Our Iowa Heritage: Charles T. Mason – Here Comes The Judge.

Charles T. Mason, portrait by Iowa City artist George H. Yewell (circa 1875). Read more about the supportive role Judge Mason had with Yewell and his budding art career.

Judge Charles T. Mason, first Iowa Supreme Court Chief Justice, U.S. Commissioner of Patents, politician, and businessman, was born in Pompey (Onandaga County) New York on October 24, 1804. At the age of 21 (1825), he entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating (1829) first in his class, which included Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Charles became an assistant professor of engineering at West Point, and after two years, he left the army to study law. In June 1832 he passed the bar examination and for two years practiced in a partnership in Newburgh, New York. A lifelong Democrat, Mason moved to New York City and wrote for the New York Evening Post, a radical Democrat newspaper.

1836- Go West Young Lawyer.

In 1836, Charles, influenced greatly by Albert Lea‘s book, ventured west to explore Wisconsin Territory. Writing in his diary, Mason pondered…

“Something is continually whispering to me that there is a more favorable field for my future exertions, either professional or political.”

At first, he assumed he would follow that whisper to Belmont, Wisconsin, but when Territorial Governor Henry Dodge announced the decision to move the territorial capital south into Iowa (1837), Mason wisely chose to follow suit, relocating to Burlington instead. Apparently, it didn’t take long for Governor Dodge to become impressed with Charles, inviting him to become one of his aides and appointing him the public prosecutor of Des Moines County. Later that same year (August 1, 1837), Mason married Angelica Gear of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who had come west with her brother and sister to live in Galena, Illinois. Together, the couple had three lovely daughters, living the remainder of their lives on a farm near Burlington.

Judge Mason and the Case of Ralph vs. Montgomery (1839).

On July 4, 1838, when Iowa became a territory, President Martin Van Buren appointed Mason as Chief Justice of the three-man Territorial Supreme Court. Charles went right to work, writing 166 of the court’s 191 opinions. One of Charles’ most prominent decisions was the 1839 case focusing on a black man named Ralph (Rafe Nelson) who was living and working at the Dubuque Mines. Apparently his Missouri master (Missouri was a slave-state), Jordan J. Montgomery, released Ralph in 1834 to come to Iowa in exchange for a promise of payment of $550 to buy his freedom. According to Montgomery, Ralph never paid him the $550, so the Missouri farmer insisted that Ralph be returned, back into his possession as a slave.

The case opened in Burlington in July 1839, with John V. Berry of Dubuque and another attorney repre­senting the slave owner, Montgomery. Ralph’s attorney was the young David Rorer, a man destined to become one of the leading figures of the Iowa bar.

This beautiful monument “Shattering Silence” was placed in Des Moines in 2009.

In a huge decision that truly bolstered the abolitionist movement, Judge Mason, along with his fellow judges Joseph Williams and Thomas S. Wilson, ruled that under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery in Iowa Territory was “forever prohibited.” Mason wrote, “The master who, subsequently to that Act, permits his slave to become a resident here (Iowa), cannot, afterwards, exercise any acts of ownership over him within this territory.” Read more about the abolitionist/anti-slavery movement in Iowa prior to the Civil War.

Judge Mason and the Case of Iowa vs. Missouri (1849).

The Honey War was a bloodless territorial dispute in 1839 between Iowa Territory and Missouri over their border. The dispute over a 9.5-mile-wide strip running the entire length of the border, caused by unclear wording in the Missouri Constitution on boundaries, misunderstandings over the survey of the Louisiana Purchase, and a misreading of Native American treaties, was ultimately decided by the United States Supreme Court (1849) in Iowa’s favor. The decision was to affirm a nearly 30-mile jog in the nearly straight line border between extreme southeast Iowa and northeast Missouri at Keokuk, Iowa that is now Iowa’s southernmost point. Before the issue was settled, militias from both sides faced each other at the border, a Missouri sheriff collecting taxes in Iowa was incarcerated, and three trees containing beehives were cut down.

Here’s a timeline of The Iowa/Missouri Honey War
1838: Iowa Territory is organized
1839: According to legend a Missouri tax collector in Iowa cuts down three hollow trees containing honey bee hives to collect the honey in lieu of taxes.
1839: Clark County, Missouri sheriff Uriah S. (“Sandy”) Gregory is arrested by Van Buren County, Iowa sheriff while attempting to collect Missouri taxes in the disputed territory.
1839: Militias from both sides assemble at the border
1839: Matter is referred to the U.S. Supreme Court
1846: Iowa enters the Union
1849: Supreme Court issues an opinion that since Missouri never challenged its straight-line border ending at the Des Moines River for more than 10 years, the Iowa border was valid.

Judge Mason was reappointed to the Iowa Territorial Supreme Court in 1842 and 1846 (the year of statehood), but resigned when Governor Ansel Briggs appointed him (1848) to represent Iowa in the U.S. Supreme Court case, deciding the eleven-year border dispute (1849) between Iowa and Missouri (The 1839 Honey War). This squabble over the southern border of Iowa had nearly erupted into a conflict, with both sides gathering troops near the state line. Under Judge Mason’s leadership before the nation’s highest court, Iowa prevailed!

Click here to read more about The Honey War.

Judge Mason vs. Racial Injustice.

By the late 1840’s, I’m guessing Charles Mason just might not have been too popular with the pro-slavery movement nor the good folks of the Show Me State! In another move against racial injustice, in January 1848, the state legislature appointed Mason to chair a three-man commission “to draft, revise and prepare a code of laws.” The result was the Code of 1851, which was hailed for its clarification and reorganization of existing statutory laws. Among many new provisions added by the commissioners were the creation of county judges, the broadening of laws on incorporation, and the abolition of common law procedure in civil actions, including the removal of the statutory ban on interracial marriages.

