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

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 2
1835: Arriving on the Frontier

WATER SPLASHED REGULARLY off the steamboat Warrior’s big paddle wheel propelling the ship up the Mississippi River as it carried a small slave girl deep into the North American interior.1 This new mechanical technology was a marvel. Travelers to remote western rivers no longer depended on the strong arms of young Creole voyageurs to paddle supply boats upstream.2 Steam engines had replaced the muscle of men.

As the big wheel churned the foam, the 14-year-old servant girl had time to sit and simply watch the wheel’s inevitable drive. She had few chores since the Warriorhad stewards and cooks to meet the master’s needs. The master’s entire household was traveling west, so the young girl traveled with the other black servants on the lower deck just above the water, carried along with boxes and barrels of cargo and the large valises destined for the frontier.

The master, Lawrence Taliaferro (pronounced “Tolliver”), U.S. Indian Agent to the Sioux nation,3 had made this trip through the river highways that comprised the heart of the country each year for more than a decade. This was the first trip for Harriet, the youngest servant girl in his entourage. It is uncertain whether Harriet first went west with Master Taliaferro in 1834 or 1835, but his route was always the same. She did make the trip in spring 1835 as the entire Taliaferro household was moving to St. Peter’s Agency, in Indian Territory, after President Andrew Jackson had reappointed Taliaferro to another term as Indian agent to the Sioux, a post he had occupied for more than a decade.4

The Taliaferros were building a new, very large, and very grand house back in Bedford, Pennsylvania, the peaceful mountain spa resort that was their permanent home.5 Having already served several terms as Indian Agent, Lawrence Taliaferro, now 41, had considered simply resigning.6 But serving as Indian agent to the Dakota was his life’s work. Perhaps the tumultuous events of the preceding summer of 1834 had impressed upon him how much he was needed at his agency full-time. Who else could be trusted to ward off the unscrupulous fur traders who

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