Harriet Robinson Scott

Harriet Robinson Scott (c. 1820 – June 17, 1876) was an African American woman who fought for her freedom alongside her husband, Dred Scott, for eleven years. Their legal battle culminated in the infamous United States Supreme Court decision Dred Scott v. Sandford in 1857. On April 6, 1846, attorney Francis B. Murdoch had initiated Harriet v. Irene Emerson in the Circuit Court of St. Louis County, making the Scotts the first and only married couple to file separate freedom suits in tandem.

Born into slavery in Virginia, Harriet Robinson lived briefly in the free state of Pennsylvania before being taken to the Northwest Territory by Indian agent and slaveholder Lawrence Taliaferro. In 1836 or 1837, Harriet married Etheldred, an enslaved man who had been brought to Fort Snelling in present-day Minnesota by Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon. Their civil wedding ceremony was officiated by justice of the peace Taliaferro, who never actually sold Harriet to Dr. Emerson, since slavery was illegal there. In 1838, Harriet Scott gave birth to their first child on the steamboat Gipsey as it traveled north on the Mississippi River, in free territory, back to Fort Snelling. In 1840, the Scott family moved to St. Louis in the slave state of Missouri with Irene Emerson, who eventually hired them out to her brother-in-law, Captain Henry Bainbridge, at Jefferson Barracks. After Dr. Emerson’s death in 1843, Dred accompanied Captain Bainbridge to Louisiana and Texas, leaving Harriet and their two daughters behind in St. Louis. Harriet was hired out to Adeline Russell, wife of grocery wholesaler Samuel Russell, most likely working as a laundress.

In 1846, Dred Scott returned to St. Louis and tried to purchase his freedom from Mrs. Emerson, who refused. The Scotts then decided to pursue their freedom through the courts. By then, Harriet, a member of the Second African Baptist Church, was aware of the many freedom suits that had been won by enslaved women in St. Louis. Based on the legal precedents set by Winny v. Whitesides in 1824 and Rachel v. Walker in 1836, the Scotts had a strong case and should have won easily. After losing their first trial in 1847 on a technicality, the Scotts were granted a new trial, but were taken into custody by the sheriff on the orders of Mrs. Emerson, to be hired out by him while their cases were still pending. Dred Scott won his second trial in the state court in 1850, briefly winning freedom for his family, but Mrs. Emerson appealed. Lawyers for both sides then agreed to advance only Dred’s case with the understanding that the outcome of his case would apply to Harriet’s suit as well. Legal historians have argued that this was an error on the part of the Scotts’ lawyers, as Harriet’s claim to freedom was stronger than Dred’s, and the legal status of children was determined by the status of their mother. As their case progressed through the Missouri Supreme Court, the United States Circuit Court for the District of Missouri, and the Supreme Court of the United States, it became clear that the courts would no longer uphold legal precedent.

On March 6, 1857, the United States Supreme Court led by Chief Justice Roger Taney ruled that the Scotts were not American citizens due to their race, and therefore had no legal rights. It also declared the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional. Although they failed to win their freedom through the courts, the Scotts were finally emancipated on May 26, 1857, after nationwide media coverage of their high-profile loss caused public embarrassment to Massachusetts Congressman Calvin C. Chaffee, an abolitionist who had married Irene Sanford Emerson. The Supreme Court ruling ultimately triggered a constitutional crisis, rallied abolitionists, and set the stage for the events leading to the American Civil War, the emancipation of enslaved African Americans, and the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Dred Scott died in 1858, but Harriet survived the Civil War and lived out her days in the company of their two daughters, as well as their grandchildren who had been born to freedom.

The Harriet Scott Memorial Pavilion at Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale, Missouri is dedicated to her memory. The Dred and Harriet Scott Statue at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis commemorates where they started their quest for freedom.

Early life

Harriet Robinson was born into slavery around 1820 in Virginia, after which she lived briefly in Pennsylvania. Details of her early life are largely unknown.

Her first known slaveholder was Major Lawrence Taliaferro, who was originally from Virginia. Taliaferro was said to have “inherited” Harriet rather than purchased her. The name Robinson may have come from the family that enslaved her mother. There was a Robinson family living near the home where Lawrence Taliaferro had grown up in King George County, Virginia, but there is no known record connecting them to Harriet.

Another possible explanation is that Harriet may have been given to Taliaferro and his wife, Elizabeth Dillon, as part of a wedding dowry when they married in 1828. Known as Eliza, she was the daughter of Humphrey Dillon, an innkeeper in Bedford, Pennsylvania. Her father had registered three children as slaves in the 1820s, including two daughters and one son of an enslaved female servant named Eliza Diggs. Although Pennsylvania law freed all slaves’ children born within the state and any enslaved person kept in the state for longer than six months, local custom allowed slaveholders to register the children of enslaved mothers for slave status until the age of 28.

