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Dred Scott

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Very few heroes apply for the job. Most, like the Rock Islander whose story this is, change the course of history not by sword and shield, but simply by reaching a point where they must stand up and be counted.

In 1833, Dr. John Emerson of Missouri was assigned to the post of Army Surgeon at Fort Armstrong on Rock Island. He brought with him his personal attendant, a black slave named Dred Scott. Even though Illinois was technically a free state, legislators were quite loose in their definition of indentured servant. Remember that the slave Jim in Huckleberry Finn didn’t dare simply cross the Mississippi from Missouri to Illinois to gain freedom.

While stationed at the Fort, Emerson and his servant lived in what is now Davenport, Iowa. There is some evidence that Dred Scott also lived for a time in a cabin on a land claim Emerson filed in what is now Bettendorf.

Dr. Emerson was subsequently transferred to Fort Snelling near the future St. Paul for two years before he returned to Missouri along with his slave. Not until the master died in 1846 did the patient slave sue for his freedom in court on the grounds that he had been taken into free territory and therefore ought to be free.

The case wound its way up through the courts for a decade. Finally, in 1857, the United States Supreme Court, by a vote of seven to two, made the earth-shaking decision that Negro slaves were not U.S. citizens and therefore could not sue for their freedom in court. The Supreme Court went even further and declared the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional on the grounds that Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in the territories.

Today, only a small bronze plaque erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution at the site of Emerson's house, 217 Second Street East, in Davenport, records the important role we played in the story of the slave who stood up for his rights.

Dred Scott lost, but that loss awakened slumbering abolitionists throughout the north and helped precipitate the great War Between the States.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.