Our Iowa Heritage: T. S. Wilson – Dubuque’s Good Neighbor.

On July 4, 1838, President Martin Van Buren appointed Robert Lucas governor of the new U.S. Territory of Iowa. Next, he chose three reliable men from around the Territory to serve as Iowa’s first Supreme Court. Each were highly respected in their communities: Charles T. Mason in Burlington, Joseph Williams in Muscatine/Bloomington, and Thomas S. Wilson in Dubuque. With the 1838 assignment, each man was given a regional district to serve: Wilson to the north in Dubuque, Mason to the south in Burlington, and Williams in the center in Muscatine (Bloomington).

The truth is that most of the pictures we have of T.S. Wilson (see above) were taken when he was much older, so it’s often overlooked when telling his Iowa story that Wilson was only twenty-five years old when President Van Buren gave him this challenging assignment as Supreme Court justice – a position he held until one year after Iowa became a state in 1846.

Dubuque in its earliest days…

Interestingly enough, Wilson found out about his new appointment from a steamboat captain as they were headed south on the Mississippi River from Dubuque to Keokuk. As the story goes, the ship’s captain read the story in a St. Louis newspaper and broke the news to young Wilson…

Surprise! You’re now one of three judges representing the entire legal system for the new Territory of Iowa! Have a nice day!

So, in order to better know the story of Thomas Stokley Wilson, allow me to share a few facts – courtesy of biographical writings about him found in the 1894 Reunion Journal of The Law Makers Association of Iowa

In the above article, 1) Edwin M. Stanton is mentioned – Stanton became President Lincoln’s Secretary of War during the Civil War, and 2) The “Fighting McCooks” – brave patriots during the American Revolutionary War.
This 1912 postcard features “The Grove” – the 1830’s home of Samuel Stokley in Steubenville, Ohio.

After being admitted to the bar in 1835, Thomas Wilson began practicing law with his uncle, General Samuel Stokely of Steubenville, Ohio – a partnership that continued many years after Thomas moved west to Iowa.

An early map of the Upper Mississippi River valley by Phillippe Marie Vandermaelen, Brussels, 1825 – Along the green line (Mississippi River) below the red line and near the yellow line can be seen “Maison de Msr. Dubuque’s” which translates: House of Mr. Dubuque (Julien Dubuque).

Contrary to the advice and wishes of his family and friends in Steubenville, 23-year-old Thomas was determined to head westward. So, with his brother, Capt. George Wilson, already being stationed at Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin Territory, Wilson proceeded, making some pretty big travel plans…

From Honorable Thomas S. Wilson, Dubuque Herald, Law Makers Association of Iowa – Reunion of 1894.

Thus, by the flipping of one silver dollar, Thomas and Anna Wilson settled in Dubuque and by the spring of 1837, Wilson was elected President of the Board of Trustees for that young city. As he did back in Steubenville, Thomas practiced law, working cases in Dubuque, Mineral Point, Lancaster and Prairie du Chien. In January 1838 he was appointed by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature as one of three commissioners to settle the titles and claims to the Half-Breed Tract in far southeastern Iowa. It’s the work he accomplished in that assignment that most likely gave Wilson the favor he needed to be nominated as a delegate to the Territorial Legislature in Burlington (June 1838), representing the northern counties of Iowa.

As the newly appointed Supreme Court Justice (July 1838), Thomas went right to work, overseeing judicial matters throughout the northern region of the Territory. On the second Tuesday of September, 1838 (September 11), Judge Wilson presided over the very first court session ever convened in Iowa – The Third District Court at Prairie La Porte, where the village of Gutenburg now stands today.

In late May (1839) a Dubuque man named Alexander Butterworth came running into Judge Wilson’s office. Butterworth was a well-respected lead-miner who owned property just south of Dubuque, and apparently he had just seen his neighbor, Ralph Montgomery, a fellow lead-miner with property to the west, being kidnapped by two strangers. Keep in mind that Dubuque’s population at this time was less than 200, so both men, Butterworth and Wilson, knew Ralph well, and neither were content to have a fellow neighbor be treated in such manner.

You see, Ralph was a black man. A former slave of a man named Montgomery from Palmyra, Missouri. Ralph had come to Dubuque five years earlier (1834) with the intent of making enough money from lead mining to pay his owner for his freedom.

The Shattering Silence Monument was dedicated in Des Moines on October 22, 2009. This sculpture was designed to resemble shards of glass and celebrates the tradition in Iowa’s courts of ensuring the rights and liberties of all the people of the State.

You can read the full story here, but suffice to say that this kidnapping attempt of Dubuque’s Ralph Montgomery led to Judge Wilson and his two fellow justices (Mason and Williams) making Iowa’s very first Supreme Court decision on a case entitled…

In the matter of Ralph (a colored man), on Habeas Corpus.

The Bottom line: On July 4, 1839 – Independence Day – Ralph, the former slave, was declared by Iowa’s Supreme Court to be a free man! Click here to read more…

U.S. Land Grants included Warrants given to U.S. War Veterans – redeemable for 160 acres of land anywhere in the United States.

As we mentioned earlier, T.S. Wilson served as a Supreme Court justice through 1847, his appointment being renewed by both Presidents Tyler and Polk. When the first State Legislature met in Iowa City (1846), Thomas’ statewide popularity was evident as he came within one vote of being elected as Iowa’s first United States Senator.

