There is very little written in the historical record about Dred Scott, the person. Details and analyses of the court case bearing his name fill libraries, but no one bothered to register his biographical data--probably because the Supreme Court declared him an item of property. In fact, the court said that he and all descendants of Africans had no rights which the white man was bound to consider.
Birth date: 1795-1809
No record has been found of his actual birth date; various reports give a range from 1795 to 1809. I chose 1/1/1800 when I was exploring explanations for his name: since there are slaves named for days of the week and for months, why not for a century?
No record explains his name. Some believe his name was Sam; others that Sam was Dred's brother.
I speculated that "Dred" could be an abbreviated form of "hundred" (see above). More convincing, however, is the fact that his owner's mother's maiden name was Scott, and his owner's wife's father's name was Etheldred (sometimes spelled "Ethelred"). It was common for slaves to be given names from the owner's family.
Birth place: Southampton County, Va.
His owner, Peter Blow, was born and raised here. It is not known that Dred was born here, but it is established that he was raised here on Peter Blow's farm.
Born into slavery; owned by Peter Blow, a tobacco planter and cotton farmer
This is established fact. However, I created the story that, at the time of birth, he belonged to Peter Blow's father and was almost immediately "transferred" to Peter Blow.
No information exists about his birth family, his relatives, or who raised him. Some data suggest he had brothers, but this cannot be verified. However, in 1852, a pamphlet was printed in support of his ongoing legal battle; in it, he is quoted as saying: There is not a drop of the white man's blood in my veins. My ancestors were free people of Africa.
The pride, eloquence, and sophistication of this statement resonated with me deeply. I based much about my character of Dred Scott on his pride in his African ancestors. The African griot tradition of oral history keeping and storytelling became important, and Gran became the character through which this rich heritage was passed down to him.
No information exists about his religious beliefs. The Blows in the years of Dred's childhood were Christian Protestants (they converted to Catholicism in St. Louis), and it was typical for slaves to be exposed to their master's religious beliefs and practices. However, because of the quote above, especially the claim that his ancestors were African, I chose to introduce to the novel an African belief system.
His early relationships and work
1. Dred's work as a boy in Virginia is not documented. Because of the ultimate close bonds between the children of Peter Blow and Dred, I placed him in the "big house," in close contact with the Blow family.
2. I know of no one else who has ever drawn a connection between young Dred Scott and young Nat Turner. However, for dramatic purposes, I imagined a relationship between them, because they were two very different iconic figures of 19th-century American slavery. That they might have met is possible:
- Turner and Scott were about the same age
- They were slaves on farms that were near each other in Southampton County, Virginia
- Turner was known to be a preacher among the slaves
- Slave preachers were known to be itinerant in some Southern areas--and might well have traveled to the Blow plantation.
3. Dred may have been married as a youth. Several different sources state that he had two children who did not survive infancy, although it is disputed whether these were children born to him and Harriet or an earlier wife. Because of the frequent stories of slave masters separating enslaved men and women, I imagined an early, first love for Dred.
Dred Scott was known to be illiterate because he signed all court papers with an "X." To me, this was a fascinating detail: despite being illiterate, Dred Scott's voice reached the US Supreme Court.
He also managed—seemingly on the strength of his relationships alone—to enlist in his legal battle the crucial support of the sons of his former owner. Because of these facts, I believe that Dred Scott must have been a man with considerable powers of speech and expression. For a while I entertained the plot twist that he only pretended to be illiterate, for fear of reprisal from whites. Ultimately, I chose to anchor his abilities in a rich African tradition of oral storytelling and history keeping.
His work as an adult
Once he arrived in St. Louis, it is reported that Dred was bonded out and was known to have done work as a stevedore and roustabout. After he was sold to Dr. John Emerson, it is thought that he assisted Dr. Emerson in his medical duties. In Davenport, Iowa, a mural was painted by Helen Johnson Hinrichsen in 1936, for the city's centennial celebration. The mural commemorates three periods in the city's history. The Indian period depicts a doctor, John Emerson, assisted by a black man, assumed to be Dred Scott, dressing a soldier's wounds.
His travel about the country
Because the movement of his owners can be traced, much is known (or can be inferred) about Dred Scott's travel:
- 1818, he moved to Huntsville, Alabama, with the Blow family, where cotton was farmed.
- 1820, he moved again with the Blow family to Florence, Alabama.
- 1830, he moved again with the Blow family to St. Louis, Missouri.
- 1832-43, with his new master, Dr. John Emerson, Dred traveled from St. Louis to Illinois, Iowa, the Wisconsin Territory (present-day Minnesota), Louisiana, and then back to St. Louis again. He may have been taken to Florida when Dr. Emerson was posted there. Dred's residence on free soil formed the basis for his initial court case under the "once free, always free" principle, upon which over 200 Missouri slaves had already won their freedom. (I found it tragic that the political climate changed to deny him the same benefit, when his case was brought in 1846.)
- 1846, he may have been taken to the Corpus Christi, Texas, region with Captain Henry Bainbridge, Irene Emerson's brother-in-law, at the outbreak of the Mexican War.
