On April 6th, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott walked into the unfinished St. Louis Courthouse in downtown Saint Louis, Missouri, and in an act of bravery, filed separate petitions against Irene Emerson for their freedom.

On that day, one of the most important lawsuits in American history, one that would ultimately hasten the start of the Civil War and divide an already divided country, began. It would take ten years and reach as far as the supreme court before it ended.

On this episode of America’s National Parks Podcast, the Dred Scott Case, and Gateway Arch National Park.


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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Gateway Arch National Park – National Park Service Website

Dred Scott Case Collection – Washington University in St. Louis

Dred Scott Case Collection – Library of Congress

Scott v. Sanford – Thoroughly detailed Wikipedia entry

The Dred Scott Decision – Video and info from The History Channel


On April 6th, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott walked into the unfinished St. Louis Courthouse in downtown Saint Louis, Missouri, and in an act of bravery, filed separate petitions against Irene Emerson for their freedom.
On that day, one of the most important lawsuits in American history, one that would ultimately hasten the start of the Civil War and divide an already divided country, began. It would take ten years and reach as far as the supreme court before it ended.

On this episode of America’s National Parks Podcast, the Dred Scott Case, and Gateway Arch National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue

Dred Scott was born to enslaved parents in Southampton County, Virginia sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century. Their owner was a man named Peter Blow. After a failed farming stint in Alabama, Peter Blow settled his family and six slaves in St. Louis in 1830, where he ran a boarding house. Within two years, both Peter Blow and his wife were dead.

Just before his death, Peter Blow sold Dred Scott to Dr. John Emerson. Emerson served as a civilian doctor at Jefferson Barracks before being appointed as an assistant surgeon in the United States Army. He left St. Louis on November 19, 1833, to report for duty at Fort Armstrong in Rock Island, Illinois, taking Dred Scott with him.

Of course, slavery was prohibited in Illinois, both under the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and the Illinois state constitution, which had been in place for 15 years prior to Scott’s arrival at Rock Island. Assuming Scott knew all this, he could have sued for his freedom in Illinois, but he didn’t, and he moved to Fort Snelling in the new Wisconsin territory with Emerson in 1836. Wisconsin was governed by the 1820 Missouri Compromise, prohibiting slavery north of 36 and a half degrees latitude, except for within the boundaries of Missouri. Scott could have again sued for his freedom, but he did not.

In the late 1830s, Dred Scott married Harriet Robinson, who was owned by the Indian agent for the Wisconsin territory. Ownership of Harriet was transferred to Dr. Emerson.

Emerson requested from the Army a transfer back to St. Louis, which was granted. On October 20, 1837, Emerson left Fort Snelling, traveling down the Mississippi by canoe, since steamboats had ended operations for the season. He left behind most of his possessions, including Dred and Harriet Scott, in the care of an unknown party.

Upon arriving in St. Louis, Emerson was transferred to Fort Jesup, Louisiana. In April 1838, he sent for Dred and Harriet Scott to join him and his new wife Irene Sanford in Louisiana, a slave state. That September, the Emersons and the Scotts returned to St. Louis, then traveled back to Fort Snelling in October for a short time, before returning to St. Louis again. All of these movements will become incredibly important for the Scotts’ future attempt for freedom. On the trip back to Fort Snelling, Eliza Scott was born on a steamboat in free territory.

The Army then transferred Emerson to Florida. He left Dred and Harriet behind with Irene’s father, Alexander Sanford, who owned a plantation in north St. Louis County. Emerson was discharged from the Army in 1842 and returned to St. Louis for a short time, and then settled permanently in Davenport, Iowa. Irene Emerson joined him and gave birth to their daughter Henrietta in November 1843.

On December 29, 1843, Emerson suddenly died at age 40. A record of his Iowa estate mentioned slaves, but it is impossible to determine if this reference was to the Scott family. The Scotts never joined them in Davenport. There is no mention of slaves in Emerson’s Missouri estate inventory.

Irene Emerson and her daughter returned to St. Louis.

Dred and Harriet Scott had been hired out to several parties over the years, and in 1846, they were working for Samuel Russell, the owner of a wholesale grocery.

Even though slavery was legal in Missouri, the law allowed enslaved people to sue for their freedom if they were held wrongfully. First, a petition to sue had to be filed in the circuit court. If the petition contained sufficient evidence that the plaintiff was being wrongfully held, the judge would allow the case after provisions were provided to cover court costs by the plaintiff. The judge would also order that the enslaved person could be allowed to attend court and not removed from the vicinity.

