Some of the steamboats churning up the Mississippi River in 1838 were sumptuous, with individual staterooms providing passenger luxury. Then there was the Gypsey — among the smallest boats making the trek upriver to what became Minnesota.
“It was cramped and uncomfortable and lacked the comfort of bigger ships,” University of Iowa historian Lea VanderVelde said. “The stern-wheeler was more of a tugboat than a pleasure ship.”
Even in the early days of autumn, passengers sweltered from the heat radiating from the Gypsey’s furnace and steam engine. And in the hot hull of that riverboat, a slave in her early 20s named Harriet Robinson Scott went into labor with her first daughter.
Born in Virginia about 1815, Harriet would become a pivotal character in U.S. history. Her husband, fellow slave Dred Scott, became a well-known name when the Supreme Court ruled in 1857 that black people were non-citizens — “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
The infamous ruling, denying rights to free and enslaved black people across the growing nation, is widely considered among the triggers that sparked the bloody Civil War. Often overlooked, Harriet’s lawsuit was combined with her husband’s as it dragged though the courts for 11 years before the Supreme Court slapped down their legal quest for freedom.
As a teenager, Harriet left her home in Virginia for good. She was the property of Maj. Lawrence Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolliver”), a fellow Virginian serving as the federal Indian agent at the frontier outpost known as Fort Snelling. He brought Harriet to the fort in the 1830s as a house servant. Never mind that slavery wasn’t allowed in the area. Taliaferro was among many military men who kept slaves as their assignments moved them from fort to fort, south to north.
Harriet met Dred, who was about 15 years older, in 1836 when his owner, military surgeon Dr. John Emerson, arrived at Fort Snelling. Taliaferro married them in a civil ceremony at the fort in 1836 or ’37 — after which he sold Harriet to Emerson.
Pregnant in April 1838, Harriet was uprooted from her home at Fort Snelling when Emerson was transferred to a fort in Louisiana. By her third trimester, she was in St. Louis, boarding the Gypsey on Sept. 26 for a return trip to Fort Snelling with Dred and Emerson.
“Harriet may have desired to go north in order to bear her child in free territory,” VanderVelde, an Iowa legal historian, wrote in her book, “Mrs. Dred Scott: A Life on Slavery’s Frontier” in 2009. “A child born in the North had a much better chance of being declared free.”
Little Eliza Scott emerged into the world on the boat in the Mississippi — north of the Missouri line. They cited that geography and their years living in non-slavery, pre-statehood Minnesota in court a decade later. Sometimes lost in the legal arguments: A woman was giving birth on a hot, cramped riverboat.
“The uncomfortable expectant mother may have paced back and forth below deck in the unbearable heat of the wood furnaces and steam engines like a trapped animal on the crowded little ship,” VanderVelde wrote. “She had no privacy, unless she could find a secluded corner behind the barrels of cargo and bales of blankets … ”
After two years at Fort Snelling raising little Eliza, the Scotts left the fort for good in 1840 — moving to St. Louis, where their legal battle bubbled into history. But the first time the Scotts found themselves the focus of a fight came 180 years ago at Fort Snelling. The clash involved a cast-iron stove sought to keep them warm as winter arrived in 1839.
Emerson, the fort doctor who owned the Scotts, requested two stoves — one for his family and one for his slaves: the Scott family. A new quartermaster named Lt. McPhail, described as a scrawny guy a head shorter than Emerson, agreed to give him one stove but refused to give one to the Scotts.
An argument erupted and McPhail punched the doctor in the nose, breaking his glasses. When Emerson returned with dueling pistols, McPhail ran away and a free-for-all followed with the doctor briefly arrested. Sutler reports show Emerson might have won; he was charged for two stoves.
“The argument … in the little frontier military outpost of Fort Snelling was but a tempest in a teapot compared with the controversy which was soon to make” the Scotts central figures “in a quarrel which embroiled the entire nation,” author L. Edmond Leipold wrote in 1946.
The Scotts lost their Supreme Court ruling nearly 20 years after the stove fight. But they eventually earned their freedom in 1857 when their original owner regained possession and removed the shackles of slavery for the family — which by then included a second daughter, Lizzie. Dred died a year later of tuberculosis in 1858 at about 58. Harriet worked as a free laundress and live-in domestic in St. Louis for many years. She died in her early 60s on June 17, 1876 — 38 years after going into labor on the cramped riverboat Gypsey.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: tinyurl.com/MN1918.