Harriet Robinson Scott (1815? – 1876)
Harriet Robinson Scott was a slave who tried for more than a decade to gain her freedom through the court system. In separate cases that were later combined, Harriet Scott and her husband, Dred, sued for their freedom before several courts in Missouri. Their case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC. It is one of the most important cases ever tried in the United States.
Harriet Robinson was born into slavery in Virginia around 1815. She was owned by Major Lawrence Taliaferro (pronounced "Tolliver") who served as a federal Indian agent. Major Taliaferro, a Virginian, was assigned to Fort Snelling around 1820 and served there for almost twenty years. Fort Snelling was a military fort and fur-trading outpost on the upper Mississippi River
The Mississippi River runs south from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico and is considered the chief river in North America's largest drainage system. Bordering Missouri on the east, the river flows for 2,530 miles. Along with the Missouri River and several other tributaries such as the Ohio River, the Mississippi became part of the nation's first major transportation system in the early 1800s after the invention of the steamboat. Missouri has historically engaged in international trade by shipping and receiving goods along the Mississippi through the port of New Orleans, which lies at the river's mouth.
in present-day Minnesota. Taliaferro was a strong protector of Native American rights.
Old Fort Snelling
A drawing by George Catlin showing Old Fort Snelling when he visited around 1825.
When Harriet Robinson was a teenager, she left Virginia, never to return. Major Taliaferro brought her with him to Fort Snelling in the early 1830s. He had his own dwelling at the fort and needed Harriet to work as his house servant. Though slavery was not officially allowed in this part of the United States as outlined in the 1820 Missouri Compromise
The Missouri Compromise was passed in 1820 to balance the number of slave states and free states admitted to the United States. Slavery was prohibited in the northern part of the former Louisiana Purchase except within the proposed state of Missouri. It was called the Missouri Compromise because Missouri was involved in the first balancing act. Missouri was admitted as a slave state while Maine was admitted as a free state.
, many members of the military kept slaves as they moved from one post to another, or went back and forth between a fort and their homes in other states.
A drawing by George Catlin showing Sioux men who lived close to Fort Snelling. Catlin was introduced to the people he drew by Major Taliaferro.
Harriet Robinson probably lived with many other slaves at Fort Snelling. She may have known a slave named Rachel who lived at Fort Snelling from about 1830 to 1834. Rachel would also later sue for her freedom in the Missouri courts in St. Louis. She based her claim on the argument that living in a free territory while at Fort Snelling had made her a free woman. In addition to working alongside other people of African descent, Harriet would have also been in contact with European fur traders and Native Americans, especially the Sioux and Ojibwe or Chippewa.
A Husband and a New Owner for Harriet
Dred Scott (1800? – 1858)
Dred Scott's name has been a source of disagreement among historians. Some scholars have argued that probate records suggest that Dred Scott's real name may have been “Sam.” Most modern scholars maintain that Dred Scott and Sam, a slave named on Peter Blow’s list of assets filed in St. Louis Probate Court, were two different people. (See: Ehrlich, Walter. They Have No Rights: Dred Scott's Struggle for Freedom. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979, pp. 12-15. [REF 552 Eh89])
[Reissue, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1857, courtesy of National Park Service, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial]
In May 1836, Harriet's future husband arrived at Fort Snelling. Dred Scott worked as the personal servant or valet of his owner, Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon. At that time, Harriet was about twenty-one years old, and Dred was probably thirty-six. Harriet and Dred must have met and formed a close relationship early on for in either 1836 or 1837, they were married in a civil ceremony performed by Major Taliaferro, who was a justice of the peace. At this point in her life, Harriet Robinson not only became Harriet Scott, the wife of Dred Scott, but she also became the property of Dr. Emerson. Some sources suggest that Major Taliaferro sold Harriet to Dr. Emerson and married her to Dred Scott so that the couple could remain together.
