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

By Lea Vandervelde | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 21
Black Social Life of St. Louis

ALTHOUGH IT’S FAIR to assume that the Scotts initially stayed at the Sanford farm, they weren’t necessarily well suited to the life there, and the farm did not need them. There were already six slaves and possibly an overseer on the place,1 and Mistress Irene’s added presence did not justify the efforts of two more adult slaves. As historian Eugene Genovese has noted, “slavery require[d] all hands to be occupied at all times. In a labor system based on compulsion rather than wages, idle workers are at once dangerous and uneconomical.”2

It was Dred whose labor was least needed at the Sanford farm. Other than being his mistress’s driver and a passable cook,3 there was little that a former valet was well suited for in the countryside, and at his age he was less adaptable than a younger slave.4 He had spent the previous decade in the light work of keeping his officer-master’s uniform brushed and boots blackened, chopping firewood, and helping out in the hospital, so he was neither accustomed to nor fit for the heavy demands of farm labor. Unless the household needed a butler, and his command over other servants was accepted (even more unlikely), it would have been difficult for him to become integrated into the farm’s working life. Nor would he expect to be. He was not a Sanford family slave. Everyone knew that he belonged to the absent Dr. Emerson, that he was there only temporarily—and that as soon as the doctor returned, he and Harriet would depart again. Still, Dred was an agreeable fellow, given to talk and conviviality, so he probably got on better with the other slaves than did the more reticent Harriet.5

As the doctor’s months away dragged on into years, it’s likely that plans were made for the couple to be hired out. Rented out, singly or together, they could generate cash by working in St. Louis. St. Louis slave owners often made hiring arrangements for slave labor that they had no immediate need for, sometimes sending their slaves to find their own work and negotiate their own terms.6 As an amiable fellow who knew his way around town, Dred, in particular, might have found his own position—though Harriet’s services, particularly as a laundress,

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