Updated: Aug 28, 2019
In 1846, an enslaved African-American couple, who met and married at Fort Snelling, sued the woman who owned them.
Dred and Harriet Scott argued that because they had lived for a time in what would become Minnesota, where slavery was illegal, their owner’s title to them was invalid.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s inflammatory judgment more than a decade later — that the Scotts were property rather than citizens and therefore had no right to file a lawsuit — helped propel the United States to civil war and ultimately to abolish slavery.
Although the Scotts are the most well-known slaves to have resided at Fort Snelling, they were far from the only ones. Slavery was a fact of life at the fort, from soon after it was established until the late 1850s.
At any given time, as many as 20 slaves could be found living at the fort during the first half of the nineteenth century, says Walt Bachman, a historian who has researched slavery at early American military installations.
“In the vicinity of Fort Snelling and throughout southern Minnesota, slavery was the prevailing status for blacks at the time, and many of the region’s leading citizens were slaveholders,” Bachman writes in his 2013 book “Northern Slave, Black Dakota.”
Six months before the construction of Fort Snelling began, Congress passed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which outlawed slavery in northern U.S. territory west of the Mississippi River, including the site of the fort.
But the law was not strictly enforced, especially at a frontier outpost like Fort Snelling. Slaves had been kept in what is now Minnesota for decades, many of them forced to work in the fur trade.
Much of what is known about the slaves who lived at Fort Snelling is a result of pay vouchers filed by the Army officers who owned them.
The U.S. military compensated officers for servants they kept — the higher their rank, the more servants they were allowed to claim compensation for.
If the servant was a free person, this subsidy would pay his or her wage. If the servant was a slave, the officer likely pocketed the money, Bachman said. Depending on their rank and salary, officers who kept slaves could expect anywhere from a 15 percent to 30 percent bump in pay.
“The effect (of this policy) was that the Army subsidized slavery,” said Matt Cassady, program development specialist at Fort Snelling.
Officers recorded their servant’s name, his or her height, hair color and eye color on their monthly pay vouchers, offering only a glimpse of the human being behind them. Occasionally, they would even note on the voucher that their servant was a slave, openly defying the law.
Under Col. Josiah Snelling, who kept a pair of slaves during his last two years as commandant, slave ownership among officers at the fort appears to have been the exception, rather than the rule.
Only eight officers of Snelling’s 5th Infantry declared slaves on their pay vouchers, Bachman’s research shows. This would change dramatically when Lt. Col. Zachary Taylor replaced Snelling in 1828.
Born in Kentucky, Taylor had been a slave owner all his life. And a majority of the officers in his 1st Infantry were Southerners, too. Of the 38 who served under Taylor, 33 officers owned slaves, according to Bachman’s research.
Taylor would go on to be the last U.S. president to keep slaves at the White House. A slave named Jane, who served Taylor as president, also lived with him at Fort Snelling.
If an officer did not own a slave but still wanted to claim servant pay, he could rent one from the U.S. government’s Indian agent, stationed just outside the fort.
Lawrence Taliaferro, who represented the government in its dealings with the Dakota, owned dozens of slaves in his native Virginia. He kept anywhere from two to five slaves at his home near the fort at any given time.
Little is known about the daily lives of the slaves kept at Fort Snelling. Nearly all were illiterate, so they left no written record, and they are rarely mentioned in early accounts of life at the fort.
By and large, they were domestic slaves, rather than agricultural. Their responsibilities likely included preparing and serving meals, washing clothes and other household chores and caring for livestock.
But Bachman cautions against assuming their lives were any more comfortable than those of slaves who labored in Southern fields. Domestic slaves lived at the beck and call of their owners.
“You’re on call 24/7,” said Nancy Cass, an interpreter at Fort Snelling who has researched slavery at the post. “Their time was not their own.”
Most lived in the cramped kitchens where they worked, either beneath the apartments of the officers’ quarters or in the basement of the commandant’s house, Cass said. The commandant’s personal servant likely slept on the floor outside his owner’s bedroom door, in case he was needed in the night.
Many slaves suffered brutal punishment at the hands of their owners. Bachman has found accounts of slaves, inside and outside the fort’s walls, who endured beatings and confinement.
“Slavery was not a pretty picture in Minnesota,” he said. “No more than it was anywhere else.”
Bachman knows of at least one example of a slave who was apparently beaten to death at Fort Snelling by the officer who owned her, and her body thrown into the Mississippi River. Her corpse was later discovered downstream at Pig’s Eye Lake. Her owner was soon transferred to another post and never charged in her death.
Although the lives of slaves at Fort Snelling were as transient as the officers who owned them, they likely formed social bonds among themselves, Bachman said.
“There was likely some sense of community,” Bachman said. “It’s likely there would’ve been friendships, there would’ve been romance.”
This is evidenced by the Scotts, who met and were married at the fort. Dred Scott was brought to the fort in 1836 by the post surgeon, Dr. John Emerson, who had recently purchased him in St. Louis. Harriet Robinson was already living at the fort as the property of Taliaferro, the Indian agent.
It was Taliaferro himself who performed the couple’s marriage ceremony about 1837. Harriet Scott gave birth to the couple’s first child, Eliza, during their time at Fort Snelling.
Emerson later purchased Harriet Scott from Taliaferro. The Scotts lived at Fort Snelling until 1840, when Emerson was transferred to Florida.
Although it was the Scotts who became famous for suing Emerson’s widow for their freedom in 1846, at least two other Fort Snelling slaves had already filed similar suits — both of them successful.
Two women who had been enslaved at Fort Snelling in the 1820s, identified only as Rachel and Courtney, each filed freedom suits in St. Louis in the 1830s. When a judgment was granted in Rachel’s favor in 1836, Courtney’s owner conceded her case, too.
A handful of Fort Snelling slaves gained their freedom in other ways. Some purchased their freedom with wages earned working side jobs, while others had their freedom purchased for them by local abolitionists.
Officers at Fort Snelling would continue to own slaves until the post was temporarily decommissioned by the Army in 1858. It was a war over slavery that caused the fort to be reactivated in 1861. Thousands of Minnesotans would be funneled through Fort Snelling on their way to fight for the Union in the Civil War.
Author Nick Woltman reports on breaking news and blogs about local history. Before joining the staff of the Pioneer Press in 2013, he worked for the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota. He lives with his wife and two cats in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul.
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