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Dred Scott (1800? – 1858)



Dred Scott was a man born into slavery who tried many times, but failed, to gain his freedom through the Missouri courts. When his case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, the differences between proslavery and antislavery opinions in the United States were very clear. The controversial outcome of Dred Scott's court case eventually contributed to the outbreak of civil war
The Civil War was a military conflict that began on April 12, 1861, when Southern forces fired on Fort Sumter outside of Charleston, South Carolina. Several Southern states had seceded from the United States (also known as the Union) and formed the Confederate States of America (also referred to as the Confederacy) out of fear that the United States' newly elected president, Abraham Lincoln, would not allow the expansion of slavery into new western states. Battles and skirmishes were fought throughout the country by Union and Confederate forces. General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. As other Confederate forces heard the news of Lee's surrender, they surrendered as well and the war was soon over. Over half a million men were killed or wounded in the war. Thousands of former slaves gained their freedom. After the war, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution were passed prohibiting slavery, providing equal protection for all citizens, and barring federal and state governments from denying citizens the right to vote due to their race, color, or status as a former slave.
between the southern and northern states.

Early Years

Map of Missouri with St. Louis starred St. Louis, Missouri

Dred Scott was born into slavery in Virginia around 1800. He was owned by Peter Blow and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor Blow, both Virginians. Dred grew up, probably in slave quarters, on the Blow property in Southampton County A map of Virginia showing Southampton County, the probable birthplace of Dred Scott

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. In 1818, when Dred Scott was a young man, he moved with the Blows, their six children, and several other slaves to a cotton plantation in Alabama. For the next twelve years, Scott worked for the Blows. Two more children, sons Taylor and William, were born to the Blows in Alabama.

Jefferson Barracks Jefferson Barracks Jefferson Barracks, around 1841

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In 1830, Scott moved again when the Blow family gave up farming and relocated to St. Louis, Missouri View of St. Louis, 1838

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. Here they ran a boardinghouse called the Jefferson Hotel. Elizabeth Blow died in 1831 with Peter following in 1832. Before he died, however, Peter Blow sold Dred Scott to Dr. John Emerson, an assistant surgeon in the army stationed at Jefferson Barracks. Scott became Dr. Emerson's body servant or valet.


A Slave in Free Territory

On December 1, 1833, Dred Scott traveled with Dr. Emerson to Fort Armstrong, at Rock Island, in Illinois. For the first time, Scott was living in "free" territory. For the next three years, he lived and attended to Dr. Emerson's needs at Fort Armstrong. When the fort was abandoned on May 4, 1836, Dr. Emerson was transferred to Fort Snelling on the upper Mississippi in the Wisconsin Territory, now Minnesota. Scott traveled up the Mississippi River
The Mississippi River runs south from northern Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico and is considered the chief river in North America's largest drainage system. Bordering Missouri on the east, the river flows for 2,530 miles. Along with the Missouri River and several other tributaries such as the Ohio River, the Mississippi became part of the nation's first major transportation system in the early 1800s after the invention of the steamboat. Missouri has historically engaged in international trade by shipping and receiving goods along the Mississippi through the port of New Orleans, which lies at the river's mouth.
, even farther north.
Harriet Robinson Scott Harriet Robinson Scott Harriet Robinson Scott (1815-1876)

[Reissue, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1857, courtesy of National Park Service, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial]

At Fort Snelling, Dred Scott met Harriet Robinson, a slave from Virginia who was about fifteen years younger than him. In either 1836 or 1837, they were married by Harriet's owner, Major Lawrence Taliaferro, an Indian agent and justice of the peace. Major Taliaferro was known for respecting the rights of Native Americans. He may have sold or transferred ownership of Harriet Robinson to Dr. Emerson and married her to Dred Scott so the couple could remain together.

