Historic Fort Snelling

National Historic Landmark

Mailing Address:
200 Tower Avenue
St. Paul, MN 55111


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Slavery at Fort Snelling (1820s - 1850s)

By the time Fort Snelling was built in the 1820s, slavery was a reality in the Northwest Territory. Fur traders often utilized slave labor and some officers at the post (including Col. Josiah Snelling) owned slaves. Other officers often rented from Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro. Historians estimate that throughoutrtthr the 1820s and 1830s anywhere from 15 to 30 enslaved African Americans lived and worked at Fort Snelling at any one time. These people likely cooked, cleaned and did laundry and other household chores for their owners.

The United States in 1821 (note the "Missouri Compromise" line at 36°30' latitude)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The officers and civilians in and near Fort Snelling who used slave labor were in violation of the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which stated that slavery was forbidden in the territory gained through the Louisiana Purchase north of the 36°30' latitude line (except within the boundaries of the state of Missouri). Slavery had existed in this region prior to the Compromise, however, and it continued in spite of it. This formed the basis of a lawsuit during the 1830s when an enslaved woman named Rachel sued for her freedom in the St. Louis, Missouri County Court. Rachel's attorneys claimed that since she was held as a slave in free territory at Fort Snelling she should be granted her freedom. The court agreed, and both Rachel and her infant son were granted their freedom. However, in a future court case lawyers for the plaintiffs based their arguments on the success of Rachel's suit, but the outcome was significantly different.


Dred Scott, ca. 1858. MHS collections.

Dred and Harriet Scott were enslaved African Americans belonging to Dr. John Emerson, Fort Snelling’s surgeon from 1836-40. Both Dred and Harriet were likely born in Virginia, but the dates are unknown. Dred was purchased by Emerson, an army doctor stationed at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, from his original owner, Peter Blow. Travelling with Emerson, Dred spent time in Illinois and Iowa before Emerson was transferred to Fort Snelling in 1836. After arriving at the fort, Dred met Harriet Robinson, an enslaved woman owned by Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro. Dred and Harriet were soon married in a ceremony officiated by Taliaferro, who then either gave or sold Harriet to Emerson.

Harriet Scott, ca. 1858. MHS collections.

The Scotts remained at Fort Snelling until 1840 when Emerson was assigned as a medical officer in Florida during the Seminole War. Emerson's wife, Irene, moved to St. Louis with Dred, Harriet and their daughter Eliza and they remained there until Dr. Emerson was discharged from the Army in 1842. After Dr. Emerson's death in 1843, his wife Irene Emerson became the owner of the Scott family. In 1846 the Scotts sued Irene Emerson in the St. Louis County Court for their freedom. Successful freedom suits, such as the one filed by Rachel in the 1830s, may have prompted the Scotts to seek out assistance from anti-slavery supporters in St. Louis. In addition, the Scotts had two daughters, Eliza and Lizzie, who by the 1840s had reached the age where they could be sold away, which may also have spurred the Scotts into action.


Map of places Dred and/or Harriet Scott lived.

The Scotts’ case was based on the fact that they lived as enslaved people in free territory at Fort Snelling and other places, and therefore should be granted their freedom. The Scott’s lost their initial trial, but they appealed the decision and were granted their freedom in January 1850. Irene Emerson appealed the verdict, and the case was sent to the Missouri Supreme Court in 1852 where the Scotts lost. In the meantime, Irene Emerson transferred ownership of the Scotts to her brother, John Sanford, who lived in New York. Because the case then involved residents of two different states (Missouri and New York) there was precedent to have it tried in a federal court. The Scotts filed suit in the Missouri federal court in 1853, and after losing the following year appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court in February 1856.

In March 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court decided 7 to 2 that the Scotts would remain slaves. The majority opinion stated that as slaves, the Scotts were considered property that could be taken anywhere by their owners, regardless of whether or not a particular place banned slavery. The court went even further, declaring that slaves were not citizens and had no right to bring cases to court in the first place. According to Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, African Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” The Court intended the decision to settle the issue of slavery, but it only inflamed the debate.

Roger B. Taney, ca. 1855-65.
Wikimedia Commons.

The Dred Scott Decision was a landmark case in the national debate over slavery. The Supreme Court’s decision effectively declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, thereby opening the door for the spread of slavery throughout the U.S. and its territories. Abolitionists and anti-slavery advocates were outraged, while southern slave owners cheered the decision. In June, 1857 the Scott family and their story were featured on the front page of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, one of the most widely-read periodicals in the U.S. at the time. Tensions increased between the North and South, and the nation was pushed further towards civil war. The decision greatly influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the Dred Scott Decision, by the Republican Party for the presidential election of 1860. 

One month before the decision, it was reported that Irene Emerson had recently married Calvin Chaffee, an anti-slavery politician from Massachusetts. To avoid a scandal, Chaffee arranged to transfer ownership of the Scotts to Missouri resident Taylor Blow, who subsequently freed the Scotts on May 26, 1857. Both Dred and Harriet remained in St. Louis where they worked as free people. Dred died of tuberculosis on September 17, 1858 while Harriet lived in St. Louis until her death on June 17, 1876.

Bibliography / Resources

Bachman, Walt. Northern Slave, Black Dakota: The Life and Times of Joseph Godfrey. Bloomington, MN: Pond Dakota Press, 2013.

Boorom, Jeffrey C. "Slavery at Fort Snelling in the 1820s." Historic Fort Snelling, 2007.

Green, William D. A Peculiar Imbalance: The Rise and Fall of Racial Equality in Early Minnesota. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2007.

Grivno, Max L. "African-Americans at Fort Snelling, 1820-1840: An Interpretive Guide, research paper," Historic Fort Snelling, 1997.

Hess, Jeffrey A. "Dred Scott: From Fort Snelling to Freedom." Fort Snelling Chronicles, no. 2. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society, 1975.

Lehman, Christopher P. Slavery in the Upper Mississippi Valley, 1787-1865. Nefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2011.

Maijala, Kevin. "Interpreting African-Americans and Slavey at Fort Snelling." Historic Fort Snelling, May 2007.

Swain, Gwenyth. Dred and Harriet Scott: A Family's Struggle for Freedom. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2004.

VanderVelde, Lea. Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.