Marguerite Scypion, also known in court files as Marguerite (free woman of color), (c.1770s—after 1836) was an African-Natchez woman, born into slavery in St. Louis, then located in French Upper Louisiana. She was held first by Joseph Tayon and later by Jean Pierre Chouteau, one of the most powerful men in the city.
In 1805, two years after St. Louis came under US rule, Marguerite filed the first "freedom suit" in the city's circuit court, 41 years before Dred Scott and his wife Harriet filed their more well-known case. In November 1836 Marguerite, her children; her sister and other descendants of Marie Jean Scypion, her mother, finally won their case as free people of color. The unanimous jury decision in their favor was based on their maternal descent from a Natchez woman, and decided in Jefferson County. The decision withstood appeals to the state and the United States Supreme Court in 1838. The case was considered to end Indian slavery in Missouri.
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Throughout their struggle, Marguerite and her two sisters argued that their mother Marie Jean Scypion had been held illegally as a slave after 1769, because, after the Spanish started ruling the area, the colonial governor abolished Indian slavery in the Louisiana Territory to make policy consistent with other Spanish colonies. Since her mother was Natchez, Marie Jean Scypion was legally free, and her descendants born after that date were, too, according to the principle of partus sequitur ventrem. After a ruling in the Louisiana territorial supreme court in 1806 that went against the Scypion descendants, they did not give up their desire for freedom.
Following passage of a new law in 1824 protecting slaves' right to sue against illegal enslavement, the women and their children renewed their petitions. In 1826 Marguerite Scypion and her children, and her two sisters filed separate suits against their masters. One of the Scypion sisters and some of their descendants died before the cases were finally decided. The suits were combined by the court under the name of Marguerite (free woman of color) for the final trial, and she and the other descendants of Marie Jean Scypion finally achieved freedom in 1836.
Scypion was the third daughter born into slavery in St. Louis to Marie Jean Scypion, an enslaved woman. Marie Jean Scypion's mother was Natchez and had been captured and sold into slavery during the Indian wars, and her father was a black slave. Marguerite's sisters were Celeste and Catiche. Their father was not identified. The mother and daughters were held by Joseph Tayon and his wife Marie Louise. After the two Tayon daughters married, Marie Louise Tayon assigned Celeste to Helene (Tayon) Chevalier and Catiche to Marie Louise (Tayon) Chauvin.
The Mississippi Valley area had a complex history under succeeding French and Spanish colonial rules, which affected slavery case law developed by the later United States after the Louisiana Purchase. For instance, after the Spanish took over in 1763, the territorial governor in 1769 prohibited Indian slavery in the area, to make the policy and law consistent with other Spanish-controlled colonies. Faced with protests by powerful slaveholders, however, the government allowed retention of slaves of Indian descent while the Crown reviewed the issue. It forbade any sales of such slaves. The Tayon family struggled internally over holding its slaves; about 1799 the father Joseph Tayon wanted to sell Scypion and her daughters, but his daughters Helene Chevalier and Marie Louise Chauvin tried to protect their servants and reminded him of their status as Indians, which prohibited their sale. The daughters refused to give him custody of the two mixed-race women, saying that their mother (Mrs. Tayon) had given the sisters to them. After his wife's death, Tayon accepted the invitation of Jean Pierre Chouteau, a wealthy merchant and fur trader, to join his household. He took with him the slaves Marie Jean Scypion and her daughter Marguerite, together with her children.
By the time of the 1803 annexation of the area into the US by the Louisiana Purchase, numerous residents of territorial Missouri still held as slaves people who were descendants of Indians. In 1804 the Missouri Territory established slave laws, generally following US state and territorial models. Officials struggled to establish the legal basis for who should be considered slaves, especially in relation to preceding French and Spanish law in the area. It classified as mulatto those mixed-race persons with one-quarter (equivalent to one grandparent) or more African ancestry. This restricted the rights of those who were free people of color. The Tayon family continued to struggle; in the spring of 1804, the sisters Mrs. Chevalier and Mrs. Chauvin filed legal documents which declared that Celeste and Catiche were free women of color, to forestall their father's planned sale of their slaves.
Three years after the death of the matriarch Marie Jean Scypion, in 1805 in the first such case in St. Louis, Marguerite Scypion filed a freedom suit against François Tayon, who had inherited her after his father died. In October 1805 Marguerite's sisters Celeste and Catiche filed for writs of habeas corpus in the superior Territorial Court, supported by affidavits from Chevalier and Chauvin saying that the women lived in their households voluntarily as free women of color. The court freed Celeste and Catiche. François Tayon opposed Marguerite's suit, but the court ordered him to release her, as well.
