Guide to African American History

Record Group 600: Supreme Court of the State of Missouri (1804-Present)

In 1795, Winny, the slave of Phoebe Whitesides, was moved from Kentucky to the Indiana Territory with her owners and held as a slave there. The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, however, prohibited slavery in the Indiana Territory. The Whitesides later moved to the Missouri Territory, where Winny sued for freedom, stating she was freed by living in free territory. Justices Mathias McGirk and George Tompkins stated in their majority opinion that ".this court thinks that the person who takes his slave into said Territory and by the length of his residence there indicates an intention of making that place his residence & that of his slave and thereby induces a jury to believe that fact does by such residence declare his slave to have become a free man." This 1824 decision set Missouri's long-standing precedent of "once free, always free" in determining the outcome of slave freedom suits.

Even so, by the 1850s, pro-slavery judges elected to the Missouri Supreme Court were willing to discard legal precedent to further the political end of aligning Missouri more closely with southern states. The 1852 majority opinion in the Dred Scott case, written by William Scott and concurred in by John Ryland, ended the ability of slaves in Missouri to sue for their freedom based on residence in a free state or territory. Scott did not mention the precedent-forming Winny v. Whitesides. Instead, he wrote, "Times are not now as they were when the former decisions on this subject were made."

Petition title page