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

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 27
Filing Suit Again

FROM BOTH TOWN and county, slaves continued to take chances to run away. The newspapers announced the departures with tiny inked emblems of men carrying hobo packs and women carrying tied handkerchiefs, marching across the columns of the want ads: “$400 reward. Ranaway THREE NEGROES: one woman about 35 years old named Matilda: one mulatto boy and a small girl named Puss— black.”1 The ad identified Matilda as the mother and, ominously, indicated that all of her front teeth were knocked out. Bounty hunters pursued the runaways and many were caught and returned—first to the jail and then to their masters as provided by statute.2 Matilda, running with children, was probably recaptured. The web of enslavement did not require each slave to be continually locked down.

The circuit court did not resume again until late November.3 Expectant litigants often hung around the courthouse because, if they were absent when the case was called, their suit could be dismissed.4 The freedom litigants watched as more fortunate slaves came to court to be freed voluntarily by their masters. Judge Hamilton handled manumission matters at the beginning or the end of the day, accommodating the slaves’ working hours.5 More than a hundred persons had been voluntarily manumitted by their masters in the two years since the Scotts filed suit. Some had purchased their own freedom, as Dred tried to.6 Some parents had saved money to buy their children’s freedom.7 Everyone needed court papers documenting their masters’ willingness to emancipate them, and white male witnesses to attest to this fact. No woman, black or white, could attest to a slave’s manumission.8 If a free black person stood to emancipate a relative or friend, two additional white men were needed to give oaths. The docket entries were often couched in physical description, and few persons had last names to give. Jacob (age 40; five feet, eight inches tall) is described as “spare made, quite black, white eyes, a knot on the right wrist, and a cooper by trade.” Many descriptions identified the enslaved person by their scars: “scar on forehead over left eye.” One entire family (parents and four children)9 were freed together. Upon release from bondage,

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