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Life Story: Harriet Robinson Scott (ca. 1815-1876)

A Personal Fight for Emancipation with National Ramifications

The story of the enslaved woman who challenged slavery in the highest court in the United States.

“Eliza and Lizzie, children of Dred Scott, Dred Scott, and his wife Harriet”

“Eliza and Lizzie, children of Dred Scott, Dred Scott, and his wife Harriet,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, June 27, 1857. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.

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This video was created by the New-York Historical Society Teen Leaders in collaboration with the Untold project.

Harriet Robinson was born into slavery in Virginia around the year 1815. The man who claimed ownership of her, Major Lawrence Taliaferro, was a federal Indian Agent stationed at Fort Snelling. Fort Snelling was located on the U.S. frontier, where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers met. When Harriet was a teenager, Major Lawrence brought her to Fort Snelling to work as his house servant.

Slavery was technically illegal in Fort Snelling because it was located north of the line drawn by the Missouri Compromise. But many of the military officers and government agents stationed there were from slave states and brought enslaved people with them. The enslaved people at Fort Snelling had no control over their own comings and goings.

In 1836, Dred Scott arrived at Fort Snelling. A military surgeon named Dr. John Emerson held Dred in slavery. Harriet and Dred fell in love and made plans to marry. Lawrence sold Harriet to John so Harriet and Dred could stay together. He even performed their wedding ceremony.

In April of 1838, John was transferred to Fort Jessup in Louisiana. He brought Harriet and Dred with him to his new station. Harriet was pregnant at the time. The more than 1,000-mile journey was dangerous for her and her unborn child. But Harriet had no choice. When John was transferred back to Fort Snelling in October, Harriet had to go with him again, even though she was close to giving birth. She gave birth on the journey. Her daughter, Eliza, was born in free territory. When she had recovered from the birth, Harriet continued on to Fort Snelling, where she lived for another two years.

In the summer of 1840, John was transferred again, this time to serve in the Seminole Wars in Florida. Rather than bring Harriet, Dred, and Eliza with him, John sent them to live in St. Louis, Missouri. Missouri was a slave state. Harriet and Dred were hired out to work in St. Louis. They lived in the homes of the people who hired them, and all of their wages were paid to John. During this time, Harriet gave birth to a second daughter. She named her Lizzie.

John died in 1843. Harriet, Dred, Eliza, and Lizzie passed to the ownership of his wife Irene Emerson. Irene moved to live with her pro-slavery family just north of St. Louis, and she continued to hire the Scott family out and collect their wages.

Harriet and Dred met a large community of people who were working to abolish slavery in St. Louis. On April 6, 1846, the couple took the advice of some friends, and each submitted separate petitions to the St. Louis Circuit Court. They sued Irene Emerson for their freedom because they had spent so much of their lives living at Fort Snelling in free territory. Their first case was dismissed, but they refiled.

The court decided to combine Harriet and Dred’s cases into one case and put it under Dred’s name. This is why Harriet’s part in the fight for freedom is often not mentioned in history books.

After Harriet and Dred refiled their petitions, Irene made arrangements for the whole Scott family to be managed by the sheriff of St. Louis. The sheriff took responsibility for hiring out Harriet, Dred, Eliza, and Lizzie, and saved all the wages they earned. When the court case was decided, their earnings would go to the winner. Although no one knew it at the time, this arrangement would end up lasting nine years.

On January 12, 1850, the court decided in Harriet and Dred’s favor, but Irene was unhappy with this outcome. With the help of her brother, John Sandford, Irene appealed the decision to the Missouri Supreme Court. Harriet and her family remained enslaved at the sheriff’s office while the case was retried. At this time, the court decided to combine Harriet and Dred’s cases into one case and put it under Dred’s name. This is why Harriet’s part in the fight for freedom is often not mentioned in history books.

It took another two years for the Missouri Supreme Court to hear the case of Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson. During this time, Irene’s life changed dramatically. She moved to Springfield, Massachusetts, and married an anti-slavery congressman. She handed the entire legal battle over to her brother John Sandford. On March 22, 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in John’s favor, overturning the lower court’s decision to award Harriet and her family their freedom.

But Harriet did not give up. With the help of anti-slavery advocates, she and Dred brought their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. This most famous court case, Dred Scott v. Sandford, was decided on March 6, 1857. Not only did the Supreme Court rule that Harriet and her family were to remain enslaved, the court declared that enslaved people had no right to sue for their freedom in the courts because they were not citizens. The court ruled that no Black person whose ancestors had been enslaved could be a citizen of the United States. The decision was a huge blow to the rights of Black people in the U.S. and caused outrage across the country.

John Sandford died shortly after the Supreme Court ruling. Irene’s husband insisted she sell Harriet and her family to a family that had supported their freedom suits. That family then set the Scotts free on May 26, 1857. But Irene kept the money the Scott family had made while they were managed by the sheriff’s office.

Dred only lived another year, but Harriet lived as a free woman in St. Louis for another 19 years, until her death on June 16, 1876. She worked as a washerwoman to support herself and her family. She lived to see the country fight a war over the very issue she fought for. She lived to see Black Americans granted the citizenship rights she and her husband were denied. She lived long enough to know that her courage and determination were some of the driving factors in achieving these sweeping changes in her country.

Vocabulary

  • appeal: Ask a higher court to consider and overturn the ruling of a lower court.
  • free state: A state where slavery was outlawed.
  • Indian agent: A government employee in charge of liaising with Native people and communities.
  • Missouri Compromise: A group of five bills passed together that attempted to settle the question of the expansion of slavery into the western territories.
  • petition: A written request submitted to a powerful person.
  • Seminole Wars: Wars between the United States and Seminole Tribe in Florida between 1817 and 1858.
  • slave state: A state where slavery was legal.
  • washerwoman: A person who does laundry for a living.

Discussion Questions

  • What does Harriet Robinson Scott’s life story teach us about slavery outside of the plantation system?
  • What does this life story teach us about the tactics used by anti-slavery activists in the 1840s and 1850s?
  • Why isn’t Harriet Robinson Scott as well-known as Dred Scot? Why is it important to tell her story?
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Themes

AMERICAN IDENTITY AND CITIZENSHIP

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