Our Iowa Heritage: Ralph + Wilson + Mason = The Road To Freedom.

It’s July 4, 1839 and Iowa is celebrating its first anniversary as a U.S. Territory.

Iowa Territory in 1838.

One year earlier, on July 4, 1838, President Martin Van Buren appointed three reliable men from around the Territory to serve as the first Supreme Court for the Territory of Iowa: Charles T. Mason from Burlington (Chief Justice), Joseph Williams from Muscatine (Bloomington), and Thomas S. Wilson from Dubuque. With this 1838 assignment, each man was appointed to serve a regional district: Wilson to the north in Dubuque, Mason to the south in Burlington, and Williams in the center in Muscatine (Bloomington).

Over the first year, each of these men traveled extensively around their District of Iowa Territory, overseeing court proceedings as needed. But during the early summer of 1839, near Dubuque, a civic case was brewing and it all exploded in early July, culminating in this new Supreme Court’s very first assignment.

The case was entitled: In the matter of Ralph (a colored man), on Habeas Corpus, and it focused on a Missouri farmer named Jordan J. Montgomery and the ownership issue surrounding his slave, Ralph, who was living and working in Dubuque.

On this page we use the beautiful artwork of Leroy Foster (1960) entitled The Hero to depict Ralph Montgomery – Click here to see more – The Hero, Leroy Foster, Detroit Institute of Art.

Ralph came into the world, born in Virginia, as Rafe Nelson (about 1795), but early on, became Ralph Montgomery, taking the last name of his slave master, William Montgomery. After being taken to Kentucky by his first owner, Ralph, who described himself as “quite a chunk of a field hand,” was sold to Montgomery’s son, Jordon, in 1830 (see the agonizing story below, as related by author Richard Acton)…

FYI- The article has a misprint – actual date is 1830 – not 1930.

Soon after this slave purchase (1832), Jordan Montgomery relocated to Palmyra in Marion County, Missouri (northwest of Hannibal), registering his Kentucky “purchase” on May 21 of that same year. It was in Palmyra where Ralph met up with a white man named Ellis Schofield, who had just returned from a productive trip to the Dubuque lead mines, telling glowing tales of boundless wealth. Ralph became “seized with a burning desire to go and work out his own salvation,” according to the Janesville Gazette in Wisconsin, and on January 1, 1834, worked out a “trade agreement” with Montgomery to reside in Iowa Territory where he would earn enough money ($550 plus interest) to purchase his freedom. Historians believe that Montgomery made this agreement with Ralph, not out of any compassion, but simply because Montgomery was in a tight cash bind at the time. Selling Ralph for the going slave price of $550 was simply a financial move for Montgomery, and nothing else. Acton tells us what happened next…

Alexander Butterworth moved to Dubuque from Missouri and was quite successful in mining lead. His land (see 1855 map below) was just south of Dubuque and it’s believed that Ralph Montgomery’s mining property was located just west of Butterworth’s land.

By May of 1839, with Ralph still unable to pay off his debt, Montgomery, who was now under extreme financial pressure back home, paid $100 to two Virginia bounty hunters, instructing them to go to Dubuque, abduct Ralph, and return him to his “rightful home” – slavery in Missouri.

When the bounty hunters arrived in Dubuque (the last week of May), they swore out an affidavit that Ralph was a fugitive, so a Dubuque court official gave them permission to go find Ralph, who was working on his own claim, handcuff him, and return him to Missouri.

Fortunately for Ralph, his good neighbor, Alexander Butterworth, caught wind of the kidnapping, and quickly ran into town to notify Judge Thomas S. Wilson, the newly-appointed judge on the Territory’s Supreme Court. Since Dubuque’s population at the time was less than 200, both men, who obviously knew Ralph well, were not content to have a fellow neighbor be treated in such manner.

Judge Wilson acted quickly, writing up, for Butterworth, what is called a writ of habeas corpus (a legal term that is used to bring a person before a court to ensure their imprisonment is not illegal), and then ordered the Dubuque County sheriff to follow the bounty hunters, making them bring Ralph back to Dubuque so a fair trial could be conducted on the matter. Armed with Wilson’s writ of habeas corpus, the sheriff and Butterworth caught up with the trio in Bellevue (see map above), where they had already boarded a south-bound riverboat to Missouri. The ship’s captain, not wanting to break any Iowa laws, immediately turned the boat northward, returning Ralph, his abductors, and the Dubuque posse to the scene of the crime.

Dubuque by artist J.C. Wild (1845)

With Ralph safely back in Dubuque, Wilson proceeded to set up a hearing for the Third District Court of which he was the judge. Acton, once again, tells us more…

The Ralph v. Montgomery case, the first case assigned to this new entity, the Iowa Supreme Court, opened in Burlington on Thursday morning, 8:00 A.M. – July 4, 1839 with attorney J.D. Learned repre­senting the slave owner Montgomery, while Ralph’s attorney was the young David Rorer of Burlington, a man destined to become one of the leading figures of the Iowa bar.

Learned argued for Montgomery that Ralph had not lived up to his part of the arrangement made with his client and therefore he should be returned to Missouri under conditions of the Fugitive Slave Law.

Rorer, on the other hand, argued that by living in Iowa, when the area was made a U.S. Territory by Congress, established Ralph as a free man. Rorer also used an English case in which it was ruled that a slave having lived in a free country could not be taken to another land that would again lead him into slavery. According to Rorer, the only obligation Ralph owed was to raise the $550 for his former owner in Missouri.