SHS Art Collection, 1958-0063 Steamboat on the Mississippi River Engraving of a steamboat traveling on the Mississippi River along Tower Rock

[SHS Art Collection, 1958-0063]

For the next year, Dred Scott remained at Fort Snelling with his bride. By April 1838, however, he and Harriet—who was now pregnant—were sent south to Louisiana. Dr. Emerson had been transferred to Fort Jesup and had requested that Dred and Harriet Scott join him and his new wife, Eliza Irene Sanford. Soon after making the long trip to Louisiana, the Scotts were sent to St. Louis, and then back to Fort Snelling. Harriet gave birth to their daughter Eliza Scott in free waters on the steamer Gipsey. Dred Scott remained at Fort Snelling for another two years, working for Dr. Emerson and living with his wife and infant daughter.


Back to St. Louis

Engraving of the St. Louis riverfront St. Louis riverfront Engraving of the St. Louis riverfront

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During the summer of 1840, Dred Scott left Fort Snelling, never to return. Dr. Emerson had been transferred to Florida to provide medical assistance to soldiers in the Seminole War. Scott and his family were sent to St. Louis where they were hired out to work for various people while the Emersons collected their wages. Dred and Harriet had another daughter, Lizzie Scott, during this time.

In 1843, Dr. Emerson died suddenly. Though neither Dred nor Harriet appeared in Dr. Emerson's will, Irene Emerson considered them her property. Mrs. Emerson moved in with her proslavery father, Alexander Sanford, on his plantation near St. Louis. Her brother, John F.A. Sanford, a successful businessman, handled many of her affairs. For the next three years, Dred and Harriet Scott worked for other people while Mrs. Emerson collected their wages.


Filing a Suit for Freedom

Court document Court document Dred Scott's lawsuit against Irene Emerson

[Scott, Dred, a man of color v. Emerson, Irene; Nov 1846; Case No. 1; Circuit Court Case Files; Office of the Circuit Clerk; City of St. Louis, Missouri; St. Louis Circuit Court Historical Records Project]

The practice of hiring out slaves may have been convenient for the owner, but it was not a positive experience for most slaves. On April 6, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott each filed separate petitions in the Circuit Court of St. Louis to gain their freedom from Irene Emerson. Francis Murdock was their lawyer. Unable to read or write, Scott perhaps relied on advice from the Blow family, with whom he had renewed contact since returning to St. Louis. Additionally, Harriet Scott knew John R. Anderson, the minister of the Second African Baptist Church, who had helped other slaves file petitions for their freedom in Missouri courts.

St. Louis Courthouse St. Louis Courthouse The St. Louis County Courthouse, around 1856

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It was not uncommon for slaves to sue for their freedom if they had lived in free states for a period of time. Dred Scott had lived in free territory for the past decade, so it seemed that his case would have a positive outcome. With the financial and legal help of the Blow brothers, Henry Henry Taylor Blow (1817 – 1875)

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and Taylor, and their friends, Dred and Harriet's cases came to trial on June 30, 1847. Unfortunately, their cases were dismissed on a technicality. Their lawyer moved for a new trial.

Irene Emerson quickly made arrangements for the Scotts to be put under the charge of the St. Louis County sheriff. For almost ten years, from March 17, 1848, until March 18, 1857, Dred Scott and his family would be in the sheriff's custody. The sheriff was responsible for hiring out the Scotts and collecting and keeping their wages until the freedom suit was resolved.