Scypion's daughters asserted that as their maternal grandmother Marie was a Natchez, her daughter Marie Jean Scypion was legally free under the 1769 Spanish proclamation. Scypion's status meant that her (three) daughters and their descendants were also legally free people of color, by the principle of partus sequitur ventrem. Incorporated into slavery case law in the United State since 1662 in the Virginia Colony, the principle of partus held that the children's legal status was determined by that of the mother.
The opposing lawyers argued the women should be classified as simply of African descent (and thus legally enslaved), as they had a black grandfather and were considered mulatto under Missouri law. This was an application of a hypodescent rule that disregarded their Native American ancestry. Although the Territorial Court initially ruled in the favor of Marguerite and her sisters, the decision was reversed by a higher court.
- Marguerite had several children: Antoine, Baptiste, Michael, and François. Their father was not identified.
- Celeste's children were Auguste, Paul, Antoine, and Sophie. Sophie's children Edward and William were also party to the suits.
- Catiche's children were Helen, Joseph, Julie, and Camelite. After 1825, Camelite's daughter Mary was also covered in the suits.
Renewal of suits
In December 1824, the Missouri General Assembly passed a law providing for enslaved persons to have the legal standing as "free poor persons" to sue for freedom and protecting them through the process. It provided that when the court agreed there was a basis for the freedom suit, it would assign counsel, who would institute an action for "trespass, assault and battery, and false imprisonment" against the master. The Scypion descendants filed several suits before their cases were settled, but only the chief ones will be covered here.
In 1825 Marguerite Scypion renewed her case and sued as a free woman of color, with Pierre Barribeau acting as "next friend" for legal standing in the freedom suit. By this time she had been sold to Pierre Chouteau, Sr., and she filed against him in the St. Louis Circuit Court. The court assigned the following attorneys: Farris, Hamilton Rowan Gamble (future chief justice of the State Supreme Court and governor of the state), and Isaac McGirk. (His brother Mathias McGirk became a justice of the State Supreme Court in the 1820s).
In this suit, Marguerite accused Chouteau of assault and false imprisonment for his continuing to hold her and her children in slavery. She sued for $500 in damages as a free woman of color, based on the illegal enslavement of her mother, who was of Natchez maternal ancestry. Although the judgment and appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court at first went against Marguerite and her sisters, the case was reviewed in 1834 and a new trial was ordered.
Because of the political and economic prominence of the extended Chouteau family in St. Louis, Marguerite's attorneys requested a change of venue, which the court granted. The case of Celeste and her children against the Chevaliers, and that of Catiche's surviving children against the Chauvins, were rolled into the suit so that all were decided at once. The venue was set first for St. Charles County and then moved to Jefferson County before the case finally came to trial on November 8, 1836. Once the jury heard the case, they decided unanimously in favor of the Scypion descendants, a decision that withstood appeals up to the State Supreme Court and the US Supreme Court in 1838. All the descendants of Marie Jean Scypion were freed by this decision, and the case was considered to officially end Indian slavery in Missouri.
- The Scypion daughters' persistence won their families' freedom and ended Indian slavery in Missouri.
- William E. Foley, "Slave Freedom Suits before Dred Scott: The Case of Marie Jean Scypion's Descendants"[permanent dead link], Missouri Historical Review, 79, no. 1 (October 1984), pp. 1-5, at The State Historical Society of Missouri, accessed 18 February 2011
- Foley, "Slave Freedom Suits", p. 7
- Foley, pp. 6-9
- "Freedom Suits Case Files, 1814-1860", St. Louis Circuit Court Records, Missouri Historical Society (St. Louis, MO), 2004, accessed 4 January 2011
- "Freedom Suits", African-American Life in St. Louis, 1804-1865, from the Records of the St. Louis Courts, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, National Park Service, accessed 11 January 2011
- Foley, p. 15
- Foley (1984), p. 15
- Edlie L. Wong, Neither Fugitive nor Free: Atlantic Slavery, Freedom Suits, and the Legal Culture of Travel, New York University Press, 2009, p. 135, accessed 26 January 2011
- Marguerite, a free woman of color v. Chouteau, Pierre, Sr., Jul 1825, St. Louis Circuit Court Records, Missouri Historical Society (St. Louis, MO)[1/11/2011], accessed 11 January 2011
- "Timeline of Missouri's African American History", Missouri Digital Heritage, Missouri State Archives, accessed 18 February 2011
- "Freedom Suits", St. Louis Circuit Court Records, Missouri Historical Society (St. Louis, MO) [1/11/2011, searchable database of cases; includes scanned images of original case documents
- "Freedom Suits", African-American Life in St. Louis, 1804-1865, from the Records of the St. Louis Courts, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, National Park Service, see links for "List of Plaintiffs in Freedom Suits"