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Individual in History: Lawrence Taliaferro

Saturday, December 6th, 2008

Who was Lawrence Taliaferro (pronounced “toll-i-ver”), you ask?

The United States gained control over the upper Mississippi Valley through the Revolutionary War with Great Britain and later the Louisiana Purchase from France. This vast territory, inhabited by fur traders and Indians still loyal to the British in Canada, lay well beyond American settlement. After the War of 1812, the government took physical possession of the valuable Northwest frontier by establishing a chain of Indian agencies and supporting forts from Lake Michigan to the Missouri River. The story of Fort Snelling is the story of the development of the U.S. Northwest.  

Near Fort Snelling, at the St. Peter’s Agency, Major Lawrence Taliaferro mediated disputes between Minnesota’s Dakota (Sioux) and Ojibwe (Chippewa or Anishinabe) Indians. He attempted to ease tensions between both tribes, the fur traders, and their new white neighbors.

Taliaferro presided over the drafting of a treaty in 1837. He brought Dakota leaders to Washington, D.C., and negotiated what he thought were fair terms for Dakota lands east of the Mississippi River. Unfortunately, the United States government was unable to keep up its end of the bargain. The Indians ended up debt-ridden and desperate for their means of survival, and Taliaferro became increasingly critical of the United States’ inability to make good on their promises. In poor health, he resigned his position.

Taliaferro was also, notably, the owner of a slave named Harriet Robinson, who would later marry Dred Scott. It is unknown exactly how Taliaferro came into ownership of Harriet, but what is known is that she worked as a servant to his wife. As Justice of the Peace in the territories, Taliferro would officiate the marriage of Dred and Harriet, a marriage which many historians believe gave additional credence to the Scotts’ claim to freedom.

Lawrence Taliaferro’s papers are in the collections of the Minnesota Historical Society Library, as well as other materials, including a painting of Major Taliaferro.

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