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Dred Scott

Dred Scott (1799 – September 17, 1858), was a slave in the United States who sued unsuccessfully in St. Louis, Missourimarker for his freedom in the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford case of 1857. His case was based on the fact that he and his wife Harriet Scott were slaves, but had lived in states and territories where slavery was illegal, including Illinoismarker and Minnesotamarker (which was then part of the Wisconsin Territory). The United States Supreme Court ruled seven to two against Scott, finding that neither he, nor any person of African ancestry, could claim citizenship in the United States, and that therefore Scott could not bring suit in federal court under diversity of citizenship rules. Moreover, Scott's temporary residence outside Missourimarker did not effect his emancipation under the Missouri Compromise, since reaching that result would deprive Scott's owner of his property.


The case raised the issue of a black slave who lived in a free state. Congress had not asserted whether slaves were free once they set foot upon Northern soil. The ruling arguably overturned the Missouri Compromise as, based on the court's logic, any attempt at regulating slavery in the Federal Territories deprived a white slave owner's property without due process. This factor upset the Northern Republicans and further split Northern and Southern relations, exacerbating violent sentiments leading up to the Civil War.

Scott traveled with his master Dr. John Emerson, who was in the army and often transferred. Scott's extended stay with his master in Illinoismarker, a free state, gave him the legal standing to make a claim for freedom, as did his extended stay at Fort Snellingmarker in the Wisconsin Territory, where slavery was also prohibited. But Scott never made the claim while living in the free lands—perhaps because he was unaware of his rights at the time, or because he was fearful of possible repercussions. After two years, the army transferred Emerson to territory where slavery was legal: first to St. Louis, Missourimarker, then to Louisianamarker. In just over a year, the recently married Emerson summoned his slave couple. Instead of staying in the free territory of Wisconsin, or going to the free state of Illinois, the two traveled nearly 2000 km, apparently unaccompanied, down the Mississippi River to meet their master. Only after Emerson's death in 1843, when Emerson's widow hired out Scott to an army captain, did Scott seek freedom for himself and his wife. First he offered to buy his freedom from Emerson's widow, Irene Emerson—then living in St. Louis—for $300. The offer was refused, leaving Scott to seek freedom through the courts.


Dred Scott was born in Southampton County, Virginiamarker, in 1799 as property of the Peter Blow family. It appears that Scott was originally named Sam and had an older brother named Dred. However, when the brother died as a young man, Scott chose to use his name. The Blow family settled near Huntsville, Alabamamarker, where the Peter Blow family unsuccessfully tried farming.

In 1830 the Blow family took Scott with them when they relocated to St. Louis, Missouri. They sold Scott to John Emerson, a doctor serving in the United States Army. Scott traveled with Dr. Emerson as he worked throughout Illinois and the Wisconsin Territories, where the Northwest Ordinance prohibited slavery.

In 1836 Dred Scott met a teen-aged slave named Harriet Robinson. Her owner was Major Lawrence Taliaferro, an Indian man known for respecting the rights of all people. He allowed them to get married and transferred his ownership of Harriet to Dr. Emerson so that the couple could stay together. In 1838, Harriet gave birth to their first daughter. They named her Eliza. The couple also had two sons; however, they both died in their infancy. Two years after their first daughter arrived, another was born and they named her Lizzie.

Emerson met and married Irene Sanford. They returned to Missouri in 1842. John Emerson died the following year, and John F. A. Sanford, brother of the widow, became executor of the Emerson estate. (His name is spelled 'Sandford' in the court decision due to a clerical error.)

In 1846, having failed to attain his freedom, Scott filed suit and went to trial in 1847 in a state courthouse in St. Louis. Scott lost the first trial, but the presiding judge granted a second trial because hearsay evidence had been introduced. Three years later, in 1850, a jury decided that Scott and his wife should be freed. Irene Emerson appealed. In 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the lower court ruling, saying, "Times now are not as they were when the previous decisions on this subject were made." The Scotts were returned to their master.