Yet, just as it is so often in life, that 1846 political loss actually led Wilson to the next successful chapter of his life. In 1847, when he resigned his office as Justice of the Supreme Court, T.S. returned to practicing law, re-establishing his working relationship with his uncle back in Steubenville, Ohio, General Samuel Stokley, and partnering with his brother David S. Wilson, and Dubuque entrepreneur, Platt Smith. Their focus was government land grants – assisting easterners who wanted to either invest in America’s new west, or like Wilson, move here and start a new life for themselves.

(C-0276) This rare stampless letter postmarked July 1851 in Washington City (DC) is addressed to Gen. S. Stokley (Wilson’s uncle) – Care of Stm (Platt Smith) & Tho. S. Wilson – Dubuque, Iowa.
What are Mexican Warrants? From 1846-1848, The U.S. went to war with Mexico, fighting over ownership of Texas. Those U.S. soldiers who served in the war, immediately upon discharge, received a federal bounty land warrant, redeemable for 160 acres of land anywhere in the United States. These warrants were also redeemable for $100 in scrip. Sadly, many war veterans were swindled out of their warrants by unscrupulous land speculators who took unfair advantage of returning veterans ignorant of the warrant’s true worth. Many parted with their warrants for $50 or less. Here, in our letter, M. Synder from Washington DC is looking to sell Mexican warrants to Stokley & Wilson for $150 each. At that price, a one-hundred and sixty acre piece of land in Iowa would be priced at 94 cents per acre. Today, good farm land in Iowa would sell for over $9,000 per acre = nearly $1.5 million!

Chouteau v. Molony – This monumental court case in 1853 was argued by T.S. Wilson and his law partner, Platt Smith, defending the good people of Dubuque against the Chouteau family of St. Louis, who was claiming the land where the city of Dubuque was built was originally “deeded” to their family by Julien Dubuque in 1804. Here’s the full story…

Julien Dubuque was a shrewd businessman, making great amounts of money from his lead mining, fur trading, and other business ventures. But records show that Dubuque was also a poor money manager, finding himself deeply in financial debt, especially to Auguste Chouteau of St. Louis. On October 20, 1804 Dubuque sold Chouteau nearly one-half of 73,000 acres to settle his indebtedness. The settlement agreement provided that after Dubuque’s death, the remainder of his interest in the lands would pass to Chouteau or his heirs. Chouteau was also able to persuade his friend, Governor William Henry Harrison, to add a clause to the Black Hawk Treaty, negotiated in 1832 with the Sauk and Fox (Meskwaki) tribes, recognizing that the west bank of the Mississippi belonged to these tribes, but it did not include Spanish land grants in the area (Dubuque’s property). The question of the ownership was not settled until 1853, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided in favor of the people of Dubuque, defeating Chauteau’s hope of owning it all. Interestingly enough, T.S. Wilson later remarked that for the two years of work on this case, he received “the enormous fee” of two hundred dollars!

Wilson and Platt won that case for the city of Dubuque, and in 1855, this editorial, praising T.S. Wilson for his faithful service to the community, appeared in the Dubuque Express and Herald:

Old Capitol in Des Moines 1857-1887

In 1866, and again in 1868, Judge Wilson was elected to two consecutive terms to the State Legislature, and at the session in 1866, was asked by the Democratic members to receive their nomination for United States Senator, but he declined.

Judge Wilson was married three times. His first wife: Anna W. Hoge (1819-1854) – married in 1836 and died at age 35 in 1854 (see gravestone above). His second wife: Mary Wood – married in 1855. His third wife: Mary Barton (1829-1918), former wife of Wilson’s uncle, General Samuel Stokely – married in 1865 (above right).

Justice T.S. Wilson (1813-1894) died on May 16th, at age 80, and is buried in Linwood Cemetery in Dubuque, along his first and third wives, Anna W. Hoge and Mary Barton.

From Honorable Thomas S. Wilson, Dubuque Herald, Law Makers Association of Iowa – Reunion of 1894.

Here’s a tip of the old hat to this grand old gentleman of Dubuque, Judge T. S. Wilson. Thank you for all you did for your Iowa neighbors. We’re certainly glad that silver dollar toss in 1836 went our way!


Honorable Thomas S. Wilson, Dubuque Herald, Law Makers Association of Iowa – Reunion of 1894 – 4th Meeting, G.H. Ragsdale, Publisher, Des Moines, 1894, pp 142-143

General Samuel Stokley, Wikipedia

T.S. Wilson history-John Burton, Encylopedia-Dubuque

Thomas S. Wilson, Encyclopedia-Dubuque

Thomas Stokley Wilson, The Iowa Legislature

Thomas S. Wilson (1838-1847), Iowa Judicial Branch

Past Justices, Iowa Judicial Branch, IowaCourts.gov

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

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

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

Shattering Silence, Darcy Maulsby blog

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

Research Guide, The Descendants of Mexican War Veterans, DMWV

Chouteau v. Molony, Encyclopedia-Dubuque

Julien Dubuque, Encyclopedia-Dubuque

Four Score Years, Dubuque Daily Herald, October 14, 1893, p 4

Judge Thomas S. Wilson of Dubuque, Obituary, The Morning Democrat, Davenport, May 17, 1894, p 1

Anna W. Hoge Wilson, Find-A-Grave

Mary Barton Wilson, Find-A-Grave

Judge Thomas Stokley Wilson, Find-A-Grave

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