By April 1838, Harriet Scott was pregnant. Despite her condition, she had to leave Fort Snelling that month, perhaps for the first time since her arrival. Dr. Emerson had been transferred to Fort Jesup, Louisiana, and had requested that Dred and Harriet join him and his new wife, Eliza Irene Sanford. Harriet made the long journey to Louisiana but did not stay there long. By September, Harriet was almost full term and found herself in St. Louis. By October, she was heading north once again to Fort Snelling. On the way, Harriet gave birth in free territory to her first daughter, Eliza Scott, on the steamer, Gipsey. Once back at Fort Snelling, Harriet stayed there, nursing her baby and attending to Mrs. Emerson's needs, for another two years.
Leaving Free Territory
View of the city of St. Louis, Missouri, 1854
During the summer of 1840, Harriet left Fort Snelling forever. Dr. Emerson had been transferred yet again, this time to Florida where the Seminole War was being fought. Harriet and her family were sent to St. Louis where they were hired out to work for other people while the Emersons collected their wages. Harriet gave birth to another daughter, Lizzie Scott, during this period of time. She most likely worked as a laundress and domestic servant. She probably worked long hours in her employer's house, lived in quarters off the kitchen, cared for her children, but never collected any pay.
Harriet worked as a laundress, washing and ironing clothes, for most of her life.
In 1843, Dr. Emerson suddenly died, leaving Harriet, Dred, Eliza, and Lizzie in the hands of his widow, Irene Emerson. Neither Harriet nor Dred appeared in Dr. Emerson's will. After her husband's death, Irene Emerson moved in with her proslavery father, Alexander Sanford, 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.
Filing a Suit for Freedom
In the spring of 1846, Harriet Robinson Scott took legal action to claim her freedom. On April 6, 1846, Harriet and Dred Scott each filed separate petitions in the St. Louis Circuit Court to gain their freedom from Irene Emerson. Their lawyer was Francis Murdock. Unable to read or write, Harriet perhaps relied on advice from John R. Anderson, the minister of the Second African Baptist Church she attended in St. Louis.
Black preacher and congregation
Harriet Scott was a member of a black congregation in St. Louis. She attended the Second African Baptist Church, which later became the Eighth Street Baptist Church and then Central Baptist Church.
A portrait of Reverend John Richard Anderson, Harriet’s minister at Second African Baptist Church, can be found on the Web site of the Central Baptist Church.
Harriet had learned about or knew personally other slaves who had filed lawsuits in Missouri courts. Many slaves were granted freedom if they had lived in free states with their owners' permission or knowledge. Harriet had a good chance for freedom because of the many years she had lived at Fort Snelling. Harriet was helped legally and financially by the family and friends of Dred's former master, Peter Blow. Their cases came to trial on June 30, 1847, but were dismissed on a technicality. Their lawyer moved for a new trial.
A newspaper ad from the St. Louis County Sheriff, Samuel Conway, informing the public of a “runaway slave” whom the sheriff was holding in jail.
[St. Louis Missouri Republican, March 17, 1848]
Transcription of newspaper ad
[St. Louis Missouri Republican, March 17, 1848]
Before the retrial took place, Irene Emerson made arrangements for the Scotts to be under the charge, or custody, of the sheriff of St. Louis County. For nine years, from March 17, 1848, until March 18, 1857, Harriet and her family remained in the custody of the sheriff. He was responsible for hiring them out and collecting and keeping their wages until the freedom suit was resolved.
Court case heading
Court case heading for Harriet, (of Color) vs. Irene Emerson - Harriet Robinson Scott (1815? - 1876?) - Historic Missourians - The State Historical Society of Missouri
[Scott, Dred, a man of color v. Emerson, Irene; Nov 1846; Case No. 1; Circuit Court Case Files; Office of the Circuit Clerk; City of St. Louis, Missouri; [7/11/2008, St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project]
It took two years for Harriet's case to come to trial again. The delays were due to heavy court schedules, a tremendous fire in St. Louis on May 2, 1849, and an outbreak of cholera
Cholera is a sickness caused by a water-dwelling type of bacteria. Its symptoms include extreme nausea and diarrhea, often causing dehydration and death. Cholera spread from Asia to Europe in the early 1800s, then to America at the beginning of the 1830s. Since cholera lives in water that has been contaminated with feces, it thrived in highly populated areas around rivers and other bodies of water with poor sewer drainage systems. Cholera outbreaks affected several American cities in the Mississippi River Valley during the mid-1800s. St. Louis was one of the cities hardest hit during this period, enduring cholera epidemics numerous times between 1832 and 1867. The 1849 and 1866 epidemics were especially severe, killing several thousand people. Cholera became less of a problem in American cities later in the 1800s as sewage systems improved and public health awareness increased.
