Last October, Dubuque citizens along with local and state dignitaries gathered in Linwood Cemetery to dedicate a monument to Ralph Montgomery, a former slave who died more than 145 years ago.
Who was Ralph and why was he honored? Ralph was a slave born in Virginia in about 1795 and originally called Rafe Nelson. Later, he was named Montgomery after his owner who took Ralph to Kentucky. On November 5, 1830, William Montgomery sold five of his slaves, including Ralph, to his son Jordan for $820. Jordan moved Ralph and his other slaves to northeast Missouri in 1832 where Ralph labored for his new master for two years – he was described as “quite a chunk of a field hand” in an 1870 Dubuque Times newspaper article.
While working in Missouri, Ralph came across a man named Ellis Schofield, who had just returned from the lead mines of the upper Mississippi River regions. Schofield claimed there was boundless wealth in the lead mines – a fortune just waiting to be claimed.
Under financial difficulties, Jordan Montgomery agreed to Ralph’s suggestion that he be allowed to go north to the lead mines in order to earn enough money to buy his freedom. A contract was signed in which Ralph promised to pay his owner $550 with interest to begin on January 1, 1835.
With the contract in his pocket, Ralph travelled 300 miles from Palmyra, Missouri to the settlement on the Mississippi River where Julien Dubuque had lived among the Native Americans before his death in 1810. Ralph arrived in early 1834 and immediately began mining lead in an area just west of Dubuque. Unfortunately, Ralph’s initial efforts met with little success.
Meanwhile, back in Missouri, Jordan Montgomery’s money woes worsened. In May of 1839, he hired two bounty hunters, historically referred to as “the Virginians,” to bring Ralph back to Missouri.
Under Iowa’s January 1839 “Act to Regulate Blacks and Mulattoes,” an act which worked as a fugitive slave law, the Virginians requested a justice of the peace to order the sheriff to deliver Ralph to them. The sheriff and the Virginians found Ralph working his mineral claim west of Dubuque. They handcuffed him, loaded him onto a wagon, and drove him south to Bellevue where they put him on board a steamer docked on the Mississippi River.
Fortunately, Alexander Butterworth, one of Ralph’s fellow miners who worked an adjoining claim, witnessed the seizure. Outraged, he hurried to Dubuque Judge T.S. Wilson, an associate judge on the brand new Supreme Court of the Territory of Iowa. Judge Wilson issued a writ of habeas corpus and instructed the sheriff to bring Ralph back to Dubuque. Writ in hand, the sheriff galloped down to Bellevue and rescued Ralph before the captain could navigate his boat into the river’s current.
Due to its importance, Ralph’s case proceeded to the Supreme Court of the Territory of Iowa. On July 4, 1839, that court sat to hear what would become the first case entered into the Iowa Law Reports. The court issued its unanimous decision by the end of the day.
Chief Justice Charles Mason wrote the court’s opinion in “The Matter of Ralph (a colored man).” He wrote, “Property, in the slave, cannot exist without the existence of slavery: the prohibition of the latter annihilates the former, and this, being destroyed, he becomes free… It is therefore ordered and adjudged that he (Ralph) be discharged from further duress and restraint, and that he go hence.”
A free man, Ralph returned to his diggings and eventually did strike several rich veins of lead – among them was the famed McKinzie lead “which yielded millions of pounds of mineral and resulted in mines of wealth.” Eventually, Ralph sold his claim for a good price, but “being of an easy, confiding turn of mind, he permitted himself to be swindled out of it.” Regardless of his worth, Ralph earned a position as a respected member of the tight-knit German/Irish community of Dubuque and was even invited to become a member of the prestigious Old Settlers Association.
The 1870 Times article described Ralph in his later years as: “[a] tall, slim figure, [with] kinky locks literally besprinkled with gray, [a] benevolent, shining countenance which seemed to be the abode of a perpetual smile, and a kindly eye which had the look of recognition to all.” After losing his fortune, Ralph spent his final years living in the County Poor House where he said, “The beef was poor, the coffee muddy, and the dishes dirty.”
Ralph’s died of smallpox on July 22, 1870, “having contracted the disease while nursing a sick patient.” After his death, “His remains, interred at the hands of charity, now lie in the Potter’s Field,” wrote the Dubuque Times. Ralph, along with many of Dubuque’s earliest settlers, was buried in an unmarked grave on a grassy slope in Linwood Cemetery.
Fast forward 146 years to the dedication of Ralph’s monument on October 1, 2016. “Iowa stepped up to the plate,” said Anthony Allen, President of the Dubuque chapter of the NAACP and one of the speakers at the Linwood Cemetery dedication ceremony.
Yes, Iowa stepped up to the plate in 1839 when the Supreme Court of the Territory of Iowa granted Ralph his freedom, and Iowa stepped up to the plate again in 2016 when Ralph Montgomery was honored with the placement of a beautifully engraved monument in Linwood Cemetery.