Harriet Robinson Scott (1815? – 1876?)
Harriet Robinson Scott was the wife of Dred Scott, the Missouri slave who went to court to gain his and Harriet’s freedom. This case was one of the most important cases ever tried in the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Scotts in 1857. The Dred Scott Decision deeply divided the country and led directly to the Civil War.
Harriet Robinson was born a slave in Virginia around 1815. Her owner was a Virginian, Major Lawrence Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolliver”). Major Taliaferro was given the appointment of Indian Agent by President Monroe in 1819. He was assigned to Fort Snelling, a military fort and fur-trading outpost on the upper Mississippi in Minnesota.
At the time of Harriet’s birth, Congress admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state. This led to a large migration of white people and their slaves from southern slave states to Missouri. Dred Scott was born into slavery in Virginia around 1799. He came to St. Louis with his owner, Peter Blow, around 1830. Due to financial troubles, Blow sold Dred to Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon stationed at Jefferson Barracks. Dred worked as Dr. Emerson’s personal valet and traveled with him to posts in Illinois and the Wisconsin Territory where slavery was prohibited.
Marriage at Fort Snelling
In the early 1830s, Major Taliaferro brought Harriet with him to Fort Snelling. Harriet worked as his house slave and lived with other slaves owned by members of the military. In 1836, Dred Scott arrived at Fort Snelling with Dr. Emerson. Harriet, then about twenty-one years old, met Dred, who was about thirty-seven. In 1838, Harriet and Dred married in a civil ceremony performed by Major Taliaferro who was also the local Justice of the Peace. Major Taliaferro apparently gave up ownership of Harriet, and she was transferred by her marriage to Dred to Dr. Emerson.
Life in St. Louis
In 1842, life changed for Harriet and Dred. Dr. Emerson was posted to the Seminole War in Florida. Harriet and Dred were sent to St. Louis on a steamboat. On the way, Harriet gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Eliza. While he was gone, Dr. Emerson hired out Harriet and Dred to work for a relative. Harriet worked as a laundress and domestic servant. She had another daughter named Lizzie.
The next year, Dr. Emerson died, leaving Dred and Harriet in the hands of his wife, Irene Emerson. Neither Harriet nor Dred appeared in Dr. Emerson’s will. Mrs. Emerson left for Massachusetts. For three years, Harriet and Dred worked for other families in St. Louis while Mrs. Emerson collected their wages.
In the spring of 1846, Harriet and Dred Scott took legal steps to demand their freedom. Neither Harriet nor Dred could read or write, but Harriet had friends in the free black community in St. Louis. She and Dred learned about 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 years she had lived at Fort Snelling. Dred had lived for almost nine years in free states with Dr. Emerson.
Harriet and Dred filed two separate lawsuits with their lawyer against Mrs. Emerson in the St. Louis Circuit Court. The first trial was dismissed, but in the retrial, the court decided in favor of the Scotts.
This decision did not please Mrs. Emerson. Slaves were valuable property and she did not want to lose Harriet, Dred, and their daughters. She appealed her case to the Missouri Supreme Court. During the trial, Mrs. Emerson married Dr. Calvin Chaffee, an antislavery congressman from Massachusetts. She transferred legal matters to her brother, John F. A. Sanford. In 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling, rejecting the Scott’s plea for freedom and upholding the rights of slave owners.
A Long and Difficult Struggle
Harriet and Dred refused to give up. Still living and working in St. Louis and with the financial help of Taylor Blow—one of Peter Blow’s sons—the Scotts took their suit as far as the U.S. Supreme Court in the famous case Dred Scott v. Sandford (Sanford was misspelled). On March 6, 1857, the court ruled that Dred and Harriet Scott should remain slaves.
The American public reacted very strongly to—both for and against—the Dred Scott Decision. Antislavery groups feared that slavery would spread. Soon Abraham Lincoln was elected President and South Carolina seceded from the Union, thus starting the Civil War.
Just after the court decision, Mrs. Chaffee transferred ownership of the Scotts to Taylor Blow who then freed them. One year later in 1858, Dred Scott died of tuberculosis. Dred’s freedom was short lived, but Harriet’s was not. She worked as a free laundress in St. Louis, listing her name in St. Louis directories from 1859-1876.
Harriet could not have known that her legal fight for freedom would lead to civil war and the end of slavery in America. Harriet Robinson Scott died a free woman at the age of 61 of “general disabilities,” probably on June 17, 1876. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.
Research and Text by Carlynn Trout
Christensen, Lawrence O., et al, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 679–681.
Corbett, Katharine T. In Her Place. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1999. pp. 60–62.
Columbia Daily Tribune. Thursday, March 9, 2006, 8A.