(This was more than 20 years after a slave named Charlotte Dupuy had filed a suit in Washington, D.C.marker for freedom against her master Henry Clay, US Representative and Senator from Kentuckymarker, and most recently United States Secretary of State. The grounds of her 1829 case were different, but the Court ordered her to remain in Washington while it was heard. Both cases created a challenge to slavery. The court ruled against Dupuy, and Clay had her transported to New Orleans, where she worked for his daughter and son-in-law. Finally in 1840, Clay freed Dupuy and her daughter. In 1844 he freed her son, Charles, who had accompanied him on speaking engagements.)

With the aid of new lawyers (including Montgomery Blair), the Scotts sued again in federal court. They lost and appealed to the United States Supreme Courtmarker in Dred Scott v. Sandford. In 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney delivered the majority opinion, stating that:

  • Any person descended from Africans, whether slave or free, is not a citizen of the United States, according to the Declaration of Independence.
  • The Ordinance of 1787 could not confer freedom or citizenship within the Northwest Territory to non-white people.
  • The provisions of the Act of 1820, known as the Missouri Compromise, were voided as a legislative act because the act exceeded the powers of Congress, insofar as it attempted to exclude slavery and impart freedom and citizenship to Black people in the northern part of the Louisiana cession.

In effect, the Court ruled that slaves had no claim to freedom. They were property and not citizens, and could not bring suit in federal court. Because slaves were private property, the federal government could not revoke a white slave owner's right to own a slave based on where he lived, thus nullifying the essence of the Missouri Compromise. Taney, speaking for the majority, also ruled that since Scott was considered private property, he was subject to the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution which prohibits taking property from its owner "without due process".


After the ruling, with Sanford by now in an insane asylum, Scott was returned as property to Emerson's widow. However, in 1850, Emerson had remarried to an abolitionist, Calvin C. Chaffee, who shortly thereafter was elected to Congress. In a bizarre turn of events, Chaffee was apparently unaware that his wife owned arguably the most prominent slave in America until a month before the Supreme Court decision. Too late to intervene, the severely criticized Chaffee proceeded to have Emerson return Scott to his original owners, the Blow family. As Missouri residents, they could emancipate him.

Scott was formally freed by Taylor Blow on May 26, 1857 and worked as a porter in St. Louis for less than nine months before he died from tuberculosis in September 1858. He was survived by his wife and his daughter Eliza Scott (born 1838). Dred Scott was interred in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missourimarker. It is a local tradition to place Lincoln pennies on top of his gravestone. Harriet Scott was long thought to be buried near her husband, but it was recently proven that she was buried in Greenwood Cemetery in Hillsdale, Missourimarker. She outlived her husband by 18 years, dying on June 17, 1876.

In 1997, Dred and Harriet Scott were inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame.

The Dred Scott Heritage Foundation

The Dred Scott Heritage Foundation was established in June of 2006 by Lynne Jackson, a great, great granddaughter of Dred and Harriet Scott.

Its principal purpose is to support the acknowledgment of the 150th Anniversary of the Dred Scott Decision and support the attendant commemorative events to mark the occasion. This includes the creation of a life size statue of Dred Scott as a memorial to the man and his cause. It will be located near the original site where Dred and his wife Harriet first filed their case, the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis. This is anticipated to happen in 2010. The statue will cost around $56,000.

A continuing purpose is to expand opportunities for people to learn about this case, its impact on slavery and the history of our nation. Many events were presented in 2007 by St. Louis community groups who joined as Friends of the 150th Anniversary of the Dred Scott Decision. Year long activities in 2007-2008 broadened the understanding of the case during its nearly 11 year ordeal.

Documentaries and media presentations are planned as future teaching tools to broaden the understanding of the facts and principles that led to the Dred Scott Case.

The final purpose is to support the community as it evaluates the lessons learned from the 2007 recognition. Many racial reconciliation issues go unresolved and many successes go unheralded. The Dred Scott Heritage Foundation will use its resources to create venues to "Let The Healing Begin"™. Scholarship funds will be established for those planning careers in history, law, science and math.

See also

Further Reading


  1. Vishneski, John. "What the Court Decided in Dred Scott v. Sandford". The American Journal of Legal History 32(4): 373-390.
  2. "Charlotte Dupuy", accessed 21 Apr 2009
  3. "Decision of the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott Case"

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