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WILSON, Thomas S.

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Thomas S. Wilson

WILSON, Thomas S. (Steubenville, OH, Oct. 13, 1813--Dubuque, IA, May 16, 1894). Wilson graduated from Jefferson College in Pennsylvania in 1833, and, after studying law two years, was admitted to the bar by the Supreme Court of Ohio in 1834. (1) He immediately began practice with General Stokely, at Steubenville.

Determined to go west and having a brother, Capt. George Wilson, of the 1st U.S. Infantry, under command of Col. Zachary Taylor, at Prairie du Chien, Wilson went there with his wife. In October 1836 when they moved to Dubuque.

In the spring of 1837, Wilson was elected President of the Board of Trustees of the town of Dubuque. (2) Iowa was then a part of Wisconsin Territory, and contained two counties - Dubuque and Des Moines. Until July 4, 1838, he practiced law in Dubuque, Mineral Point, Lancaster and Prairie du Chien. (3) 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. (4) The first court ever held in Iowa Territory was held by Judge Wilson at Prairie la Porte, now Guttenburg, on the second Monday in September, 1838. (5)

The controversy concerning the right of the Government to lease the LEAD mines of Dubuque was brought before the District Court. Judge Wilson decided against the right of the Government to lease the mines, claiming that, while there had been an act of Congress in reference to mines in Indiana Territory, there had been none respecting those west of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. As soon as the judge's decision had been sent to Washington, the Secretary of War, Honorable John C. Spencer, wrote Wilson a sharp letter, threatening that he would speedily be removed from office. (6)

In June, 1838, Wilson was nominated to become a delegate to Congress. While taking a steamer, to canvass the southern part of the state, he was informed by the captain that a St. Louis paper, which he had on board, contained the announcement of his (Mr. Wilson's) appointment, by President Van Buren, as one of three judges of the Supreme Court of Iowa.

In 1839 at Prairie la Porte, the future site of Guttenberg, the first case heard before the court involved Ralph MONTGOMERY. (7) The decision of the court to free the slave who was living in Iowa was later overruled by the Dred Scott Case decision of the United States Supreme Court.(8)

Wilson's appointment was renewed by Presidents Tyler and Polk. He continued on the Supreme Court until a year after the admission of Iowa into the Union as a State in 1846. (9) When the first Legislature met and went into joint ballot, he came within one vote of being elected United States Senator. (10)

In October 1847, Wilson resigned from the bench and entered into private law practice with his brother David S. WILSON and Platt SMITH, a man with whom the judge had financed the construction of the Globe Building in downtown Dubuque. (11) In 1853 Thomas Wilson and Smith successfully argued the landmark case of CHOUTEAU v. MOLONY before the United States Supreme Court. He later remarked that for the two years of work on the case, he received the enormous fee of two hundred dollars. (12) The same year Wilson presented the case of FANNING V. GREGOIRE before the Supreme Court.

Having lost the chance to serve as an Iowa senator, Wilson resumed his interest in politics once off the judicial bench. He campaigned against George Wallace JONES in 1853 and 1858. In the latter election, neither Jones or Wilson could overcome the division of the Democratic Party over slavery. Jones and Wilson received votes in the legislature, but James W. Grimes, the Republican, went to the Senate. (13)

In April 1852, he was elected, without opposition, Judge of the District Court, and by successive elections, held the office until January 1, 1863. Wilson, a Democrat, was defeated for re-election to the bench in the fall of 1862 by the soldiers' vote. (14) He held the first courts ever held in the counties of Clayton, Delaware, Jones, Allamakee, Winneshiek, Black Hawk, Bremer, Chickasaw, Fayette and Clinton. (15) Judge Wilson never had ten cases reversed during all the time he was on the bench. (16)

In 1855 the following this newspaper editorial appeared in the Express and Herald:

            Hon. T. S. Wilson--The thanks of the legal fraternity
            the the public are due to this gentleman for the
            straight-forward, energetic discharge of his duties in
            the late protracted session of the District Court of
            this county. The session has been a long one. The cases
            of the docket numerous, embracing 64 chancery suits,
            206 civil cases and 28 State cases, all of which were
            disposed of, owning in a great measure to the business
            tact, and address of the Judge.  More praise is due the
            Judge, when we take into consideration the fact, that
            this was an extra session, for which there is no extra
            compensation allowed. It is agreed by all, that the
            Judge's labors have been arduous, that he has been
            faithful to the trust imposed on him, and honorable
            acquitted himself to the satisfaction of all concerned. (17)

Judge Wilson was elected to two consecutive terms to the Legislature, in 1866 and 1868. At the session in 1866, he was offered by the Democratic members, the nomination of United States senator, which he declined. He was also a member of the Cincinnati convention, and took and active part in the nomination of Mr. Buchanan for the presidency.

Judge Wilson was twice married; his first wife, whom he married in Ohio before he came west, was Miss Anna Hoge, daughter of David Hoge, of Steubenville, Ohio. He married Miss Mary Stokely, his second wife, in 1864; they had five children.

At the time of his death, it was pointed out the Wilson had a continuous service as lawyer and judge of sixty years--1834 to 1894. (19) He was also the last charter member of Dubuque Lodge No. 3 of the Masonic Order. (20)



1. Hoffman, M. M. "The Wilsons of Dubuque," Des Moines: Annuals of Iowa, Vol.XXI No. 5, July 1938, p. 323

2. "Death of Judge Wilson," Dubuque Daily Herald, May 17, 1894, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18940517&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

3. Oldt, Franklin T., History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Association, 1880, p. 900

4. Ibid.

5. Andreas, A. T. Illustrated Historical Atlas of the State of Iowa, 1875, Online: http://files.usgwarchives.net/ia/state/history/andreas/bios/wilsont.txt

6. Hoffman, p. 326

7. "Death of Judge Wilson."

8. Portrait and Biographical Record of Dubuque, Jones and Clayton Counties, Iowa. Chicago: Chapman Publishing Company, 1894, p. 247

9. Oldt.

10. Hoffman, p. 326

11. Hoffman, p. 327

12. Ibid.

13. Hoffman, p. 328

14. The Iowa Legislature. "Thomas S. Wilson," Online: https://www.legis.iowa.gov/legislators/legislator/legislatorAllYears?personID=6062

15. Portrait and Biographical Record of Dubuque, Jones and Clayton Counties, Iowa

16. Ibid.

17. "Hon. T.S. Wilson," Express and Herald, December 21, 1855, p. 2

18. Hoffman, p. 328

19. Ibid.

20. "Municipal Molecules," Dubuque Daily Herald, May 18, 1894, p. 4