On July 4, 1838, President Martin Van Buren appointed Robert Lucas governor of the new U.S. Territory of Iowa. Next, he chose three reliable men from around the Territory to serve as Iowa’s first Supreme Court. Each were highly respected in their communities: Charles T. Mason in Burlington, Joseph Williams in Muscatine/Bloomington, and Thomas S. Wilson in Dubuque. With the 1838 assignment, each man was given a regional district to serve: Wilson to the north in Dubuque, Mason to the south in Burlington, and Williams in the center in Muscatine (Bloomington).
The truth is that most of the pictures we have of T.S. Wilson (see above) were taken when he was much older, so it’s often overlooked when telling his Iowa story that Wilson was only twenty-five years old when President Van Buren gave him this challenging assignment as Supreme Court justice – a position he held until one year after Iowa became a state in 1846.
Interestingly enough, Wilson found out about his new appointment from a steamboat captain as they were headed south on the Mississippi River from Dubuque to Keokuk. As the story goes, the ship’s captain read the story in a St. Louis newspaper and broke the news to young Wilson…
Surprise! You’re now one of three judges representing the entire legal system for the new Territory of Iowa! Have a nice day!
So, in order to better know the story of Thomas Stokley Wilson, allow me to share a few facts – courtesy of biographical writings about him found in the 1894 Reunion Journal of The Law Makers Association of Iowa…
After being admitted to the bar in 1835, Thomas Wilson began practicing law with his uncle, General Samuel Stokely of Steubenville, Ohio – a partnership that continued many years after Thomas moved west to Iowa.
Contrary to the advice and wishes of his family and friends in Steubenville, 23-year-old Thomas was determined to head westward. So, with his brother, Capt. George Wilson, already being stationed at Prairie du Chien in Wisconsin Territory, Wilson proceeded, making some pretty big travel plans…
Thus, by the flipping of one silver dollar, Thomas and Anna Wilson settled in Dubuque and by the spring of 1837, Wilson was elected President of the Board of Trustees for that young city. As he did back in Steubenville, Thomas practiced law, working cases in Dubuque, Mineral Point, Lancaster and Prairie du Chien. In January 1838 he was appointed by the Wisconsin Territorial Legislature as one of three commissioners to settle the titles and claims to the Half-Breed Tract in far southeastern Iowa. It’s the work he accomplished in that assignment that most likely gave Wilson the favor he needed to be nominated as a delegate to the Territorial Legislature in Burlington (June 1838), representing the northern counties of Iowa.
As the newly appointed Supreme Court Justice (July 1838), Thomas went right to work, overseeing judicial matters throughout the northern region of the Territory. On the second Tuesday of September, 1838 (September 11), Judge Wilson presided over the very first court session ever convened in Iowa – The Third District Court at Prairie La Porte, where the village of Gutenburg now stands today.
In late May (1839) a Dubuque man named Alexander Butterworth came running into Judge Wilson’s office. Butterworth was a well-respected lead-miner who owned property just south of Dubuque, and apparently he had just seen his neighbor, Ralph Montgomery, a fellow lead-miner with property to the west, being kidnapped by two strangers. Keep in mind that Dubuque’s population at this time was less than 200, so both men, Butterworth and Wilson, knew Ralph well, and neither were content to have a fellow neighbor be treated in such manner.
You see, Ralph was a black man. A former slave of a man named Montgomery from Palmyra, Missouri. Ralph had come to Dubuque five years earlier (1834) with the intent of making enough money from lead mining to pay his owner for his freedom.
You can read the full story here, but suffice to say that this kidnapping attempt of Dubuque’s Ralph Montgomery led to Judge Wilson and his two fellow justices (Mason and Williams) making Iowa’s very first Supreme Court decision on a case entitled…
In the matter of Ralph (a colored man), on Habeas Corpus.
The Bottom line: On July 4, 1839 – Independence Day – Ralph, the former slave, was declared by Iowa’s Supreme Court to be a free man! Click here to read more…
As we mentioned earlier, T.S. Wilson served as a Supreme Court justice through 1847, his appointment being renewed by both Presidents Tyler and Polk. When the first State Legislature met in Iowa City (1846), Thomas’ statewide popularity was evident as he came within one vote of being elected as Iowa’s first United States Senator.
Yet, just as it is so often in life, that 1846 political loss actually led Wilson to the next successful chapter of his life. In 1847, when he resigned his office as Justice of the Supreme Court, T.S. returned to practicing law, re-establishing his working relationship with his uncle back in Steubenville, Ohio, General Samuel Stokley, and partnering with his brother David S. Wilson, and Dubuque entrepreneur, Platt Smith. Their focus was government land grants – assisting easterners who wanted to either invest in America’s new west, or like Wilson, move here and start a new life for themselves.
Chouteau v. Molony – This monumental court case in 1853 was argued by T.S. Wilson and his law partner, Platt Smith, defending the good people of Dubuque against the Chouteau family of St. Louis, who was claiming the land where the city of Dubuque was built was originally “deeded” to their family by Julien Dubuque in 1804. Here’s the full story…
Wilson and Platt won that case for the city of Dubuque, and in 1855, this editorial, praising T.S. Wilson for his faithful service to the community, appeared in the Dubuque Express and Herald:
In 1866, and again in 1868, Judge Wilson was elected to two consecutive terms to the State Legislature, and at the session in 1866, was asked by the Democratic members to receive their nomination for United States Senator, but he declined.
Judge Wilson was married three times. His first wife: Anna W. Hoge (1819-1854) – married in 1836 and died at age 35 in 1854 (see gravestone above). His second wife: Mary Wood – married in 1855. His third wife: Mary Barton (1829-1918), former wife of Wilson’s uncle, General Samuel Stokely – married in 1865 (above right).
Justice T.S. Wilson (1813-1894) died on May 16th, at age 80, and is buried in Linwood Cemetery in Dubuque, along his first and third wives, Anna W. Hoge and Mary Barton.
Here’s a tip of the old hat to this grand old gentleman of Dubuque, Judge T. S. Wilson. Thank you for all you did for your Iowa neighbors. We’re certainly glad that silver dollar toss in 1836 went our way!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.