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

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 7
Winters Deep

SIX OR SEVEN people living in close proximity in the small agency house meant that, inevitably, each person learned to recognize the others’ movements by the distinctive way that a floorboard creaked, or by a sniffle or a cough. The sounds of the maidservants’ movements were muffled in their basement domain while the three upstairs dwellers’ movements—the master, the mistress, and her brother, H. N. Dillon—were amplified down into the kitchen from above. All of the house’s inhabitants were drawn into even closer proximity by their need to share the fires’ warmth.

The over-familiarity of one’s household mates was combined with an urge to seek out like-minded souls. Winter’s isolation produced the general longing for companionship, and different sets of social cohorts formed among the settlement peoples at St. Peter’s. The master usually visited three men who were about the same age and station: the commanding officer Bliss, Dr. Nathan Jarvis, and Mr. B. F. Baker, who ran a trading post independent of the American Fur Company.1 Taliaferro and the doctor regularly rode their horses through the deep snow the half mile to Baker’s stone trading house, near the Coldwater settlement. Thus, Bakers’ store became their gentlemen’s club. The other officers, Dr. Jarvis wrote, were “agreeable men, although too much addicted to cards, … the prevailing vice in all these outposts when men are shut out from amusements during the long and severe winters.”2 As they sat or stood around the stove at Mr. Baker’s store and discussed the issues of the day, they formed opinions about the world outside St. Peter’s. As an independent trader, Mr. Baker was not beholden to the company, so Taliaferro favored him with his patronage. After visiting Mr. Baker’s, the agent undoubtedly repeated what he’d learned to his wife and brother-in-law at dinner. Gossip and opinions broke the winter’s monotony for the Taliaferros, as they had little to do but refine their views on the world as they considered their isolated place in it. Always within earshot, and equally removed from her origins and other influences, teenage Harriet must have absorbed these views of the world.

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