Dred and Harriet Scott are arguably the most historically influential people to have ever lived at Fort Snelling. They were slaves belonging to the post surgeon, Dr. John Emerson, and could have lived in this room after their marriage in 1836 or 1837. This room was never intended as living space but rather was designed as a kitchen meant to serve the post surgeon’s private quarters above. However, it was a common practice during the early 1800s for slaves and servants to live in their work spaces.
Dred and Harriet were both probably born in Virginia, but their birthdates are unknown. Dred was purchased by an army surgeon, Dr. John Emerson, in St. Louis, Missouri from his original owner, Peter Blow. Travelling with Emerson, Dred spent time in Illinois and Iowa before Emerson was transferred to Fort Snelling in 1836. After arriving at the fort Dred met a woman named Harriet Robinson, a slave owned by Indian Agent Lawrence Taliaferro. Dred and Harriet were soon married in a ceremony officiated by Taliaferro, who then either gave or sold Harriet to Emerson.
Throughout the 1820s and 1830s there may have been as many as 15 to 30 slaves living at Fort Snelling at any one time, making this the first large community of African Americans in what would one day become Minnesota. Very little is known about the daily lives of these people, but it is likely that the Scotts performed domestic work for Emerson and prepared his meals in this space and the room next door.
The Scotts left Fort Snelling with Emerson in 1840. While living in St. Louis they sued for their freedom, arguing that since they had lived in free territory while at Fort Snelling and other places they and their two daughters should be freed. The Scotts spent the next 11 years in court before the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their claim in 1857, stating that as slaves the Scotts were not citizens and did not have the right to sue in court. Though the Scotts gained their freedom later that year, the Dred Scott Decision further polarized the nation on the issue of slavery and helped propel the country closer towards civil war.