His marriage to Harriet Robinson
About 1836, Dred met Harriet Robinson, a slave of Major Lawrence Taliaferro, agent of the St. Peter's Indian Agency near Ft. Snelling, where Dred and his master were stationed. Major Taliaferro kept a diary, and he documented that he wed the slave couple in a formal, legal ceremony. This became a disputed issue in the court case, because slave marriages were not legally recognized in states where slavery was legal.
Not long after this marriage, Harriet also became the property of Emerson. It is variously reported that Taliaferro granted Harriet her freedom, though she does not seem to have ever lived in freedom until after 1857. I invented a story that accounts for her ongoing enslavement in a country broadly tolerant of slavery.
Harriet and Dred are said (though there are contradictory reports) to have had four children: two boys who died in infancy, two girls who lived to see their family freed. One daughter had a family herself, and her descendants are living today in and around the St. Louis region. Please visit the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation to learn more.
The legal proceedings – a timeline of some of the significant milestones
April 6, 1846
Dred and Harriet Scott filed separate suits in the St. Louis Circuit Court for their freedom; their cases were later combined into a single case. The initial case appears to be solely about freedom and not about any larger political or financial consideration. Dred was backed in his efforts by Henry and Taylor Blow, the sons of his former owner, as well as by friends of the Blows.
From this point until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1856, the case is very well-documented, but Dred's involvement is not. It is not known in most instances whether he appeared in court or in what manner or degree he may have participated.
The Scotts lose in the St. Louis Circuit Court but move for a new trial based on a technicality involving the validity of some testimony.
Judge Hamilton orders a new trial, thereby intimating: a) Dred was entitled to freedom; and b) he should not be barred from freedom because of a technicality.
Irene Emerson appeals this decision to the State Supreme Court, but loses; therefore, the case proceeds in the State Circuit Court.
The case is retried in the State Circuit Court (after delays due to a devastating dock fire and an outbreak of cholera); the Jury returns a verdict in favor of the Scotts; Judge Hamilton declares the Scott family to have been free ever since 1833, when Dred first went to Ft. Armstrong with Dr. John Emerson. Irene Emerson immediately appeals to the MO Supreme Court.
The MO Supreme Court announces its decision in favor of Emerson (overturning precedents that would have favored the Scotts). Some of the salient points:
a) Missouri is under no obligation to recognize the laws of other states;
b) a slave could sue for his freedom in a free territory, not in a MO court (denying "once free always free");
c) slavery is justified as a will of God; and
d) "times now are not as they were" (despite precedents, current reasoning is entirely different and justifiably so).
Measures are taken for the sheriff of St. Louis County to turn over to Irene Emerson all proceeds of the Scotts' hire since 1848, but . . .
Judge Hamilton surprisingly overrules this formality. 11/2/1853 A new case is instituted in the federal courts, with the expectation of proceeding all the way to U.S. Supreme Court. On behalf of the Scotts, Roswell M. Field files Dred Scott -v- John F.A. Sanford, in the U.S. Circuit Court, charging a citizen of NY (Sanford) illegally assaulted, trespassed, etc. a citizen of MO and his family.
[The reason the case ultimately becomes Dred Scott -v- John F.A. Sanford (incorrectly spelled in many documents as "Sandford") is that Irene Emerson turns legal matters over to her brother, John Sanford.]
The federal trial begins [not in the Old Courthouse, but in a rented space at 38 Main St.]; only the statement of facts is given as evidence; Field requests the court to instruct the jury that, based upon these facts, the law is with Dred Scott (under the Ordinance of 1787, the IL constitution, and the MO Compromise)
Instead, Judge Wells instructs the jury that the facts do not operate to grant the slave his freedom, and the jury ultimately finds in favor of Sanford. The Judge reasoned that:
1) A master taking a slave to free territory merely suspends the condition of slavery and upon return to MO, the master's rights are revived;
2) the IL constitution and other statutes emancipating slaves were penal in nature against slaveholders and therefore the courts of other states were not bound to enforce them; and
3) U.S. courts follow state courts in interpretation of their own laws.
Field institutes an appeal to the U.S. Sup. Ct. by presenting a bill of exceptions stating his objections to ruling; Wells approves the bill of exceptions, and the appeal is in play.
What both parties want settled is the "once free, always free" doctrine, but:
a) citizenship of blacks becomes an issue (the Sup.Ct. makes it an issue); and
b) the path is now clear for an assault on the MO Compromise, although the parties didn't anticipate this either.
The Supreme Court appeal is filed. 2/7/1856 Montgomery Blair files his brief in support of Scott's claim to freedom, essentially arguing for a ruling based on merits, not jurisdiction.
The case is argued before the Justices, first by Blair.
[Oral arguments at this point in history are not recorded in writing, unless the attorneys submit their briefs in written form, which Blair did not.]
