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

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 12
Marriage: Together Alone

THAT LEFT HARRIET. Though she was surely occupied with the guests during the treaty making, she didn’t leave with either the master or the mistress. At some point in these last busy weeks, Harriet was married by her master to Etheldred, the slave of Dr. Emerson, in the same manner that he performed other weddings at the agency. (It was said that several marriages were performed that summer in anticipation of legitimating the children who would be eligible to take shares under the treaty.1)In Taliaferro’s autobiography, Harriet’s master mentioned their wedding last of several he conducted.2 Taliaferro indicated that he performed the ceremony himself and that he gave her to Etheldred, the slave, in marriage.3 Accordingly, Harriet moved into her husband’s lodgings at the fort.

The wedding ceremony must have been extremely significant for her, since it paralleled important rituals practiced by the other residents of the community and it signified her release from her master.4 We cannot know whether Harriet Robinson loved Etheldred, but she later came to care for him. Etheldred loved her, according to Taliaferro, who wrote how happy Dred was to take young Harriet as his wife.5 Dred had been married before in St. Louis, and his wife had been sold away from him.6 Now he received Harriet as his wife, given by her master in marriage. At the time, Dred was already 40, but Harriet was only 17. They remained mates for life. In the years to come, Harriet bore Dred four children. Even when the Mexican War campaign separated them, Dred found his way back to her. At the very least, marriage offered Harriet some security, protection, and a degree of independence. Taken to the frontier as an adolescent, she may have experienced the sexual vulnerability that threatened many enslaved women.7 She found an older protector in Dred. Given their ages, he could have been her father. In marrying him, she entered not only his protectorate but that of his master, Dr. Emerson.

What was Harriet’s status at this point? Surely, by marrying her to Dred and then leaving, Taliaferro intended to relinquish any claim he had to her or her services. Did this act emancipate her? Or was a specific act emancipating her even

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