Which now brings us to our 1852 Postal Cover/Letter…

(C-0251) 1852 Stamp-less Letter from A.C. Harding in Monmouth, IL to (Judge) Charles Mason in Burlington, Iowa – Postmarked January 8, 1852 with 3-cents postage.
The backside of our letter features A.C. Harding’s signature.

Judge Charles T. Mason (left) and General Abner Clark (A.C.) Harding (right) are businessmen, both heavily invested in the development of American railroads. To give you a fair comparison, a businessman investing in railroads in the early 1850’s is similar to a savvy business person investing in space technology today. Numerous railroad companies were springing up everywhere, all working to capture the growing transportation needs of thousands of Americans as they were moving westward across the continent. In January of 1852, when A.C. Harding wrote his letter to Judge Mason, both were investors and board members of the Peoria and Oquawka Rail Road Company.

As the name indicates, the original plan of the railroad was to connect Peoria, in central Illinois, with Oquawka, a small farming community on the Mississippi River. Railroad historian A.W. Newton describes this 84-mile railway…

Judge Charles Mason, living in Burlington, represented that city’s interest in this fledgling Illinois railroad. A.C. Harding, on the other hand, was a hard-nosed lawyer from Monmouth, representing those who wanted the railroad to focus efforts in other directions. By 1852, the railroad’s board was filled with rather divisive men from different Illinois communities, all wanting their hometown to benefit the most by having the railroad come thru their fair city.

Records show that Harding and Mason argued at great length on how and where to obtain iron rails and other supplies for the construction of the rail line. Iron is mentioned here a couple of times. This could be the beginnings of their differences that exploded into an iron-clad conflict that eventually split the P&O Board by the end of 1852.

While our January 7th letter seems to be fairly cordial in nature, records show that Harding, along with several other board members, would soon cause so much tension on the board, Mason, who served as Board President beginning in February of 1852, would resign from the board, selling his interests in P&O all within a year or so of our letter’s writing!

General Abner Clark (A.C.) Harding
(February 10, 1807 – July 19, 1874)
Born in East Hampton, Connecticut, Harding attended Hamilton College, in Clinton, New York, where he studied law. He was admitted to the bar and commenced practice in Oneida County, New York, about 1827. In 1838, he moved to Monmouth, Illinois, and continued practicing law. He served as member of the State constitutional convention in 1848, and was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives the same year, serving until 1850. During the Civil War, Harding enlisted as a private in the Union Army in the 83rd Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Later he was commissioned as a colonel, and was promoted to brigadier general in March 1863. He was forced to resign due to deteriorating eyesight a few months later. From 1865 to 1869, Harding served as a Republican member of Congress. During the 39th Congress, he served as Chairman of the Committee on the Militia. However, he was not a candidate for reelection in 1868 after serving in the 40th Congress, and later engaged in banking and railroad building. He died in Monmouth, Illinois on July 19, 1874, and was interred in Monmouth Cemetery.

As it turned out, the Peoria and Oquawka Rail Road successfully operated for a few years (1855-1860) after Judge Mason left the organization, but eventually fell to its long-standing financial shortcomings and poor management. The rail line was bought out by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (CB&Q), thus becoming just another casualty of the railroad wars of the mid-nineteenth century.

Judge Mason – Farmer, Weather Man & Entrepreneur.

In March of 1853, soon after Charles had resigned from the P&O Board, President Franklin Pierce appointed him to head up the U.S. Commission of Patents in Washington, D.C. His responsibilities included agriculture and weather information. A farmer himself, Mason promoted agricultural research, collected world statistics on tobacco and cotton, and authorized a system of obtaining national weather information by telegraph. An energetic reformer, George reorganized the system of applying for patents and hired the first women in regular employment in a federal office.

Returning back home in 1857, local business affairs occupied Mason’s remaining years. He became president of the Burlington Water Company and chaired the German-American Savings Bank. Still involved in transportation, Charles took up the presidency of the Burlington Street Railway Company, the Burlington & North Western Railway, and the Burlington, Keosauqua & Western Railway. In his spare time, he also became the treasurer of the Burlington school board, and in 1858, Charles was elected as one of the first members of the Iowa State Board of Education.

Judge Charles T. Mason (October 24, 1804 – February 25, 1882) died on his farm near Burlington, at the age of seventy-seven. One fellow judge said of him:  “As a man, he was as much respected and esteemed as any of the early jurists and public men of our Territory and State.”

Hail to the Judge. Iowa thanks you.


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Charles Mason, Benjamin F. Gue, History of Iowa From the Earliest Times to the Beginning of the Twentieth Century, 1903

Charles Mason, University of Iowa – The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa

Biography of An Iowa Businessman: Charles Mason 1804-1882, Willard Irving Toussalnt, Water Work History

Portrait of Charles Mason, George H. Yewell, State Historical Society of Iowa

Iowa Territorial Supreme Court Case of “Ralph,” Pieces of Iowa’s Past, February 26, 2020, Legislative Services Agency

The Honey War, Wikipedia

The Peoria and Oquawka Railroad, A.W. Newton, The Railway and Locomotive Historical Society Bulletin No. 82 (April, 1951), p 25

Charles Mason and the Burlington-Northwestern Narrow Gauge Railroad, Willard I. Toussaint, The Annals of Iowa Volume 38 Number 3, Winter 1966, pp186-203

Charles Thomas Mason, Find-A-Grave

Judge Charles Mason – Memorial, Find-A-Grave

Angelica Gear Mason – Memorial, Find-A-Grave

Abner C. Harding, Wikipedia

Abner Clark Harding, Find-A-Grave

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