Monday, May 11, 2009

Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier by Lea VanderVelde

Who was Mrs. Dred Scott, wife of the slave whose claim for freedom was denied by the U. S. Supreme Court in 1857? According to Lea Vandervelde in her new book Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier, Harriet Robinson was a black woman born in Virginia around 1818 and taken to the Northwest Territory in 1835, where she met and married Etheldred Scott, a slave at Fort Snelling. Not much verifiable personal information about Harriet is really known. As a woman, a servant, and the member of an enslaved race, she was unnoticed by diarists and journalists of her time and historians subsequently. VanderVelde, however, has found enough documentary evidence (tax, census, and court records) to place Harriet at the scene of many momentous events both in territorial Minnesota and later in St. Louis. Most importantly, she was a party to the famous case that further divided an already fractured nation.

What many readers may not know before reading this history is that many slaves had successfully sued for freedom before the Dred and Harriet Scott case. These slaves had been taken into and resided in free states and territries north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Juries had consistently ruled in favor to release them for having been in states where slavery was illegal. Why the Scotts did not gain their freedom is a "one-thing-after-another" story worthy of satirical novels. In their eleven year legal quest, they went through six lawyers of varying talent, two of which died on them. They were at one point denied freedom because they could not prove who owned them. In the end, the dirt poor couple were opposed by some of the richest people in the country.

As a detailed history, Mrs. Dred Scott will please committed history readers. Most pleasure readers will not make the effort. There is, however, a lot of potential for a novelist to come along and rework the content into historical fiction. With so little really known about Harriet herself, the novelist would have a fairly clean slate. The supporting cast is great. The characters include her husband and two daughters, Indian agent Lawrence Taliaferro, the explorer Joseph Nicollet, the painter George Catlin, many Indian chiefs, John C. Fremont and many other military figures from the War with Mexico, the powerful Chouteau family of St. Louis, U. S. Grant, millionaire John F. A. Sanford, and, of course, Roger Taney and the rest of the U. S. Supreme Court. VanderVelde includes a handy gallery of photos in the book to help the reader keep them straight. The book could also be the basis of a great television mini-series.

I spent weeks reading this big book and feel rewarded for the effort. I certainly know a lot more about the plight of Sioux and Chippewa Indians, the widespread use of slaves in the "free" territories, the corruption of the U. S. government by the American Fur Company, the renting of slaves in St. Louis, and the racism of the 1857 U. S. Supreme Court. Mrs. Dred Scott should be in most public libraries.

VanderVelde, Lea. Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery's Frontier. Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 9780195366563

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