St. Louis Fire of 1849, Twenty-three Steamers Burning at the Wharf Great Fire of 1849 St. Louis Fire of 1849, Twenty-three Steamers Burning at the Wharf

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Dred Scott worked another two years as a hired out slave with no income before his case came to trial again. His case and Harriet's were delayed due to heavy court schedules, a devastating fire in St. Louis in 1849, and a subsequent outbreak of cholera
Cholera is a sickness caused by a water-dwelling type of bacteria. Its symptoms include extreme nausea and diarrhea, often causing dehydration and death. Cholera spread from Asia to Europe in the early 1800s, then to America at the beginning of the 1830s. Since cholera lives in water that has been contaminated with feces, it thrived in highly populated areas around rivers and other bodies of water with poor sewer drainage systems. Cholera outbreaks affected several American cities in the Mississippi River Valley during the mid-1800s. St. Louis was one of the cities hardest hit during this period, enduring cholera epidemics numerous times between 1832 and 1867. The 1849 and 1866 epidemics were especially severe, killing several thousand people. Cholera became less of a problem in American cities later in the 1800s as sewage systems improved and public health awareness increased.
. Finally, on January 12, 1850, the case was heard, and the jury ruled in favor of the Scotts. Dred Scott and his family were free.

A Long Court Battle

Court Document from 1852 Court Document from 1852 Dred and Harriet Scott’s combined lawsuit against Irene Emerson

[The Missouri Collection, The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]

Unfortunately, Dred Scott's freedom was short lived. Mrs. Emerson would not accept the court's decision. With the assistance of her brother, Mrs. Emerson appealed her case to the Missouri Supreme Court. Before it came to trial, however, a decision was made to combine Harriet's case with Dred's. On February 12, 1850, the case was renamed Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson, and its outcome would apply to Harriet. Again, there was a lengthy wait before the new case went to trial.

Abolitionists and slave owners debating the issue of slavery Debating Slavery Abolitionists and slave owners debating the issue of slavery

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In the meantime, Mrs. Emerson left St. Louis, moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, and married Dr. Calvin Clifford Chaffee, an antislavery congressman. Dr. Chaffee was unaware that his new wife owned slaves and that she was resisting their plea for freedom. On March 22, 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the earlier ruling. Dred Scott was still a slave, despite his years living in free states. The "once free, always free" statute in earlier legislation was denied by proslavery judges. In this decision, the highest court in Missouri upheld the rights of slave owners over the rights of slaves. Tensions and outbursts over the issue of slavery were now regular occurrences throughout the nation.


Entitled to His Freedom

Roswell Field Roswell Field
Dred and Harriet Scott did not give up. With the continued help of new lawyers, the Blow family, and other supporters, Dred Scott's case moved through the Missouri courts to the highest court in the nation. At this point, John Sanford, who lived in New York, claimed ownership of the Scotts. The Scott's new lawyer, Roswell Field,
Roswell M. Field (1807 – 1869)
appealed the decision and added Scott's daughters to the case. Eventually, Field arranged for the case to go before the U.S. Supreme Court. He convinced Montgomery Blair to argue for the Scotts in what became the famous Dred Scott v. Sanford case.

Judge Roger B. Taney Judge Taney Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (March 17, 1777–October 12, 1864)

The issue of whether or not the institution of slavery should be allowed in the territories was already a controversy when the Dred Scott v. John F. A. Sandford (Sanford's name was misspelled in the original court documents) case moved to Washington, DC. On March 6, 1857, the Supreme Court denied the Scotts their freedom. In this landmark decision issued by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the Court ruled that African Americans were not citizens and that Congress lacked the power to prohibit slavery in the territories. This controversial decision eventually contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War.

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On March 6, 1857, Dred Scott finally received a decision about his suit for freedom. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney ruled that Scott, because of his race, was not a citizen of the United States. He had no right to bring suit in a federal court. He had never been free while living in "free states," and the Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery. The entire Scott family was to remain enslaved.


Free at Last

Shortly after Judge Taney's verdict, John Sanford died, and Dr. and Mrs. Chaffee transferred ownership of Scott and his family to Taylor Blow in St. Louis. Dr. Chaffee was eager to free his wife's slaves because he believed that slavery was wrong. Mrs. Chaffee, however, would only transfer ownership if she could collect the wages that had been held by the sheriff for the past eight years. The total amounted to about $750.