While living in Pennsylvania, Harriet was likely trained as a laundress or chambermaid at the inn owned by the Dillon family, possibly by her own mother. Harriet never learned to read or write.

Move to Minnesota country

In 1835, Lawrence Taliaferro moved his entire household to join him at St. Peter’s Indian Agency near Fort Snelling in present-day Minnesota. He had lived and worked there since 1820 as the Indian agent to the Dakota as well as the Ojibwe, and had been reappointed for another term by President Andrew Jackson.

Fourteen-year-old Harriet was taken along as a servant to work at the Taliaferros’ agency house. Harriet likely made the six-week journey from Bedford, Pennsylvania together with Lawrence, his wife Eliza, his brother-in-law Horatio Dillon, an 18-year-old servant named Eliza, and a few enslaved men. They traveled from western Pennsylvania to St. Louis, Missouri, where they took the steamboat Warrior up the Upper Mississippi River to St. Peter’s Agency.

Slavery at Fort Snelling

Agent Taliaferro had taken black servants to Minnesota country as slaves starting in 1825. Over the years, he became the largest slaveholder in the area. He enslaved at least 21 black servants over his lifetime. Taliaferro hired many of them out to officers at Fort Snelling, and kept a few servants in the agency house, which was located about half a mile outside the walls of the fort.

Although Article VI of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 had banned slavery north of the Ohio River, it continued in the region for decades. Furthermore, slave labor on United States military installations was often tolerated or even encouraged prior to the Civil War. At Fort Snelling, United States Army officers received a stipend to pay for servants, but often used enslaved labor instead, keeping the extra money for themselves. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, there were an estimated 15 to 30 enslaved men and women working at Fort Snelling at any given time.

Life at St. Peter’s Agency

While living at the Indian agency house, Harriet Robinson and Eliza were expected to keep Mrs. Taliaferro living comfortably and to cushion her from the harsh living conditions of the Minnesota “frontier.” Lawrence Taliaferro had a young part-Dakota daughter named Mary who had been born in 1828, shortly before his marriage to Elizabeth Dillon, but it is unclear whether Mary Taliaferro ever lived with them.

The agency house was in poor repair and small compared to the Taliaferros’ grand home in Pennsylvania. The stone house offered inadequate protection from the cold winter climate, contributing to Mrs. Taliaferro’s frequent illnesses. Nevertheless, Harriet enjoyed a more comfortable lifestyle compared to many of the poorer settlement families living nearby in cabins and shanties. Historian Lea VanderVelde writes, “If any kitchen in the area had a cookstove, butterchurns, a mangle for squeezing the water from laundry, and even a complete set of kitchen utensils it would have been the Taliaferro household.”

At the time, the Dakota and Ojibwe population vastly outnumbered the white settlers in Minnesota country, and there was frequent intermarriage, making race relations there more “fluid” than in other parts of the United States. The absence of a cash crop economy also meant that enslaved blacks were generally able to exercise more freedoms than in the plantation South.

Household responsibilities

As maid servants, Harriet and Eliza were responsible for grooming their mistress – helping Mrs. Taliaferro with her hair and dress each day – in addition to their household chores. Each night, they slept in the basement kitchen on a pallet of rags set out in front of the open fire. At dawn, they tended the fire to warm the house.

During the winters, Harriet was likely tasked with building and tending fires all day long. The winters were so cold that laundry “would never dry but simply freeze stiff.” For most of the winter, it meant that Harriet was free from the task of doing laundry. During the rest of the year, the settlement community regarded clean clothing and bathing with soap as evidence of their “superiority” over the local Native American tribes.

At dinner, the servant women would serve food in the Taliaferros’ dining room, taking it from the basement, up the stairs into the outdoors, around the back, and into the main house through the back door. As an innkeeper’s daughter, Mrs. Taliaferro received many compliments from guests about her elegant table settings and how well she organized her household.

Notable guests and visitors

In Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier (2009), Lea VanderVelde suggests that Harriet Robinson served dinner to several notable visitors while at the St. Peter’s Agency house. Among the Taliaferros’ dinner guests between 1835 and 1836 were “mixed-blood” fur trader Joseph Renville of Lac qui Parle; painter George Catlin, who stayed at Fort Snelling with his wife Clara while completing his Indian portraits; and British geologist George William Featherstonhaugh. Explorer Joseph Nicollet stayed with the Taliaferros for a while during the winter of 1836 and became very close to Mrs. Taliaferro, later referring to her as his “sister.”

Harriet probably answered the front door to greet Dakota and Ojibwe visitors to the Indian agency. VanderVelde suggests that she got to know many of them by name, particularly if they were from nearby bands. Twenty-four-year-old Henry Hastings Sibley, the new regional manager for American Fur Company, also became a frequent visitor to the Indian agency; Taliaferro soon came to view Sibley as his “nemesis.”

