Some slaves lived in territorial Iowa, though slavery was not widespread. In 1834, Ralph, the slave of his Missouri owner Jordan Montgomery, came to work in the Dubuque mines. Ralph had agreed to labor in Dubuque to earn $550, plus interest, to buy his freedom. He labored for five years, but was unable to pay the debt. Living costs were simply too high to save much money.
In 1839 two Virginians offered to return the slave to his owner for $100. Montgomery did not want to lose his investment, so he agreed. The two Virginians swore that Ralph was a fugitive slave before a justice of the peace. A sheriff arrested Ralph and sent him to a riverboat in handcuffs. But a Dubuque merchant named Alexander Butterworth had watched the kidnapping. He got a writ of habeas corpus from Judge T.S. Wilson, which forced the case to be brought before a judge to determine the legal status of the arrest. Ralph was rescued just before the boat sailed and taken before Judge Wilson, who asked that the case be transferred to the new state supreme court. Wilson happened to be a member.
Ralph’s case was the second to come before the Iowa Supreme Court. Fortunately, he had a strong argument for his freedom. American law supported the rights of a slave who lived in free territory, while still owned as a slave. The Missouri Supreme Court had supported at least a dozen freedom suits from slaves who lived in Illinois. The Missouri Compromise, which specified that territory in the Louisiana Purchase north and west of Missouri would be free, helped Ralph’s case. The Iowa court ruled that Ralph was a free man—not a slave, nor a fugitive slave. On July 4, 1839 he was freed. The next spring, Judge Wilson found Ralph working in the garden behind his house. The freed slave was working for the judge for one a day a year to express his gratitude.