Education from LVA

Dred Scott

DRED SCOTT (ca. 1799–1858)

Dred Scott, Wood Engraving in Century Magazine, 1887. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington D.C.

Dred Scott was born into slavery in Southampton, Virginia, about 1799 and became the plaintiff in one of the most well known cases in United States Supreme Court history. Scott migrated westward with his owner, Peter Blow, living for a time in Alabama and settling in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1830. Within a few years John Emerson, a military surgeon, purchased Scott and took him into the free state of Illinois and then to a fort in a part of the Wisconsin Territory that later became part of the state of Minnesota.

At Fort Snelling, Scott met and married Harriet Robinson, an enslaved woman. At that time, Emerson gained ownership of Robinson. The Scotts had two daughters who lived to adulthood. In October 1837, a military transfer moved Emerson to St. Louis and later to Louisiana. He left the Scotts at Fort Snelling, hiring them out to other people. In 1838 the enslaved couple traveled more than a thousand miles down the Mississippi River to Louisiana, but they moved back to the Wisconsin fort within months. In 1840, Emerson moved the Scotts to St. Louis. After Emerson's death in 1843, his widow continued to hire Scott out to different people including an army captain who took him to Texas for a time. When Scott returned, he may have offered to purchase himself and his family from Irene Emerson. At any rate, Scott turned to the court system in 1846, seeking freedom.

The Scott case went to trial in 1847. He lost on a technicality because he was unable to provide proof that Irene Emerson owned him and his wife. The Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the case should be retried, and in 1850 the St. Louis circuit court ruled that Scott and his family were free on the grounds that their slave status had been nullified when they first entered a free state. By this time, Emerson's widow had remarried, and her brother John A. Sanford had taken over the suit in her behalf. Two years later the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the decision of the lower court, and Scott took his case to federal court.

In 1854 a federal court upheld the decision of the Missouri Supreme Court, leaving an appeal to the United States Supreme Court as Scott's final legal remedy. Seven of the nine justices of the Supreme Court had been appointed by pro-slavery presidents from the South, and five of those seven were from slaveholding families. In March 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote the majority opinion for the court, stating that as a black man Dred Scott was not a citizen of the United States and therefore had no right to sue in federal court. The decision also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820 unconstitutional, voiding the ability of the federal government to restrict slavery in the territories.

Peter Blow's sons had helped to pay Scott's legal fees throughout the years, as the men had grown up together. After the Supreme Court decision Scott's former master's sons purchased Scott and his wife and granted them their freedom. Dred Scott died of tuberculosis on September 17, 1858.

Suggested Reading:

Finkelman Paul. Dred Scott v. Sandford: A Brief History with Documents. Boston: Bedford Books, 1997.

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

Ehrlich, Walter. "The Origins of the Dred Scott Case." Journal of Negro History 59, no. 2 (April 1974): 132–142.