John Francis Alexander Sanford

John Francis Alexander Sanford (1806–1857) was a frontiersman of the American West who worked with Native American tribes as an Indian agent. He later joined Pierre Chouteau, Jr. in a fur trapping and trading business. He extended his interests into other areas of commerce and became very wealthy. In the final years of his life, he was involved with the landmark court case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, which is perhaps what he is best known for today. He suffered from mental illness and died in an asylum.

Sanford’s parents were Francis Alexander Sanford (c. 1782-1848) and Mary Adams. His stepmother, from his father’s later marriage, was also named Mary. Before about 1810 they lived in Westmoreland County, Virginia and after this date up to 1829, their home was in Winchester, Virginia. John F. A. Sanford, the eldest child of seven, attended the academy at West Point, and in 1825 became a clerk and interpreter in the St Louis office of Indian Affairs under William Clark. In 1826 he was appointed as a sub-agent in the remote Mandan villages of upper Missouri. He replaced the former agent, 29-year-old Peter Wilson, who had died earlier that year after being taken ill in a Mandan settlement.

For a period of about seven years, Sanford worked with several tribes including Minitarees, Crows, Arikaras, Assiniboines, Knisteneaux, and Yanctonais Sioux, estimating that the population in his area was in the order of 75,000. Sanford tried to resolve underfunding issues and made requests for better pay and for an improvement in his situation. These were ignored and to further add to his frustration, he was criticized in the House of Representatives for the expenses incurred when he took a delegation of tribesmen to Washington. This both damaged his career prospects and came as a personal blow.

In 1832 Sanford struck up a friendship with Pierre Chouteau Jr., a member of the wealthy St Louis fur trading family, and was offered a position in Chouteau’s business. He joined in 1833, later becoming a partner and then the company’s representative in Washington and New York. Sanford also married Chouteau’s daughter, Emilie, although she died in 1836. Their only child, Benjamin, was raised by the Chouteau family. At this time Sanford purchased a farm in St Louis for his father, who lived there until his death in 1848.

Sanford became wealthy; his business interests included mining, railroads, and mercantile. In 1851 he became one of the founding members of a company that was formed to build the Illinois Central Railroad. In 1850 he married Isabel Davis, daughter of Thomas E. Davis, a New York real estate developer. Sanford with his father-in-law Davis, and brother-in-law, Frederick C. Gebhard, invested in various joint ventures including the St Anthony Falls Water Power Company, Allentown Railroad Company, and the Dauphin and Susquehanna Coal Company.

In 1853 Sanford became involved with a landmark court case: Dred Scott, a slave working for Sanford’s brother-in-law, had been seeking his freedom through the courts since 1846. In 1853 Scott’s case went to the Supreme Court with Sanford named as the defendant; the Court ruled in Sanford’s favor.

Sanford suffered from mental illness in 1857 and was admitted to an asylum. At one point he was thought to be recovering, but had a relapse and died on 6 May 1857 in Manhattan.

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