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Dred Scott: Slave in a Free Territory: Overview

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Dred Scott, 1857

The story of Dred Scott is a study in "the power of one," and the yearning of the human spirit to be free. Dred Scott was born into slavery in 1799, in the state of Virginia, to his owners, the slave-holding Peter Blow family. His early life coincided with the period of the Louisiana Purchase from France, the ensuing battles for and against expanding slavery into the territory, the admission of Missouri as a slave state, and the anti-slavery provision of the Missouri Compromise.

In 1820, Congress admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state, opening it to a large migration of white people and their slaves westward from the southern slave states, expanding and widening the slave trade as they went. Joining the migration, the Blow family moved to St. Louis, Missouri, taking Dred Scott with them. There, they sold him to Dr. John Emerson, a military surgeon, who was stationed at Jefferson Barracks. Dred Scott served Dr. Emerson for the next twelve years, traveling with him to other assigned posts in Illinois, the Wisconsin Territory, and at Fort Snelling in what became Minnesota — all places where slavery was prohibited.

At Fort Snelling, Dred Scott met and married Harriet Robinson, also a slave, and they had two children. In 1840, Dr. Emerson and his wife moved back to St. Louis, taking the Scott family along. Later, in 1843, Dr. Emerson died. Now the property of the widow Emerson, she hired out Dred, Harriet and the children to other families.  

In 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott turned to the courts to gain their freedom, citing their years of residence in free states. For the next ten years, the case moved from court to court. Finally, on appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, in an infamous majority decision written by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the court held that as a slave, Dred was not a U.S. citizen, was therefore not entitled to sue for freedom in federal court, had never been free, and had to remain a slave. Going further, the court ruled the anti-slavery provision of the Missouri Compromise to be unconstitutional.

The Scotts were returned as slaves to Mrs. Emerson. A year later, in 1857, upon her remarriage, this time to a man who opposed slavery, she returned the Scott family to their original owners, the Blow family.  The Scotts were then granted their freedom.  Dred Scott died one year later, in 1858.

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