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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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MONTGOMERY, Ralph. (1795-Dubuque, IA, July 23, 1870). In failing to consider the case of Ralph, the United States Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision inflamed those in resistance to slavery in the United States. Ralph, a slave for a Mr. Montgomery in Missouri, took his owner's last name as his own, a common practice in pre-CIVIL WAR America. In 1835 Ralph's owner had given his slave a unique opportunity by granting him five years outside of Missouri if he wished to raise $550 to buy his freedom. (1) Ralph, hearing of the fortunes to be made in the LEAD mines of Dubuque, moved north.

After five years, when Ralph had still not earned the money, his Missouri owner hired two Virginians to return Ralph. The plan was to kidnap him, travel quickly to Bellevue, and board a steamboat. The kidnapping was witnessed by Alexander Butterworth, a Dubuque farmer. Butterworth hurried to town and contacted judge Thomas S. WILSON who wrote out orders to the sheriff to return Ralph to Dubuque. Wilson realized the importance of the case and asked that it be taken to the supreme court of Iowa territory. (2)

The kidnapping of Ralph led to the first case heard before the new territorial Supreme Court. David Rorer, Ralph's attorney, argued that by living in Iowa when the area was made a 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 his attorney, the only obligation Ralph owed was to raise the $550 for his former owner in Missouri.

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

The case, called "In the Matter of Ralph (a colored man)," made history as the first decision of the Iowa Supreme Court. The court with Chief Justice Charles Mason and Wilson and Joseph Williams as associate justices ruled that by allowing Ralph to come into a free land, the Missouri owner had granted his slave freedom. In the background to the decision were two regional laws forbidding slavery in Iowa. 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 no involuntary servitude" in the Northwest Territory of which Iowa was a part. 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. (3) On Independence Day 1839 Ralph was declared a free man. (4)

The ruling in the Ralph Case stands in stark comparison to the decision of the United States Supreme Court in the case of Dred Scott, a slave taken into free lands by his owner. Scott was declared to be a slave by the court that ruled that he, being a black, had no right to sue in United States courts. Historians can only guess what decision the court might have reached if the Ralph Case had been better known and what influence this might have had on events leading up to the Civil War.

It is said that a year later, Judge Wilson found Ralph working in the judge's garden. Ralph informed that judge that he was not working for what the judge had done for Ralph. The former slave just wanted the judge to know that he (Ralph) would never forget.

Ralph continued mining all his life and lived his final years in the county poorhouse. He died in the pesthouse of SMALLPOX, a disease he contracted while nursing a sick patient. (5)

He was buried in the City Cemetery which became in later years JACKSON PARK. When that cemetery was closed, the remains were among those moved to LINWOOD CEMETERY where they were buried in a mass grave now called "Gone But Not Forgotten."

Photo courtesy: Diane Harris

On October 1, 2016 a monument to Ralph was unveiled in Linwood Cemetery "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.” (6)

More than 60,000 people are buried in Linwood Cemetery. Montgomery’s monument is the only one known that does not mark a burial site. (7)



1. Moeller, Hubert L. "The Case of Ralph," The Des Moines Register, December 10, 1934.

2. Ibid.

3. "Dubuque Court Frees a Slave," Telegraph Herald, August 7, 1960, Iowa News, p. 1

4. Moeller

5. Richard, Lord Acton and Patricia Nassif Acton, To Go Free: A Treasury of Iowa's Legal Heritage, Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1995, p. 47

6. Goldstein, Bennett. "Ex-slave Who Won Freedom Honored at Dubuque Cemetery," THonline: http://www.thonline.com/news/tri-state/article_7eba22b5-1050-51a7-84ce-6dcf48bb53b3.html

Bezanson, Elaine Croyle, The Goldfinch 16: No. 4 (Summer 1995). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.

Iowa Judicial Branch, "Early Civil Rights Cases," http://www.iowacourtsonline.org/Public_Information/Iowa_Courts_History/Civil_Rights/

Tigges, Ralph. They Came From Dubuque, Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1983, p. 58-61