On May 26, 1857, Dred and Harriet Scott appeared in the Circuit Court of St. Louis for the last time. Taylor Blow emancipated them with papers drawn up by Arba Nelson Crane and presented to Judge Alexander Hamilton, the judge who had originally heard the case. Afterwards, Dred and Harriet Scott were interviewed, and engravings of them appeared in the June 27, 1857, edition of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

Barnum's Hotel Barnum's Hotel Barnum’s Hotel, St. Louis, 1861-1865

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For the next year, Dred Scott worked as a porter at Barnum's Hotel in St. Louis. He also delivered the laundry that Harriet took in as a free laundress. Scott was known by many people because of his famous freedom suit. His daguerreotype
In 1839 Frenchman Louis Daguerre developed the first photographic process, called the Daguerreotype. Images were created by exposing copper plates coated in silver to light. The exposed plates were then treated with mercury vapors and then the images were set with a salt solution.
was taken during this year. Sadly, Scott became sick with tuberculosis
Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that can be transmitted through the air and often settles in the lungs and destroys lung tissue. During the 1800s, tuberculosis killed more people in the United States than any other cause of death. It was a major killer in cities. Because many people in the cities at this time were poor immigrants living in dirty and crowded conditions, tuberculosis became associated with immigration, poverty, city overcrowding, and poor living conditions. In the 1940s an antibiotic was discovered that could successfully treat tuberculosis. Although no longer a major killer in the United States, tuberculosis remains a chief cause of death today in many impoverished nations across the world.
and died on September 17, 1858, just a little more than a year after gaining his freedom.
Obituary for Dred Scott Obituary for Dred Scott Obituary for Dred Scott published in the St. Louis Evening News and Intelligencer, September 20, 1858

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Taylor Blow buried Dred Scott in the Wesleyan Cemetery at Grand and Laclede avenues. Later, because the cemetery had been abandoned, Blow bought a better resting place for Scott. On November 27, 1867, Blow purchased Lot 177 in Section 1 in Calvary Cemetery and had Scott reburied there. This action showed Blow's strong regard for the man he'd known since infancy.


Dred Scott's Legacy

Dred Scott Dred Scott
Though Dred Scott did not win his freedom via the courts, his valiant fight—made possible by the assistance of friends and abolition
The goal of the American abolition movement was to end the system of slavery that existed in the United States from its early colonization until the Civil War era. From the late 1770s to the early 1800s, several northern states abolished slavery by passing antislavery laws that called for slaves in those states to be gradually emancipated (freed) over a period of time. From the 1830s onward, the abolition movement grew quickly and began to call for the immediate emancipation of all slaves in America. In the 1850s, tension between people with proslavery views and those favoring abolition dominated American politics. The fight over abolition was one of the main issues leading to the Civil War. Abolition was formally adopted in Missouri in January of 1865. Later that year, slavery was ended in America with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
ists—pushed America toward a bloody civil war that would eventually abolish the practice of slavery in this country.

Text and research by Carlynn Trout


References and Resources

For more information about Dred Scott's life and career, see the following resources:

Society Resources

The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Dred Scott in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets.

