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

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 4
Entertaining Guests at the
Indian Agency

ARRIVING WITH THE Taliaferros aboard the Warrior was the Reverend Thomas Williamson, an ordained Presbyterian missionary who had contacted Taliaferro months before, offering his services to teach the Indians. He arrived in advance of his family to check the location. Taliaferro decided that a minister in residence at Lac qui Parle would be a reliable source of information in monitoring the conflict between the two Indian nations. To pursue this course of missionary “diplomacy,” the agent needed the cooperation of the trader Joseph Renville, who maintained a large household at Lac qui Parle.

Within a few days, he invited Mr. Renville to dine with him. The evening’s purpose was to persuade him into extending his protection to the missionary’s family. This was the first of many formal dinners that Harriet and Eliza prepared for the master’s guests. Mr. Renville was, of course, flattered by the invitation and well pleased to be offered a dinner prepared with provisions brought from below. As innkeeper, Humphrey Dillon’s daughter, the mistress took special pride in her hospitality.1 The serving women must have labored all day below ground to prepare a feast from the precious stores and whatever fresh meat was available. The master usually served Madeira wine that he kept on hand for special occasions.2

As the Taliaferros plied their guest with imported foods, different communities took their repast at different places on the prairie. Just below the bluff, on the banks of the St. Peter’s, some 12 lodges of Sioux from Lake Calhoun had pitched their tepees to subsist for a time on the ground potato, a root they gathered from the beds of shallow waters. At the fort, the soldiers ate the same meal served them every day: meat, gravy soup, and flat bread. For Harriet and the other servants, their own meal had to wait until they had cleared, washed, and put away the dishes and remaining food; only then were they free to cook their ground cornmeal and pork fat. Foods prepared for the main table were saved for the principal persons of the household; it was not customary for slaves to share in the main table’s leftovers.3 Each group on the prairie met its common hunger separately, subsisting

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