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Dred and Harriet Scott of Fort Snelling

Dred and Harriet Scott argued their time at Fort Snelling should have made them free.

Dred and Harriet Scott argued their time at Fort Snelling should have made them free.

No one recorded the date the two slaves were wed sometime around 1836. There is no story of how their union came to be. Most likely it was arranged by the master of the wife, a woman named Harriet Robinson.

She was just 17, and was married to a short, 40-year-old man named Etheldred. We know him as Dred Scott.

They were born in Virginia and eventually transported separately to an isolated outpost in the unsettled northwest called Fort Snelling.

Under the Missouri Compromise, slavery was supposed to be outlawed in new territories outside the South. But in Minnesota, it was not only allowed. It was induced.

The army had to convince soldiers to relocate to a frigid place inhabited almost exclusively by native tribes, where a freezing Mississippi River locked off supplies for months on end. So the military gave members a stipend to help pay for the slaves they took to the frontier.

Since neither Dred nor Harriet ever learned to read or write, little is known about their time here. They served an army surgeon, providing his meals and washing his laundry, retiring each night to their own small living quarters. The newlyweds' one-room home had stone walls, wood floors, a fireplace, and a stove to keep them warm.

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After receiving postings in a number of different locations, Dr. John Emerson moved his family and their slaves to St. Louis. It was there, in 1846, that the Scotts sued for their freedom. They argued that their time in free territory at Fort Snelling should have liberated them and their two young daughters.

Such suits were not uncommon, and sometimes actually worked. The Scotts were the first to file as a married couple.

Instead of running from bondage, husband and wife appealed to reason. They put their faith in a system that had little belief in them as humans. But they never had a chance, either in Missouri or at the U.S. Supreme Court 11 years later. A 7-2 ruling found that the Scotts and their daughters were not people, but property.

Their lawyer said the judges heard these arguments with "ears stuffed 60 years with cotton." Dred, a man of few words, proclaimed the legal process a "whole heap of trouble."

The case inflamed a divided nation, and signaled that slavery could expand into America's new territories. Four years later we were at war.

The cities of Minneapolis, St. Paul, and St. Anthony had seen waves of abolitionist migrants from the East Coast, and many fought heroically for the North in the Civil War.

In 1868, before the 15th Amendment, Minnesota became the first state to pass a black suffrage bill, doing so by popular vote. A year later, it ended school segregation and started putting black men on juries.

"The Minnesota attitude of pride with regard to race is legitimate, and well-founded," says Bill Green, the preeminent historian of black life in this state. "But it's not quite complete."

The Scotts were in fact freed, but only out of embarrassment. Their owner's widow remarried a liberal abolitionist congressman from Massachusetts. When the court ruled in slavery's favor, he saw to it that their freedom was bought, instead of given to them. The Scotts were sold to Henry Taylor Blow, a prominent Missouri abolitionist and son of Dred's original owner. The younger Blow quickly filed paperwork to free the family.

Scott spent his final days as a celebrity, hired as a doorman at a St. Louis hotel. A news story from 1857 found him laughing at "the fuss" made over him in D.C. He filled his spare time transporting the clothes his wife washed in her job as a laundress.

Dred knew he could have toured the country, earning thousands of dollars in appearance fees as Dred Scott, the man who fought slavery. But, he told reporters, "He will stick to his mistress as long as he lives."

It wasn't long. Scott succumbed to tuberculosis in 1858, about a year after the high court ruled he was a material asset, and not a man.

Harriet wanted none of the attention. When newspapermen came calling on Dred a few months after the ruling, they found Harriet a smart, skeptical woman, fiercely protective of her husband. Their story called Harriet "the legitimate owner of Dred."

Mrs. Scott was no one's victim, and did not want charity. Easy money was "the devil's work." She earned a living washing clothes, kept to herself, and lived to see her younger daughter give birth to a grandchild, born free.

Harriet died in 1876, and was placed in an unmarked grave, far off from the more prominent placement awarded to her husband. Just a few years ago, historians determined that her remains were in a large St. Louis-area graveyard reserved for slaves. They picked a plot, and gave Harriet Scott her due on the grave marker.

"American Patriot," it says. 

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