  • Articles from the Missouri Historical Review
  • Articles from the Newspaper Collection
    • “Dred Scott Case Celebrated Here.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. March 7, 1957.
    • Dred Scott Dead.” St. Louis Evening News and Intelligencer. September 20, 1858.
    • “Dred Scott Dead.” Liberty Weekly Tribune. October 1, 1858, pp. 1-4.
    • “Dred Scott Free At Last, Himself and His Family Emancipated.” St. Louis Daily Evening News. May 26, 1857.
    • Kremer, Gary R. “Dred Scott Case to be Showcased in Archives.” Jefferson City News Tribune. January 16, 2000.
    • Price, Bob. “Slavery Issue Passed the Point of No Return 100 Years Ago.”Kansas City Star.March 5, 1957.
    • “Roswell M. Field was Attorney for Dred Scott.” Boonville Weekly Advertiser.January 22, 1886.
  • Books and Articles
    • “Artifacts as Storytellers: The Dred Scott Portrait.” Missouri Historical Society Magazine. Jan/Feb 2000. p. 7.
    • Benton, Thomas Hart. Examination of the Dred Scott Case. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1858. [F552 B446h in case]
    • Bryan, John A. “The Blow Family and Their Slave Dred Scott, Part I.” The Bulletin. St. Louis, MO: Missouri Historical Society. v. 4, no 4 (July 1948), pp. 223-231; Part II, v. 5, no. 1 (October 1948), pp. 19-33. [REF F550 M696]
    • Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 295-296; 665-666; 679-681. [REF F508 D561]
    • Ehrlich, Walter. They Have No Rights: Dred Scott's Struggle for Freedom. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979. [REF 552 Eh89]
    • Ewing, Elbert William K. Legal and Historical Status of the Dred Scott Decision. Washington, DC: Cobden Publishing Company, 1909. [REF F552 EW 54]
    • Fehrenbacher, Don E. The Dred Scott Case: Its Significance in American Law and Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. [REF F552 F322]
    • Finkelman, Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1998. [REF F552 F495]
    • Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1857. [REF IHG 973.7 L565 oversize]
    • Kaufman, Kenneth C. Dred Scott's Advocate: A Biography of Roswell M. Field. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1996. [REF F552 K62]
    • Latham, Frank Brown. The Dred Scott Decision, March 6, 1857; Slavery and the Supreme Court's Self-Inflicted Wound. New York: F. Watts, 1968. [REF IJ L347d]
    • Maltz, Earl M. Dred Scott and the Politics of Slavery. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2007. [REF F552 M299]
  • Manuscript Collection
    • The Missouri Collection (C3982)
      Folder 439 contains records from the Dred Scott Case, 1852. The material consists of a facsimile of handwritten opinions of Missouri Supreme Court Justices Gamble and Scott in the case.

Outside Resources

These links, which open in another window, will take you outside the Society's website. The Society is not responsible for the content of the following websites:
  • Missouri State Archives: Dred Scott: 150th Anniversary Commemoration
    This Secretary of State Website offers a thorough study of the Dred Scott case as it moved through the Missouri court system and ended in the U.S. Supreme Court. Also of great interest is the link “Conservation of the Dred Scott Papers,” which shows how the State Archives restored and preserved the original court records of this case.
  • Dred Scott Case Collection
    This comprehensive Website provides images of the actual case documentation, including petitions to the courts, writs of summons, appeals, and affidavits. A chronology of events is also included.
  • Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
    Hosted by the National Park Service, this Website on the Old Courthouse in St. Louis provides information about one of its historic trials, the Dred Scott Case.
  • Landmark Cases of the U. S. Supreme Court: Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
    This informative and interactive Website provides images of primary sources, quotes, maps, and chronologies outlining Dred Scott’s life and court case.
  • Africans in America PBS Series
    Based on the PBS series Africans in America, this Website tells the story of Dred Scott’s life and legal battle.

Dred Scott Dred Scott (1800? – 1858)

Dred Scott's name has been a source of disagreement among historians. Some scholars have argued that probate records suggest that Dred Scott's real name may have been “Sam.” Most modern scholars maintain that Dred Scott and Sam, a slave named on Peter Blow’s list of assets filed in St. Louis Probate Court, were two different people. (See: Ehrlich, Walter. They Have No Rights: Dred Scott's Struggle for Freedom. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1979, pp. 12-15. [REF 552 Eh89])

[Reissue, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1857, courtesy of National Park Service, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial]

Dred Scott

Born: 1800?
Died: September 17, 1858 (age 58?)
Categories: African Americans, Leaders & Activists
Region of Missouri: St. Louis
Missouri Hometown: St. Louis
Related Biographies: Harriet Robinson Scott
Dred Scott's Signature