Slavery in Missouri was different from slavery in the Deep South. The majority of Missouri's slaves worked as field hands on farms along the fertile valleys of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. St. Louis, the largest city in the state, maintained a fairly small African American population throughout the early part of the nineteenth century. Life in the cities was different for African Americans than life on a rural plantation. The opportunities for interaction with whites and free blacks were constant, as were those for greater freedom within their slave status. Because slavery was unprofitable in cities such as St. Louis, African Americans were often hired out to others without a transfer of ownership. In fact, many masters illegally allowed their slaves to hire themselves out and find their own lodgings. This unusual state of affairs taught African Americans to fend for themselves, to market their abilities wisely, and to be thrifty with their money.
Slavery was not a "Southern" problem alone. Many northern states phased out slavery as late as the 1830s, and states such as Delaware and New Jersey still had slave-owning residents as late as 1860. On a local level, residents of Illinois owned slaves (under long-term indenture agreements of 40 years or longer) during the period of the Dred Scott trials, and a special provision in the Illinois constitution allowed slaves to work in the salt mines across the Mississippi from St. Louis as long as they were not held there for over one year at a stretch. Many people in southern Illinois supported slavery. No slaves in the St. Louis area picked cotton however, and few worked in farm fields. Most worked as stevedores and draymen on the riverfront, on riverboats, in the lead and salt mines, as handymen, janitors and porters (like Dred Scott), and as maids, nannies, and laundresses (like Harriet Scott).