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  • Where's Harriet?
  • Peter Charles Hoffer (bio)
Lea VanderVelde . Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 480 pp. Pictures, appendix, notes, and index. $34.95.

Mrs. Dred Scott, born Harriet, a slave, was a wife and mother by the end of her teenage years, but before that she witnessed the transformation of Old Northwest frontier into farmland and of its territories into states. She was there at the creation of the great American West. Removed to St. Louis, she took part in the most famous law case in American history, Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857). Though held in bondage, she used the law to sue for her freedom. She persisted, steady in her course and sure in her sense of self.

But how are we to know anything more than the outlines of Harriet Scott's story when she could not read or write and left no correspondence of her own? There is only one documented interview with her, and then she shunned the spotlight. "Leave us alone," she is reported to have said. It was almost as if, by 1857, she had lived too much, though she was only in her late thirties at the time. She is like Waldo in the series of children's books, always there if you look hard enough, but nearly invisible in the mass of people around her.

If we are not to consign women like Harriet Scott to the dustbin of history, we must find and deploy a battery of imaginative methods. We must recreate a time and place in which women like Harriet Scott lived and worked. We must use comparative materials, interdisciplinary methods, and literary imagination. All of this Lea Vander Velde has done, and the results are extraordinary. Harriet, like Waldo, appears. In the packed scenes of the Minnesota Territory Indian agency, in the St. Louis black quarters, and in the courtrooms that framed her life, Harriet is there, one of the African Americans among many of her ancestry, along with the Indians and European Americans who crowd Vander Velde's pages.

For the legal historian, the first part of the story, largely concerned with Ojibwas-Sioux violence and the rough life on the frontier at Fort Snelling, has a special importance. Was Harriett set free when she married Dred at Fort Snelling in the Minnesota Territory? Was she free all the time that they cohabited in St. Louis? Here Vander Velde becomes the legal sleuth. The clues are not easy to decipher, however. Harriett's owner was Indian agent Lawrence Taliferro. In [End Page 561] casual conversation, he indicated that he intended to free the teenaged house servant when it was safe for her. He and the groom's master, army doctor John Emerson, treated the rite as though it had meaning (though in slavery it had none), but neither bride nor groom acted as if they thought they were free. Emerson left them at Fort Snelling, where they were wed, and both husband and wife worked for wages there; but the wage receipts indicated that the money was to go to Dr. Emerson. Dred would follow Dr. Emerson back into slavery, and Harriet would follow Dred. Servants might be expected to do just the same, however, and a wife was required to follow her husband. Throughout, Harriet acted as if she had no choice, but she was a loyal wife and mother, and may well have been content with her much-older mate.

When the scene shifts to St. Louis, it is even harder to find Harriet. There were so many slaves, some living with their masters, others in densely packed urban versions of slave quarters. VanderVelde brings to life this part of the slave experience. Harriet worked as a hired slave in laundries, using the night to cloak visits and entertainment. At the Mississippi Riverfront, she met others engaged in her livelihood, and they formed a community within a community. Dred was a coachman, a respected position among slaves. Neither of them claimed to be free.

The law in Missouri was that a slave freed in the territories, like Polly, a friend of Harriet's, or Rachel, another...


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pp. 561-565
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