top of page


Ralph was a slave from Missouri. In 1834, he bought his freedom from his owner, a man  named J. Montgomery, so he could come to Iowa to work in the lead mines near  Dubuque. The cost of his independence was to be $550, plus interest.  But after five years, Ralph had not earned enough money to make the payments,  and two bounty hunters from Virginia offered to seize and return him to Montgomery for  $100. Getting the proper paperwork, they seized him and were taking him to a steamship  when an Iowa farmer, a man named Alexander Butterworth, learned of the action and  went to the local judge, Thomas Wilson. 

 Judge Wilson stopped the men and suggested the matter should be heard by the  Supreme Court of the Territory, on which he sat. Iowa’s three high court justices heard  the case and, on July 4, 1839, ruled in Ralph’s favor. In their decision, the justices stated  that Ralph should pay his debt but ruled that “no man in this territory can be reduced to  slavery” and that Montgomery had lost his right over Ralph in Iowa.  The justices wrote: “When, in seeking to accomplish his object, [the claimant]  illegally restrains a human being of his liberty, it is proper that the laws, which should  extend equal protection to men of all colors and conditions, should intervene.”  The decision, In Re[gards to] the Matter of Ralph, was the very first ruling  handed down by the Iowa Supreme Court. It was issued more than seven years before  Iowa became a state. It confirmed Iowa’s position as a free territory, and it was the first of  many High Court rulings that preserved and advanced the causes of freedom, equality  and diversity within our borders. 

 In 1847, the Iowa Legislature embraced those causes when it adopted Iowa’s  motto: “Our Liberties We Prize and Our Rights We Will Maintain.” 

This sculpture, “Shattering Silence” by American artist James Ellwanger,  commemorates those decisions in which the court shattered the silence of inequality and  commemorates those Iowans, like Alexander Butterworth, who refused to stand by  silently when they saw injustice.

bottom of page