It was a couple of years ago when the Bloomington Human Rights Commission and its partners inaugurated the Dred and Harriet Scott Legacy of Courage and Freedom program that I became curious about Harriet Robinson Scott. Black History Month 2015 inspires me to dig a bit to fill the gap in my learning – or my memory.
Harriet Robinson Scott was born a slave in Virginia in about 1815. Her owner was Major Lawrence Taliaferro, an Indian agent assigned to Fort Snelling circa 1820. In the early 1830’s Taliaferro brought teenager Harriet Robinson with him to Fort Snelling where she became a house servant, contrary to territorial law but allowed by military rules. Fort Snelling was a military fort and fur-trading outpost, well-known to today’s Minnesotans. Though Harriet lived with the slaves, she later based her claim to freedom in the Missouri courts in part on the fact that her having lived in a free territory while at Fort Snelling made her a free woman.
Born into slavery in Virginia about1799 Dred Scott was owned first by Peter Blow from St. Louis. Around 1830 Blow sold Dred to Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis. Dred traveled to posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory with Dr. Emerson.
Dred arrived at Fort Snelling in May 1836 with Dr. Emerson. There he worked as the personal servant to Dr. Emerson. Harriet would have been about 21 years old at this time; Dred Scott would have been about 36. Harriet and Dred were married in a civil ceremony in 1836 or 1837; officiating was Major Taliaferro who has also Justice of the Peace for the Fort. Marriage meant that Harriet became the property of Dr. Emerson and assumed duties as the property of the new Mrs. Emerson, Eliza Irene Sanford.
Pregnant but indentured, in April 1838 Harriet had to follow the Emersons when the doctor was transferred to Fort Jessup, Louisiana. In a short time the Emersons relocated to St. Louis, then soon back to Fort Snelling. En route North Harriet gave birth on board the steamer Gipsey. Her first daughter Eliza Scott was thus born in free territory. Harriet stayed with Mrs. Emerson at Fort Snelling for two more years.
When Dr. Emerson was transferred to Florida in 1840 the Scott family was sent to St. Louis where they were hired out to work for other people while the Emersons collected their wages. In St. Louis Harriet gave birth to a second daughter, Lizzy.
In 1843 Dr. Emerson died suddenly leaving Dred, Harriet and their two daughters in the hands of his widow. Mrs. Emerson moved in with her proslavery father, Alexander, on his plantation in north St. Louis County. For the next three years, Harriet and Dred worked for other people while Mrs. Emerson collected their wages.
Then came the turning point in the Scotts’ lives. In 1846 Harriet Robinson Scott took legal action to claim her freedom. On April 6 of that year the couple filed separate petitions in the St. Louis Circuit Court to gain their freedom from Irene Sanford Emerson. The Scotts had friends in St. Louis who had been granted freedom if they had lived in free states. The hope was that the Scotts had a chance for freedom, based on their years living at Fort Snelling. When their cases came to trial in June 1847 they were dismissed on a technicality.
Though their lawyer requested a new trial, before that retrial took place Irene Emerson made arrangements for the Scotts to be under the custody of the sheriff of St. Louis County. There they remained for nine years, until March 1857; during all this time the sheriff was responsible for hiring them out and collecting and keeping their wages until the freedom suit was resolved.
After several delays, including a huge fire and a cholera outbreak, Harriet Scott’s case was heard in January 1850. The jury ruled in her favor….
Mrs. Emerson and her brother John A Sanford were disinclined to lose their valuable human property. Mrs. Emerson appealed her case to the Missouri Supreme Court. Before it came to trial, a decision was made to combine the cases of Harriet and Dred Scott, the understanding being that the outcome of the case would apply to Harriet and their two daughters. Harriet’s wait to be free continued.
Meanwhile, Cupid came to the rescue. Irene Emerson moved to Springfield, Mass where she met and married Dr. Calvin Clifford Chaffee, an antislavery Congressman
Later, the groom claimed ignorance of his wife’s pending court case and of the fact that she owned slaves. The case was turned over to Mrs. Chafee’s brother, John Sanford. In March 1852 the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the right of slave owners, reversed the earlier ruling and rejected the Scotts’ plea for freedom.
The Scott’s were undeterred. In 1852 Charles Edmund LaBeaume, a supporter of the Scotts, hired Harriet from the sheriff. Harriet worked for LaBeaume for $4 a month, Dred for $5 a month. Meanwhile, they continued their quest for freedom. Five years later, after moving the case through the Missouri courts to the Supreme Court, Harriet received a dreaded decision. On March 6, 1857, the court ruled that Harriet, Dred, Eliza and Lizzie Scott should remain slaves. Soon thereafter, when John Sanford died, Dr. Chaffee insisted that ownership of the Scott family be transferred to Taylor Blow, son of Peter Blow, Dred Scott’s owner. Blow then freed the entire family.
Dred Scott lived as a free man for just one year. In 1858 he died of tuberculosis. Harriet worked as a “free Negro” laundress in St. Louis for many years. She died of “general disability” at age 71 on June 17, 1876. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, a St. Louis cemetery for Black Americans.
The Dred and Harriet Scott Interpretive Plaques were unveiled two years ago. The Plaques and Dred Scott Playfield, originally dedicated by the City of Bloomington in 1971, are at 10820 Bloomington Ferry Road. For additional information contact the Bloomington Human Rights Commission (humanrights@bloomingtonMN.gov) or Bloomington Parks and Rec (firstname.lastname@example.org)