The legal principle that affected the Scotts was the idea that once a person was free, they could not be enslaved again. The Missouri Supreme Court had ruled that a master who took his slave to reside in a state or territory where slavery was prohibited thereby freed him. “Once free, always free” was standard judicial practice.

On April 6, 1846, Dred and Harriet Scott each filed petitions against Irene Emerson in the St. Louis Circuit Court to obtain their freedom. The identical documents indicated that the Scotts were entitled to their freedom based on their residences in the free state of Illinois and the free Wisconsin Territory. But the Missouri courts had been gradually turning more and more pro-slavery. From 1844 to 1846, twenty-five freedom suits had been filed in the St. Louis Circuit Court and only one resulted in freedom. Pro-slavery Judge John M. Krum approved the petitions, which Dred and Harriet Scott signed with their marks, an “X.”

Attorney Francis B. Murdoch helped the Scotts initiate their freedom suits, and posted the required security for them. For some reason, he moved to California in 1847 before their cases came to trial.

At this point, the children of Dred Scott’s first owner became involved. The 7 Blow children became well established in St. Louis society by marrying into notable families: The abolitionist publisher of the first newspaper west of the Mississipi. A drug store owner. An attorney who would later play a role in creating Missouri’s 1865 constitution, stripping rights from southern sympathizers. Peter E. Blow married into a French banking family. His brother-in-law was a St. Louis County sheriff and another was a St. Louis attorney. The Blows provided financial and legal assistance to the Scotts. Samuel Mansfield Bay, former Missouri legislator and attorney general, became the Scotts’ attorney through a connection with the Blow family, who also signed for the Scotts’ court fee security.

The case came before the St. Louis Circuit Court on June 30, 1847. Judge Hamilton presided. He had replaced proslavery Judge Krum and held sympathy toward slave freedom suits. Missouri law was clearly on the side of the Scotts. Bay only needed to prove that Emerson had taken Dred Scott, and then Harriet, to reside on free soil.

Henry Taylor Blow testified that his father had sold Dred Scott to Dr. John Emerson. Depositions were presented from both military posts, establishing that Dred and Harriet Scott had resided there in service to Emerson. Samuel Russell testified that he had hired the Scotts from Irene Emerson and paid her father, Alexander Sanford, for their services.

On cross-examination, though, Russel revealed that his wife Adeline had, in fact, made the initial arrangements to hire Dred and Harriet from Irene Emerson. His testimony was dismissed as hearsay, by the judge and because of this technicality, the jury decided against the Scotts. In an absurd twist of the legal system, they did not hear testimony sufficient enough to prove that Irene Emerson claimed Dred and Harriet Scott as her slaves…so they were returned to her ownership.

Bay moved for a new trial, arguing that a technicality in the legal proceedings that could be easily remedied should not hold the Scotts in slavery. Judge Hamilton granted. Irene Emerson had the sheriff take charge of the Scott family. He was responsible for their hiring out, and maintained the wages until the outcome of the freedom suit was determined.

There was a lengthy delay before the new trial took place. A year and a half, due to a heavy court schedule. Then a fire that swept through St. Louis and a cholera outbreak. The case was finally heard on January 12, 1850, a little over two years after the retrial was granted. In the meantime, Irene Emerson moved to Massachusetts and married Dr. Calvin C. Chaffee. Chaffee, an abolitionist, was apparently unaware of his wife’s involvement in a slave freedom suit and was elected to the United States Congress shortly after their marriage.

The Scotts had new attornies, again through the Blow family, Alexander P. Field and David N. Hall. Field was an expert trial lawyer and prominent figure in Illinois and Wisconsin politics. Hugh Garland and Lyman D. Norris represented Emerson.

Field and Hall again established the Scotts’ residence in free territories. They presented a new deposition from Adeline Russell, who indicated that she hired Dred and Harriet Scott from Emerson. Samuel Russell appeared in court to testify that he paid to hire the Scotts.

Garland and Norris tried to claim that the two free-territory residencies were not subject to civil law since they were on military bases, but precedent from a previous case wasn’t in their favor. The jury found for the plaintiffs. Dred and Harriet Scott were free.

At this point, the Scotts’ case was just another successful Freedom Suit. There was no national or even local attention paid to it. But Emerson’s attorneys appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court, which granted a hearing. All parties agreed that only Dred Scott’s case would be heard and that whatever decision applied to Dred would apply to Harriet.