that followed the fire. Finally, on January 12, 1850, the case was heard, and the jury ruled in favor of the Scotts. Harriet and her family were free. This freedom, however, proved to be short lived.
A Long and Drawn Out Battle
The court's decision did not please Mrs. Emerson and her brother, John F. A. Sanford, who had been handling her legal affairs since her husband's death. Slaves were valuable property, and she did not want to lose Harriet, Dred, and their daughters and the income they provided her. Mrs. Emerson's lawyers appealed her case to the Missouri Supreme Court. Before it came to trial, however, a decision was made to combine Harriet's case with Dred's. On February 12, 1850, the case was retitled Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson. The outcome of this case would also apply to Harriet and her daughters. Though her name disappeared from the trial title, Harriet's desire for freedom did not cease. She would have to wait another two years for the trial to take place.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Emerson left St. Louis and moved to Springfield, Massachusetts. There she met Dr. Calvin Clifford Chaffee, an antislavery congressman from Massachusetts. They married in November 1850. Dr. Chaffee was unaware of his new wife's court case involving the Scotts. In fact, he claimed later that he didn't know that she owned slaves. Mrs. Chaffee had handed the case over to her brother. On March 22, 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling, rejecting the Scotts' plea for freedom. Tensions over the issue of slavery were rising throughout the county. The highest court in Missouri, in this decision, upheld the rights of slaveowners over the rights of slaves.
A Refusal to Give Up
A newspaper ad in the St. Louis Missouri Republican, March 21, 1848
[St. Louis Missouri Republican, March 21, 1848]
Transcription of newspaper ad
[St. Louis Missouri Republican, March 21, 1848]
Harriet and Dred did not give up. Records show that Charles Edmund LaBeaume, a friend and supporter of the Scotts, hired Harriet from the sheriff on April 26, 1852. She worked for him for $4.00 a month, wages she never collected. Dred also worked for him for $5.00 a month.
A newspaper article about the Scotts
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
\A front-page article in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper dated Saturday, June 27, 1857, contains descriptions and illustrations of Harriet Scott and her family. The article is based on an interview of Harriet and Dred. Harriet is first described by the reporter as "a smart, tidy-looking negress, perhaps thirty years of age, who, with two female assistants [Harriet's daughters], was busy ironing." (p. 1)
On the following page, the reporter provides an additional description of Harriet: "His wife, very much younger than Dred, is neat, industrious, and devotedly attached to her husband and children, an acceptable member of the church, and would evidently be satisfied with obscurity and repose." (p. 2) The reporter also states that Harriet was Dred's second wife and that together they had four children, two sons and two daughters. The sons were dead at the time of the interview.
[Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1857, pp.1-2.]
With the continued help of the Blow family and other supporters, the Scotts eventually took their case as far as the U.S. Supreme Court in what became the famous Dred Scott v. Sanford case.
The 1860 federal census lists Harriette Scott, age forty, living as a free black laundress in the city of St. Louis. Names were not always spelled correctly in public documents.
[1860 U.S. Census, St. Louis County, Missouri]
Five years later, after moving the case through the Missouri courts to the highest court in the nation, Harriet finally received a decision about her suit for freedom. On March 6, 1857, the court ruled that Harriet, Dred, Eliza, and Lizzie Scott should remain slaves. Just after the decision, John Sanford died, and Calvin Chaffee insisted that his wife transfer ownership of the Scotts to Taylor Blow. Blow then freed Harriet and her family on May 26, 1857, in St. Louis in the courthouse and before the same judge who had heard the first case. Mrs. Chaffee insisted on collecting the back wages held by the sheriff. They amounted to about $750.