From the Iowa Supreme Court’s Order Book – Volume A (1838-1853)

On the afternoon of July 4, 1839, a huge decision was announced – one that truly bolstered the abolitionist movement across Iowa. Judge George T. Mason along with Joseph Williams (Thomas S. Wilson excused himself since he had already spoken on behalf of the Third District Court in Dubuque), ruled that by allowing Ralph to come into a free land, Montgomery had granted freedom to his slave, citing two regional laws that specifically forbade slavery as the U.S. expanded westward.

First, the Ordinance of 1787 governing the Northwest Territory stated that “no man shall be deprived of his liberty…but by the law of the land…and that “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” in these new western lands (see map above).

Secondly, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 stated that “slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes…shall be…forever prohibited” north of Missouri, and that “no man can be reduced to slavery.” 

Chief Justice Mason, in writing the court’s decision, said…

The master who, subsequently to that Act, permits his slave to become a resident here, cannot, afterwards, exercise any acts of ownership over him within this territory.

While the court conceded that Ralph should pay the amount initially agreed to, it also stipulated that “non-payment could not reduce a man to slavery in this territory.

So, on July 4, 1839 – Independence Day – Ralph, the 44-year old slave from Missouri, was now a free man living in Dubuque, Iowa!

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court did not give Dred Scott the same freedoms Iowa granted to Ralph Montgomery in 1839.

Sadly, the U.S. Supreme Court faced a similar question eighteen years later when it decided the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case. Unlike the Iowa Supreme Court’s ruling, the nation’s highest court maintained the rights of the Missouri slave holder, ordering Scott to be returned to his owner. That ruling deepened the nation’s awareness of the slavery issue and wouldn’t be overturned until the time of the Civil War, when President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Records show that “Old Rafe,” as he became know, remained in Dubuque for the remainder of his life. According to the State Historical Society of Iowa, Ralph showed up one spring day in 1840 to work in Judge T.S. Wilson’s garden.

“I ain’t paying you for what you done for me,” Ralph said. “But I want to work for you one day every spring to show you that I never forget.”

While not much is known about how he lived the remainder of his life, we do know he continued to mine lead and was a familiar figure around town. The Dubuque Times (see obituary below) credited Ralph with finding several valuable lodes, but eventually falling on hard times. During his later years, he lived in the county poor house, eventually succumbing to smallpox on July 23, 1870 after he contracted the disease while caring for another patient.

Old Rafe, as he is called in his obituary, is described as…

(A) tall, slim figure, his kinky locks literally besprinkled with gray, his benevolent, shining countenance, which seemed at be the abode of a perennial smile, and the kindly eye which had a look of recognition for all

Ralph Montgomery was buried in the Dubuque city cemetery, which later became known as Jackson Park. When that cemetery closed, Ralph’s remains were moved to Linwood Cemetery.

“Shattering Silence,” which features a ring made of limestone quarried in Dubuque, was designed by artist James Ellwanger and installed in Des Moines (2009) on the 170th anniversary of the Iowa Territory Supreme Court’s landmark decision in the Ralph Montgomery case.

On October 1, 2016 a monument to Ralph was unveiled in Linwood Cemetery in Dubuque “in an ongoing effort to highlight Iowa’s role in ‘shattering the silence’ on the issue of racial inequality.”

“We are, in fact, gathered today to honor a man who has brought such honor to this state by helping us discover not only who we were at that time, but who we would hope to
become today,” said Mark Cady, chief justice of the Iowa Supreme Court.“Ralph Montgomery suffered through the indignity of slavery to rise and stand against it and help forge a great meaning … of our collective belief in equality, both then and now.”

Here’s a tip of the old hat to Judges Charles T. Mason and Thomas S. Wilson, and especially to Ralph Montgomery (Rafe Nelson). Thank you for starting Iowa off on the right foot – walking on the road to freedom.

Read more about the abolitionist/anti-slavery movement in Iowa prior to the Civil War.

Click here to read about Muscatine’s Alexander Clark, his daughter Susan, and Supreme Court Justice Chester Cole, who ruled in favor of integrating public schools in Iowa in 1868.

Click here to read about Judge Joseph M. Beck, Iowa’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, who ruled in favor Emma Cogen and her civil rights – bolstering the cause for both blacks and women in 1873.

Click here to see a complete list of Rich Stories of Diversity in Iowa.

Click here to access our Rich Stories of Diversity Timeline.


Artwork used to depict Ralph Montgomery – The Hero, Leroy Foster, Detroit Institute of Art, 1960

Ralph Montgomery, Dubuque Encyclopedia

To Go Free, Richard Acton, The Palimpsest, Volume 70 – Number 2 – Article 2, April 1, 1989, pp 50-61

Civil Rights: Celebrating 50 Years of Higher Quality Through Equality, Iowa Civil Rights Commission, 2015

Early Civil Rights Cases, Iowa Judicial Branch, IowaCourts.gov

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

Chapter 5 – Iowans and the Civil War, Dorothy Schwieder, Iowa – The Middle Land, University of Iowa Press, 1996, pp 68-69

Shattering Silence, Darcy Maulsby blog

Iowa Supreme Court Ruling on Montgomery v. Ralph, 1839, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs

Past Justices, Iowa Judicial Branch, IowaCourts.gov

Ralph Montgomery, Find-A-Grave

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