blow, a previous owner of Dred Scott who helped fund the cases and employed the Scotts during their suits, purchased the Scott family and set them free just before Dred Scott’s death in 1858. Harriet and her daughters stayed in St. Louis. She worked as a laundress until her death in 1876.
For more information on this topic, check out the original entry on MNopedia.
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