Dred Scott in Minnesota


In the Dred Scott decision, Minnesota played a part in the cultural battle against slavery in the United States. Like the war on terrorism and “just war” debates raging now, the great slave debate divided the nation, divided families, and was as much about finances as ethics.

On March 6, 1857, 151 years ago, Dred Scott was found to be “not a person.” This finding by the Supreme Court of the United States was boo-ed and ridiculed inside the country and abroad. Like the “illegal aliens” of today, the “enemy combatants” and the extradited and disappeared, slaves had no legal standing.

Dred Scott, a slave, sued for his freedom in 1846. After an eleven year court battle Scott, Harriet, his wife and mother of their daughters, Eliza and Lizzie, lost their freedom case. The high court found that Scott was ineligible to bring his case for freedom from slavery into the federal court system. Dred Scott, 62, was found to be a slave, “not a person,” and therefore had no personhood rights in the federal courts.

In 2008 corporations are considered “persons” under the law.

Between 1836-40 Dred Scott lived at Fort Snelling, in the Wisconsin Territory, a “free territory” where slavery was prohibited. He had lived at Fort Armstrong in the free state of Illinois with his master, Army surgeon Dr. John Emerson, from 1833-35. Dred Scott’s famous suit for freedom was based on his residency in the free territory now called Minnesota and in the free state of Illinois.

Scott was born in Virginia, 1795, a slave child to the Blow family, named Sam. The family and slaves moved west settling in St. Louis, Missouri. He changed his name after his first wife was sold “down the river.” He ran away as Sam and returned as Dred Scott, caught and beaten by a gang of young thugs who returned the slave to his master for the reward money.

Scott met and married his wife, Harriet Robinson, at Fort Snelling. Their wedding was performed by Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro. (It was illegal for black people to marry.)

The Scott case was initiated in 1846, six months after Dr. Emerson’s widow refused to permit Scott to purchase his emancipation. Scott lost a first trial on a technicality, won his freedom on retrial, and lost in the Missouri Supreme Court. It was a contrary opinion because Missouri courts had consistently ruled that slaves taken into free states were automatically free. The case was maneuvered from state to federal court by anti-slavery interests looking for a definitive legal blow to the institution of slavery.

On January 1, 1853 in St. Louis, the family’s deranged master ordered Dred Scott, his wife Harriet and their two daughters into a barn where he forced the adults to strip and whipped them with a horse whip for “being worthless and insolent.” Sanford then spanked the girls Eliza, 13, and Lizzie, 7, and locked the family inside the barn.

In the 1850s, slaves sometimes were quietly freed if outrageous abuse became public knowledge. This blindness allowed the institution of slavery to continue while rooting out “a few bad apples.”

A few bad apples among the Abu Ghraib guards were rooted out but prisoner terrorism continues. Apparently torturing people is also devastating to the bad apples. Owning people, torturing people—it’s enough to make you crazy.

The Dred Scott family lost their 11-year battle for freedom in the “most unpopular Supreme Court decision in the (then) 70-year history of the court.” Into the rising fire of abolitionist sentiment in Scott v. Sandford (1846-57), the high court declared Dred Scott to be ineligible to file a suit in federal court because he was a slave—that is, property—and “not a person.” The Scott decision ruled that blacks, whether slave or free “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

The Scott case legalized inequality, and laid the groundwork for “separate but equal” racial discrimination throughout the nation. The internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II and of Muslims during the so-called “war on terrorism,” like the reservation restrictions for Native Americans, illustrate the breadth of racist mentality, America’s “original sin.”

After the Supreme Court decision Dred Scott’s original masters, the Blow family, purchased and freed the Scotts. Dred, Harriet, and Eliza (aged 17) soon died of tuberculosis.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853), published a two-volume novel about runaway slaves, Dred, in 1856 (the year before the Scott Supreme Court decision). One of the principal conspirators in Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Southampton County, Virginia 1831, was named Dred, “a name not unusual among the slaves and generally given to those of great physical force.” Dred Scott, short, slight and tubercular, was a powerhouse.

Susu Jeffrey is a Twin Cities activist and writer. She is the founder of Friends of Coldwater, the spring that furnished water to Fort Snelling from 1820-1920.