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An unheralded Afro-Indian slave woman’s dreams of freedom propelled one of the most protracted legal battles over slavery in Missouri history. Marie Jean Scypion, the central figure in the case, was born sometime during the 1740s in the vicinity of Fort de Chartres, a French military installation on the east bank of the Mississippi in the Illinois Country. Her mother, a Natchez Indian woman known as Marie or Mariette, had been taken captive during an Indian conflict and sold into slavery. Her father was an African American slave named Scypion about whom little else can be determined with certainty.

Originally owned by a French priest, Marie Jean Scypion subsequently became the property of the Joseph Tayon family. The Tayons took her with them to St. Louis not long after the city’s founding in 1764. In St. Louis, Scypion bore three daughters, Celeste, Catiche, and Marguerite. Following their births, Madame Tayon removed Celeste and Catiche from Scypion’s care and placed them in the custody of the two eldest Tayon daughters.

Even in the face of such personal adversity, Scypion remained, by all accounts, a fiercely determined individual who refused to allow the rigors of slavery to destroy her dignity and pride. After the Spaniards took possession of Louisiana, she questioned the legality of her enslavement because of her Indian ancestry. Spanish law specifically outlawed Indian slavery, but officials in St. Louis succumbed to local pressures and declined to fully enforce the controversial statute.

Scypion appears to have enjoyed the run of the Tayon household, where she served as a cook and housekeeper. In fact, despite Joseph Tayon’s repeated insistence that she was and always had been his slave, some of her acquaintances in St. Louis remained uncertain about her status. Not only did she retain her sense of independence, but somehow she also managed to instill that same defiant spirit in her children, notwithstanding the forced separations that kept them apart much of the time.

In 1799 Joseph Tayon unexpectedly decided to sell Scypion and her three daughters. Only a major row, provoked by Tayon’s attempts to repossess Celeste and Catiche from his daughters, saved Scypion and her offspring from the St. Louis auction block. Insisting that their mother had given them the two slave women many years earlier, Tayon’s daughters refused to return them to their father’s custody. Feuding members of the Tayon family appeared before the Spanish magistrate in St. Louis on at least three occasions in 1799 and 1800. The matter of the slaves’ maternal Indian heritage complicated the efforts to resolve the squabble. Tayon seemed hesitant to force the issue with his daughters after Zenon Trudeau, the lieutenant governor of Upper Louisiana, suggested that the slaves could not be legally sold because of their Indian ancestry.

When combined with years of toil, these added uncertainties took their toll on the aging Scypion. Her health had so deteriorated by January 1801 that one of Tayon’s daughters took the ailing woman into her own home, where she died in June 1802. Marie Jean Scypion had set an example for her progeny, and that legacy reinforced their unremitting determination to be free.

Celeste, Catiche, and Marguerite had to endure the agonies of jury trials in 1806, 1827, and 1836 and countless legal appeals along with verbal threats and physical abuse, but in the end they triumphed. With assistance from a small cadre of sympathetic attorneys, jurists, and friends, Marie Jean Scypion’s surviving children and grandchildren eventually secured a favorable verdict. In 1836 a Jefferson County, Missouri, jury awarded them their freedom on the very grounds that Marie Jean Scypion had first raised so many years before. Tragically, Marie Jean, who by then had been deceased for more than three decades, never experienced the freedom she longed for, but the lengthy legal odyssey she helped launch stands as a tribute to her courage and perseverance.

This article was first published in Lawrence O. Christensen, William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), and appears here by permission of the author and original publisher.

Further Reading

Foley, William E. “Slave Freedom Suits before Dred Scott: The Case of Marie Jean Scypion’s Descendants.” Missouri Historical Review 79 (October 1984): 1–23.

Jefferson County, Missouri, Circuit Court Records, November 5, 1835, March 7, 8, and November 8, 1836, in Minute Book 2. Trial notes and supporting documents are in Files 273 and 274.

VanderVelde, Lea. Redemption Songs: Suing for Freedom before Dred Scott. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Published September 20, 2021; Last updated September 23, 2021

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