Editor's note: Historical accounts about Ralph Montgomery sometimes provide conflicting details. The information presented here comes from multiple sources, whenever possible deferring to those that agree, to individuals who knew Ralph and to publications from the era.
First of two parts
DUBUQUE | He was born into slavery, a piece of property allowed only to serve others. Even his name belonged to someone else.
Later in life, he was allowed an opportunity to earn enough money to buy his freedom. Unable to meet that obscene obligation, Ralph Montgomery instead wound up setting legal precedent in the territory that would become Iowa -- when Iowans intervened and rescued Montgomery from being forcibly returned to his former master.
He came into the world as Rafe Nelson, probably in about 1795. But early on he became Ralph Montgomery, named for his slave master in Virginia.
After being taken to Kentucky by his owner, Ralph, in his 20s was "quite a chunk of a field hand." Despite that fact -- or perhaps because of it -- Ralph Montgomery, the master, sold his slave and namesake to a brother.
The new owner, William Montgomery, sold Ralph in 1830 to a son, Jordan Montgomery, described in a newspaper account as "kind and indulgent."
Jordan Montgomery subsequently took his chattel to Palmyra, Mo., and Ralph served his owner there for about two years.
"Here Ralph met a white man named Ellis Schofield, who had but just returned from a trip to the upper Mississippi lead regions, and who related such glowing tales of boundless wealth to be acquired there that Ralph became seized with a burning desire to go and work out his own salvation," according to the Janesville, Wis., Gazette.
Jordan Montgomery and Ralph worked out a written agreement in 1834. Ralph agreed to pay $550, with interest, for his freedom. He crossed into the Territory of Michigan, a large expanse that included acres destined to become the Territory of Wisconsin and later the Territory of Iowa.
He traveled to Iowa "strong of purpose and light of heart," according to a story in the Janesville Gazette in 1870.
Ralph went to work mining lead in Dubuque. But after five years, he had still not repaid the debt. The problem was the high cost of living, and Ralph apparently struggled simply to pay room and board, according to historian Dorothy Schwieder, author of "Iowa: The Middle Land."
At the same time, Jordan Montgomery experienced financial difficulties, struggling to repay a $4,000 bank loan. Two men, Virginians, offered to return Ralph to his cash-strapped master in Missouri.
"Ralph's contract with Montgomery was evidently no secret at the diggings," according to Robert Dykstra, author of "Bright Radical Star. "Two Virginians, viewing the slave's predicament as more than just a good joke, wrote to Montgomery, offering to return the defaulting black to Missouri."
Their price: $100.
"Montgomery, by no means inclined to write off Ralph as bad debt, accepted the offer," according to Dykstra.
The Virginians swore an affidavit in front of a justice of the peace that Ralph was a fugitive, and the court official ordered the local sheriff to assist Montgomery's men. The group found Ralph at his mineral claim, put him in handcuffs and loaded him onto a wagon.
Alexander Butterworth, variously described as a farmer, businessman, concerned eyewitness and noble-hearted Irishman, apparently was plowing a nearby field and saw the kidnapping. The Virginians got as far as a riverboat in Bellevue before their plan dissolved.
Butterworth hurried to Thomas Wilson, 24, in Dubuque, already an associate judge on the newly formed Supreme Court of the Territory of Iowa.
"Judge Wilson wrote out an order by which the sheriff was to follow the two men who were carrying Ralph away and bring him back to Dubuque," Hubert Moller wrote years later.
"Armed with a writ of habeas corpus (which means to produce the body) ... and accompanied by the reanimated sheriff, Butterworth galloped to the rescue," according to Dykstra.
"(Butterworth) and the officer reached dockside just in time and forced the captain to return Ralph to Dubuque for a hearing before Judge Wilson," Dykstra wrote.
Authorities established the high court in 1838 in Burlington. Charles Mason of Burlington was chief justice, a native of New York. Mason attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point with Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederate States of America, and with Robert E. Lee, later the South's commanding general.
Besides Wilson, the other associate judge was Joseph Williams of Muscatine, a native of Pennsylvania. During his career, Williams had the distinction of being appointed to the bench by five presidents. The last was Abraham Lincoln.
The court's inaugural case was titled "In the matter if Ralph (a colored man), on Habeas Corpus." The legal question was whether Montgomery had a legitimate claim to demand Ralph's return.
David Rorer, also a native of Virginia and former slave owner in Arkansas, served as Ralph's attorney. Rorer was "one of the brightest legal lights in the territory," according to Dykstra.
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Montgomery's lawyers argued when Ralph relocated, slavery was not specifically prohibited in Iowa under the so-called Missouri Compromise of 1820 since a local legislature had not taken additional action to ban it.
Montgomery's lawyers also claimed because Ralph failed to fulfill his contract, he was a fugitive slave.
Rorer countered his client was neither a slave nor a fugitive, in part because he entered a contract "which presupposes a state of freedom," and that Ralph became a free man when, by consent of his master, he moved into Iowa.
Rorer also cited Chapter 23 of the Book of Deuteronomy in the Bible, which says, in part: "Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: He shall dwell with thee, even among you."
The court, like Ralph's attorney, conceded Ralph should repay Montgomery -- with an important stipulation.
"It is a debt which he ought to pay, but for the non-payment of which no man in this territory can be reduced to slavery," Mason wrote.
Chief Justice Mason concluded Ralph "should be discharged from all custody and constraint, and be permitted to go free while he remains under the protection of our laws." The ruling was delivered on Independence Day, July 4, 1839.
According to the State Historical Society of Iowa, the next year Ralph turned up in Judge Wilson's garden, working. Ralph explained why.
"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 said.
He stayed in Dubuque, a free man, but not much is known about how he lived the remainder of his life.
Ralph continued to mine lead and was a familiar figure around town, clad in a "clay suit moving up the street, ready attired for business."
The Dubuque Times in 1870 credited him with finding several valuable lodes, but he eventually fell in hard times, either through being swindled or by gambling, according contradictory accounts. "His latter years were passed in comparative poverty," and he lived in the county poor house according to the Dubuque Times.
Ralph -- "a human landmark" in Dubuque -- succumbed to smallpox in the city's "pest house." He contracted the disease while caring for another patient.
"His remains, interred at the hands of charity, now lie in the Potter's Field," according to the Dubuque Times.
Ralph, the slave who made history, lies in an unmarked plot in Linwood Cemetery. He is next to dozens of other unknowns in a mass grave, early pioneers of the city, according to Kandi Perry, the cemetery's manager.
"We know he's buried here because his name is on a list," she said.
Perry, a native of Dubuque, only discovered Ralph's connection to Linwood Cemetery recently. Perry said a visitor last year brought home the significance of his story.
"'Ralph was responsible for me having my freedom," the visitor said. "Here's $20. In the spring, plant some flowers for him."
A sculpture outside the Iowa Supreme Court in Des Moines commemorates Ralph's case. "Shattering Silence" was designed by artist James Ellwanger and installed in 2009 on the 170th anniversary of the territorial court's decision.
The artwork is 30 feet tall and features a ring made of limestone quarried in Dubuque. The piece reportedly cost $500,000, paid for with donations.
Perry hopes to raise money to honor Ralph in his adopted hometown. A nearby stone over the mass grave in Linwood Cemetery reads, "Unknown but not forgotten." A small plastic cross bears Ralph's name.
Perry wants to do better.
"Seven hundred dollars would buy a flat granite marker that would last forever. ... For $2,000 we could get a nice upright marker and indicate that he was a free slave," she says.
"He's so important. His name should be somewhere where people can come to pay respect."