Just one year later, Harriet's husband died of tuberculosis
Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that can be transmitted through the air and often settles in the lungs and destroys lung tissue. During the 1800s, tuberculosis killed more people in the United States than any other cause of death. It was a major killer in cities. Because many people in the cities at this time were poor immigrants living in dirty and crowded conditions, tuberculosis became associated with immigration, poverty, city overcrowding, and poor living conditions. In the 1940s an antibiotic was discovered that could successfully treat tuberculosis. Although no longer a major killer in the United States, tuberculosis remains a chief cause of death today in many impoverished nations across the world.
. Though Dred did not live to enjoy his freedom for long, Harriet worked as a “free Negro” laundress in St. Louis for many years. Her name is listed in St. Louis directories from 1859 to 1876. She is also listed in the 1860 census as living in her own home and in the 1870 census as a live-in domestic. Harriet Scott, a free woman, died of “general disability” at age sixty-one on June 17, 1876. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, a burial ground in St. Louis for black Americans.
References and Resources
For more information about Harriet Robinson Scott's life and career, see the following resources:
The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Harriet Robinson Scott in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets. All links will open in a new tab.
- “Finding a St. Louis Legend.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. March 5, 2006. pp. 1-2C.
- “Genealogist Fills in Gaps in Scott's Story.” Columbia Daily Tribune. March 9, 2006. p. 8A.
- “One Man's Case and How It Changed a Nation.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. March 4, 2007. p. B1.
- “The Seed of Freedom and Justice for All was Planted Here.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. March 7, 2007. p. B1.
- “150th Anniversary.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. March 2, 2008. p. 11D.
- Corbett, Katharine T. In Her Place: A Guide to St. Louis Women's History. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1999. pp. 60-62. [REF H235.47 C81]
- Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. June 27, 1857, pp. 1-2. [REF IHG 973.7 L565 oversize]
- Hess, Jeffrey A. “Dred Scott: From Fort Snelling to Freedom.” Historic Fort Snelling Chronicles. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society. no. 2, 1975. [REF Vertical File: Dred Scott]
- James, Edward T.,et al., eds. Notable American Women, 1607-1950; A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971. v. 1, pp. 181-183. [REF 920 N843 v.1]
- St. Louis City Directory. 1859 [REF H235.36 K386 1859 In Case]
- Swain, Gwenyth. Dred and Harriet Scott: A Family's Struggle for Freedom. St. Paul: Borealis Books, 2004. [REF F552 Sw14]
- Trout, Carlynn. Notable Women of Missouri. Columbia, MO: Columbia, Missouri Branch of the American Association of University Women. Columbia, MO, 2005. [REF F508 T758 2005]
- van Ravenswaay, Charles. Saint Louis: An Informal History of the City and Its People, 1764-1865. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1991. [REF H235.47 V35]
These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society's website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following websites:
- Missouri State Archives: Dred Scott: 150th Anniversary Commemoration
This Secretary of State Website offers a thorough study of the Dred Scott case as it moved through the Missouri court system and ended in the U.S. Supreme Court. Also of great interest is the link “Conservation of the Dred Scott Papers,” which shows how the State Archives restored and preserved the original court records of this case.
- Dred Scott Case Collection
This comprehensive Website provides images of the actual case documentation, including petitions to the courts, writs of summons, appeals, and affidavits. A chronology of events is also included.
- Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
Hosted by the National Park Service, this Website on the Old Courthouse in St. Louis provides information about one of its historic trials, the Dred Scott Case.
- Historic Fort Snelling
This Website, offered by the Minnesota Historical Society, presents rich textual and visual information on the history and importance of Fort Snelling.
- Landmark Cases of the U. S. Supreme Court: Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
This informative and interactive Website provides images of primary sources, quotes, maps, and chronologies outlining Dred Scott’s life and court case.
- Africans in America PBS Series
Based on the PBS series Africans in America, this Website tells the story of Dred Scott’s life and legal battle.