In the State Supreme Court trial, Emerson’s attorneys forwarded the argument that military law was different from civil law when slave property was involved. They claimed that because Emerson was ordered to the military posts, there was no consent on his part to willingly take his slaves into free areas.

The Missouri Supreme Court had, in essence, decided the case in advance. William Napton, James H. Birch, and John F. Ryland were looking for a case that would allow them to hand down a pro-slavery decision, and overturn all previous supreme court opinions that recognized slavery prohibitions. An election of new judges between the trial and delivering a supreme court opinion further complicated things. Napton and Birch were both voted off the bench, and new justices Hamilton Gamble, and William Scott joined Ryland.

On March 22, 1852, the new court rendered their 2-1 decision reversing the lower court’s findings. Justice William Scott wrote the opinion, claiming that Missouri should not have to recognize laws that were in opposition to its own. He acknowledged the right of slaves to obtain their freedom when taken to free states but determined that slavery status was regained upon return to a slave state. The opinion, with a thread of racist rhetoric, was clearly politically motivated.

The next day, Irene Emerson Chaffee’s attorneys filed an order back in the circuit court for the Blow family’s bonds to cover the court costs, and that the Scotts be returned to them, along with slaves’ wages of four years at 6% interest. Judge Hamilton denied the order, and no explanation was recorded.

But Dred Scott and Harriet Scott were not done. Their friends helped them file a suit in the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of Missouri. The Blow family decided they could no longer financially support the Scotts, especially once the case seemed hopeless. Tensions over slavery were at a boiling point in the United States, less than a decade before the Civil War broke out. Attorney Roswell M. Field took on the case for no fee.

At this point, Irene Emerson’s brother John Sanford claimed ownership of the Scott family, in what was likely a political move to help ensure the rights of slave owners, and so that Irene’s abolitionist husband would not find out. The court found in favor of Sanford, leaving Dred Scott and his family in slavery. Field appealed to the United States Supreme Court for the December 1854 term.

The United States Supreme Court did not hear the case until February 1856. Roswell Field arranged for Montgomery Blair, a high-profile St. Louis attorney living in Washington D.C., to argue Dred Scott’s case.

Reverdy Johnson, a nationally-known constitutional lawyer and Henry S. Geyer, U.S. Senator for Missouri represented John Sanford. In May, arguments, much along similar lines as the previous trials, were concluded. The justices called for the case to be reargued in December. At that time, the brother of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Benjamin Curtis assisted Blair in arguing the constitutional questions of the case. A final decision was delivered on March 6, 1857. Eight of the nine justices wrote separate opinions. Seven justices, primarily pro-Southern, followed individual lines of reasoning that led to a shared opinion that, by law, Dred Scott was still a slave. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney wrote what is considered to be the majority opinion, stating that African-Americans were, quote: “beings of an inferior order. so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” The opinion decided that slaves were not citizens of the United States and had no right to bring suit in a federal court. In addition, the court ruled the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, stating that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in the federal territories.

Shortly before the decision was handed down Irene Emerson’s second husband, Dr. Calvin Chaffee, now a Massachusetts congressman, found out his wife owned the most famous slave in America, and so did his opponents. He was chastised for his perceived hypocrisy on the house floor. Chaffee immediately worked to free the Scotts. Since Missouri law only allowed a citizen of the state to emancipate a slave, he transferred ownership of the Scotts to Taylor Blow. On May 26, 1857, Dred and Harriet Scott appeared in the St. Louis Circuit Court and were formally freed before Judge Hamilton. Dred Scott took a job as a porter at Barnum’s Hotel at Second and Walnut street, where he became a local celebrity. Harriet ran a laundry out of their home. Dred Scott died on September 17, 1858 of tuberculosis, only 16 months after gaining his freedom. Harriet Scott died on June 17, 1876, 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, which argues the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.


President James Buchanan‘s supporters considered the Dred Scott case a final answer to the sectional controversy, although Buchanan had influenced Justice Robert Grier of Pennsylvania to join the southern majority so that it would look less like a sectional decision.

The case contributed heavily to the divisions that lead to Abraham Lincoln‘s election and the Civil War.

St. Louis’s Old Courthouse is now the visitors’ center for the Gateway Arch National Park, the Nation’s newest park, which is about to finish a massive redevelopment, linking the Arch with the courthouse on a grand front lawn for the city. The Old Courthouse was the site of the first two trials of the Dred and Harriet Scott cases. It was also where Virginia Minor’s case for a woman’s right to vote came to trial in the 1870s. You can tour this historic structure and visit the restored courtrooms, along with exhibits related to St. Louis history.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

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