African Americans Dred Scott and Harriet Robinson Scott lived at Fort Snelling in the 1830s as enslaved people. Both the Northwest Ordinance (1787) and the Missouri Compromise (1820) prohibited slavery in the area, but slavery existed there even so. In the 1840s the Scotts sued for their freedom, arguing that having lived in “free territory” made them free. The 1857 Supreme Court decision that grew out of their suit moved the U.S. closer to civil war.
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 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.
Bachman, Walt. Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey. Bloomington: Pond Dakota Press, 2013.
Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.
Green, William D. A Peculiar Imbalance: The Fall and Rise of Racial Equality in Early Minnesota. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.
Library of Congress Web Guides. Dred Scott v. Sandford.
Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857).
State Historical Society of Missouri: Historic Missourians. Dred Scott.
VanderVelde, Lea. “The Dred Scott Case as an American Family Saga.” OAH Magazine of History 25 (April 2011): 24–28.
——— . Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
“Visit to Dred Scot—His Family—Incidents of His Life—Decision of the Supreme Court.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1857.
Editor’s note: This newspaper published the only known contemporary images of Dred and Harriet Scott and their two daughters.
In 1836, Dred Scott is taken to the Fort Snelling area as an enslaved man despite the laws that prohibit slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley. His residence there, and that of his wife, Harriet Robinson Scott, later serve as the basis for the couple’s claim to freedom.
The Northwest Ordinance outlaws slavery in the Ohio Valley territory west of the original thirteen colonies (and including the present-day state of Minnesota from the Mississippi River eastward).
Dred Scott is born in Virginia.
Harriet Robinson is born in Virginia.
Dred Scott is taken by his owners, Peter and Elizabeth Blow, to Alabama and later to Saint Louis.
The U.S. Congress admits Maine (free) and Missouri (slave) to the Union and outlaws the expansion of slavery north of the latitude of 36° 30′ (the southern boundary of Missouri). By this law, the upper Mississippi Valley is free territory.
Construction begins on Fort Saint Anthony, later renamed Fort Snelling.
Dred Scott is sold to Dr. John Emerson.
Harriet Robinson is transported to Fort Snelling with her Virginian owner, Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro. She works in his household at the St. Peters Indian Agency.
Emerson transports Dred Scott to Fort Snelling via Fort Crawford at Prairie du Chien.
Dred Scott and Harriet Robinson are married. Ownership of Harriet is transferred to Emerson.
The first of the Scotts’ two daughters, Eliza, is born on the steamboat Gipsey north of the Missouri border.
Emerson dies. Ownership of the Scotts passes to his widow, Irene Emerson, and later to her brother, Alexander Sanford. (In the case that was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court he is identified as Sandford).
The Scotts make their first attempt to sue for their freedom in the Missouri state courts.
Harriet Scott gives birth to the couple’s second daughter, Lizzie, in Jefferson Barracks, Missouri.
In Scott v. Sandford, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that African Americans are not citizens and have no right to sue in federal court.
The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution abolishes slavery and invalidates Scott v. Sandford’s declaration of African Americans as property.
The Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants African Americans the citizenship rights denied them in Scott v. Sandford.