Ralph Montgomery

In the early 1830s a man named Ralph Montgomery heard that a fortune could be made at the Dubuque, Iowa lead mines. But Ralph Montgomery was a slave. He was not allowed to leave the slave state of Missouri to travel to free territory unless his owner, Jordan Montgomery, went with him. In the spring of 1834 Jordan wrote an agreement giving Ralph permission to travel to Dubuque. Ralph promised to pay Jordan $550 plus interest in return for his freedom.


Ralph worked in the lead mines for four years but never made enough money to buy his freedom. Two slave-catchers offered to return Ralph to Jordan for $100. They captured and handcuffed Ralph and prepared to send him back to Missouri on a Mississippi riverboat. Fortunately for Ralph, Alexander Butterworth, a concerned eyewitness, saw Ralph's capture. With the aid of Judge T.S. Wilson and a court order, he rescued Ralph from his captors just in time.

First Supreme Court Case

Ralph's freedom rested in the hands of the newly established Iowa Supreme Court and Judge Wilson, one of Iowa's first judges. The court had to decide whether or not Ralph was a fugitive slave. The case, called "In the Matter of Ralph (a colored man)," made history as the first decision of the Iowa Supreme Court. On Independence Day 1839 Ralph was declared a free man.

About a year after the hearing, the same judge saw Ralph again, working in the garden behind the judge's house. He asked Ralph what he was doing.

"I ain't paying you for what you done for me. But I want to work for you one day every spring to show you that I never forget," Ralph replied. Ralph was true to his word.


  • Elaine Croyle Bezanson, “Ralph Montgomery,” The Goldfinch 16, no. 4 (Summer 1995): 6.