Justice Taney reads the Court's ruling, a 7-2 majority opinion, for 2-1/2 hours. (This version was revised at least twice before being published and disseminated, which accounts for some historical discrepancies about the ruling's exact wording.) In part, the majority ruling addresses:
- Dred Scott's right to sue court – though different Justices cited different reasons, the majority agrees he could not;
- The place of blacks in American society – the majority agrees blacks are inferior beings with no rights;
- The citizenship of Negroes – because Negroes are not considered citizens under the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, this is taken to mean they have no rights; further, that it is obvious the rights and privileges conferred to the master cannot be conferred upon the slave; and further, that no state grants citizenship (even if a state grants certain protections and some rights of citizenship, no state allows blacks to bear arms, to vote, or to serve as jurors in a case of a white litigant); and finally, that all naturalization laws are restricted to whites;
- "Obiter Dictum" – Taney claims this is not extrajudicial because "the correction of one error in the court below does not deprive the appellate court of the power of examining further into the record and correcting other material errors…";
- Congressional power to prohibit slavery in territory – Taney concludes Congress is empowered to make rules and regulations only regarding land and public property, not over slaves that were private property; further, that Congress cannot deprive any citizen of life, liberty, or property without due process of law (and that, under the Constitution, a slave is property); and
- "Once free always free" – Relying on Strader -v- Graham, Taney rules that a slave in a free state is not permanently emancipated.
In sum: as a Negro and a slave, Dred Scott was not a citizen, and he had no right to sue in the lower federal court. That court had no jurisdiction anyway, and erred procedurally by deciding on the merits that Dred was still a slave. The case should return to the lower federal court for proper action, i.e., the dismissal of Dred's suit for lack of jurisdiction.
After the court decision
After the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Taylor Blow managed to do what the courts would not: he legally freed the whole Scott family by buying the Scotts from Irene Emerson (actually, from her new husband, an anti-slavery congressman in Massachusetts). On May 26, 1857, Taylor Blow manumitted the Scotts in the St. Louis Circuit Court.
Dred Scott attained celebrity, and newspapers variably described him as bright, alert, hardworking, and conscientious; or as an ignorant and lazy dolt. His portrait, a daguerreotype, was taken by J.H. Fitzgibbons; Mrs. Theron Barnum later engaged Louis Schultze to do a painting of Dred Scott based on this image. He is reported to have worked in his final days as a porter at the Barnum Hotel on Second and Walnut, though possibly he was more a local attraction than an employee. Other news sources reported that Harriet worked as a washerwoman, and Dred carried clothes to and from customers. The St. Louis city directory for 1854-55 listed him as a "white washer" and gave his address as "al. b. 10th and 11th, n. of Wash" (alley between 10th and 11th, north of Washington).
Frederick Douglas saw the Supreme Court's decision optimistically, believing the case would raise the "national conscience." He said: "… the sun in the sky is not more palpable to the sight than man's right to liberty is to the moral vision … this very attempt to blot out forever the hopes of an enslaved people may be one necessary link in the chain of events preparatory to the downfall and complete overthrow of the whole slave system."
John Sanford died on May 5, 1857, in a NY insane asylum.
Justice Taney, ironically, had unwittingly demonstrated how it would be possible to either legalize slavery throughout the country or abolish it throughout: i.e., if a political party were to gain control of the executive and legislative branches, then appointments to the Supreme Court and other federal court appointments could follow. Yet this trumpeted a turn away from Jeffersonian democratic traditions of decentralization and states' rights—and the Republican Party got Lincoln elected as a result of opposition to this strategy. Justice Taney was roundly vilified, in large measure because of this infamous ruling. He freed his own slaves sometime after 1857. He died in October, 1864.
Abraham Lincoln: In 1858, Senator Douglas came up for reelection in Illinois. The Republican Party nominated Lincoln to oppose him. The two engaged in a series of face-to-face debates on the morality of slavery—the famous "Lincoln-Douglas debates." Although the Republicans won a majority of the popular votes, the Democratic legislature reelected Douglas. Nevertheless, Lincoln won national recognition and became his party's candidate in the 1860 presidential election. The party's policies included a moderate antislavery position designed to appease the South: Slavery was not to be extended, but it would not be abolished where it existed.
In September 1862, Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which announced that on January 1, 1863, all slaves residing in rebellious states would "be then, thenceforward, and forever free...." Because Lincoln only had the power to free the slaves as a necessity of war, the proclamation did not affect border states in the Union or areas in the rebellious states under federal control. For these states, Lincoln encouraged voluntary, compensated emancipation. Many now regard Lincoln's motivations as being principally to preserve the Union, and only secondarily to free slaves.
The 13th amendment abolished slavery in 1865.
The 14th amendment in 1867, ratified in 1868, gave black Americans the rights of citizenship.
On September 17, 1858—after only sixteen months living free—Dred Scott died in St. Louis from consumption, or tuberculosis. He was originally buried in the Wesleyan cemetery [funeral expenses paid by Henry Taylor Blow]. When that cemetery was abandoned, Taylor Blow arranged to have him reburied in Calvary Cemetery. But that grave site remained unmarked until 1957, on the 100th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision. Rev. Edward Dowling raised funds for a tombstone, and Mrs. Charles Harrison Jr. of Villa Nova, Pa. (granddaughter of Taylor Blow), donated the new stone marker. The unveiling took place on September 17, 1957—the 99th anniversary of Dred Scott's death.