Judge Charles Mason and the Case of Ralph vs. Montgomery (1839).
On July 4, 1838, when Iowa became a territory, President Martin Van Buren appointed Charles Mason as Chief Justice of the three-man Territorial Supreme Court. One of Charles’ most prominent decisions was the 1839 case focusing on a black man named Ralph (Rafe Nelson) who was living and working at the Dubuque Mines. Apparently his Missouri master (Missouri was a slave-state), Jordan J. Montgomery, released Ralph in 1834 to come to Iowa in exchange for a promise of payment of $550 to buy his freedom. According to Montgomery, Ralph never paid him the $550, so the Missouri farmer insisted that Ralph be returned, back into his possession as a slave.
The case opened in Burlington in July 1839, with John V. Berry of Dubuque and another attorney representing the slave owner, Montgomery. Ralph’s attorney was the young David Rorer, a man destined to become one of the leading figures of the Iowa bar.
In a huge decision that truly bolstered the abolitionist movement, Judge Mason, along with his fellow judges Joseph Williams and Thomas S. Wilson, ruled that under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, slavery in Iowa Territory was “forever prohibited.” Mason wrote, “The master who, subsequently to that Act, permits his slave to become a resident here (Iowa), cannot, afterwards, exercise any acts of ownership over him within this territory.”
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