Marriage to Dred Scott

On May 8, 1836, Dred Scott arrived at Fort Snelling by steamboat. He was one of at least five enslaved men who arrived that day with 140 members of the 5th Infantry Regiment. At the time, he was known simply as “Etheldred.” He was a personal servant to John Emerson, a military surgeon who had acquired him as a slave in St. Louis, Missouri before taking up his first official post at Fort Armstrong in the supposedly free state of Illinois.

In the months that followed, Dr. Emerson and Agent Taliaferro established a collegial working relationship. In late June 1836, they worked together to vaccinate nearly 1,000 Dakota men, women and children against smallpox, and were probably assisted by Etheldred. Emerson finally called on Taliaferro at the agency house for the first time on July 3.

Historian Lea VanderVelde suggests that Harriet and Dred became acquainted with each other prior to this, perhaps while Harriet was tending the agency garden and Dred was on the prairie plateau looking after Dr. Emerson’s horse. They would have also seen each other and had time to talk when Harriet was ordering and waiting for items at the sutler’s store, just inside the gate and across from the fort hospital.

Civil wedding ceremony

Harriet Robinson and Dred Scott were married in a civil ceremony officiated by Lawrence Taliaferro as justice of the peace, in 1836 or 1837. Harriet was about seventeen and Dred was about forty years old. It was the second marriage for Dred.

The exact date of the wedding is not recorded. No journal entries exist for Taliaferro in 1837; he had reportedly run very low on paper and stationery. Their marriage was the final one of many officiated by Taliaferro during his time as Indian agent in pre-territorial Minnesota.

Civil wedding ceremonies were unusual at the time for enslaved couples. As Indian agent, Taliaferro was a strong believer in Western-style marriages and their “civilizing” effect on families on the “frontier,” whether they were Native Americans, fur traders, soldiers, or other settlers.

Move to Fort Snelling

Once they were married, Harriet left St. Peter’s Agency and went to live with Dred at Fort Snelling. Officers at the fort referred to her in their records as “Har.Etheldred” or “H.Dread.”

By September 14, 1837, Harriet was already married to Dred, and John Emerson was her enslaver. On that day, Harriet was hired out by Dr. Emerson to Lieutenant James L. Thompson, 5th Infantry, and his wife Catherine, who later testified in the Scotts’ trial as a witness to their residence at Fort Snelling.

That fall, Harriet was the only servant woman remaining at Fort Snelling and her housekeeping services were in high demand. She was hired out to as many as three officers before being hired exclusively to the post commandant, Major Joseph Plympton, in November. Taliaferro had previously hired his servant Eliza out to Plympton, and now Plympton paid Dr. Emerson for Harriet’s services.

Dr. Emerson’s departure

Around this time, Dr. Emerson had been granted a reassignment to St. Louis – a move he had requested – but was required to wait until the arrival of his replacement. He was unable to leave until October 20, 1837, when freezing conditions on the Mississippi meant that he had to make the journey by canoe rather than by steamboat, and leave most of his personal property behind. Emerson left Harriet and Dred behind at Fort Snelling for the winter, hiring them out to other officers while collecting payment for their services. After reaching St. Louis, Emerson was quickly transferred again to Fort Jesup in Louisiana.

Legal implications

Although Harriet stated in her 1846 lawsuit that Taliaferro “sold” her to Emerson, there is no record of an actual sale. Legal historian Walter Ehrlich writes that instead, what appears to have happened is that Harriet and Dred agreed with Taliaferro and Emerson to be legally married, and that Taliaferro informally transferred his ownership of Harriet to Emerson. In his 1864 autobiography, Taliaferro would write that he had officiated the “union of Dred Scott with Harriet Robinson – my servant girl which I gave him.”

Taliaferro, however, was possibly uncertain about Harriet’s actual status when he officiated her wedding to Dred. Around the same time that his autobiography was published, Taliaferro gave a newspaper interview in which he referred to “marrying the two and giving the girl her freedom.” Even if that had been his intention, he did not document her manumission, and in practice, the Scotts remained enslaved by Emerson.

Rachel v. Walker (1836)

In June 1836, before Harriet and Dred married, an important freedom suit, Rachel v. Walker, had been decided in the Missouri Supreme Court. Rachel was an enslaved woman who had been acquired by Colonel J. B. W. Stockton in St. Louis and taken to Fort Snelling, where she lived from 1830 to 1831. Stockton then took Rachel to Fort Crawford in Michigan. The Missouri Supreme Court unanimously upheld Rachel’s claim to freedom, ruling that she had become free when the army officer had taken her to reside in free territory.

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