State history is studded with interesting, sometimes quirky, incidents


Iowa has been inhabited for a long time — thousands of years by native Americans, and about 180 years by settlers and other immigrants of many nationalities and ethnic groups and their offspring.

The state’s history, as you might expect, is studded with interesting, sometimes quirky, incidents.

I’ve been teaching Iowa history online to Iowa private college students this semester, and have run across a number of those stories. Here are a couple:


The first permanent 19th century Swedish settlement in America was New Sweden, founded in 1846 in Jefferson County, Iowa, near Fairfield.

Peter Cassel was one of the leaders of that settlement, which by 1860 had over 600 residents.

Cassel publicized New Sweden to his countrymen back home, and encouraged them to migrate to the new community.

A few months after New Sweden was founded, a group of about 30 Swedes left the old country to join Cassel.

They took a steamboat up the Mississippi to the southern border of Iowa, where Cassel had told them they would immediately find a river that flowed into the Mississippi from the West. They were to follow that river to New Sweden.

New Sweden was located on the banks of the Skunk River. But the new settlers mistakenly proceeded along the north bank of the Des Moines River instead, and eventually found themselves way up at Fort Des Moines, where they learned there was no Swedish settlement nearby.

But they were sure their instructions were correct, so they continued up the river in a northwesterly direction.

They eventually reached the lone home of Thomas Gaston, who sold them enough food to let them survive the winter, and they hunkered down to wait for spring.

When it finally arrived, they decided they liked the area and built their homes. The new community was originally called Swede Point, but it was later renamed Madrid.


The first case ever to come before the Iowa Supreme Court was heard on Independence Day, July 4, 1839, while Iowa was still a territory.

The case was titled “In the matter of Ralph (a colored man) on Habeas Corpus,” better known by its nickname, “in re Ralph.”

Five years earlier, in 1834, Ralph was a slave owned by Jordan Montgomery in Marion County, Mo. (Marion County is where Hannibal, the boyhood home of Mark Twain in the 1830s and 1840s, is located on the Mississippi River.)

Ralph heard that big money could be made working in the lead mines at Dubuque, Iowa, and he persuaded his master to let him go to Dubuque, where he would earn enough to buy his freedom.

Montgomery decided Ralph’s value was $550. Ralph was to send that amount to Montgomery.

But once in Dubuque, Ralph discovered that living costs were so high that he could barely pay for his board and room.

Five years later, in 1839, Montgomery experienced a financial squeeze and sent a couple of agents to Dubuque to take Ralph into custody and bring him back to Missouri.

The agents swore an affidavit before a Dubuque justice of the peace that Ralph was a runaway slave and the property of Montgomery. They took possession of Ralph and headed back down the river to Missouri.

But Alexander Butterworth, who was working a lead claim adjacent to Ralph’s, learned about the situation and secured a writ of habeas corpus for him, thereby freeing him temporarily.

Was Ralph a free man or was he a slave?

The case was heard before the Iowa Supreme Court in Burlington, the territorial capital, on July 4. The two justices (the third was absent) issued their opinion that same day, deciding that since Montgomery had given Ralph permission to come to Iowa, he was not a runaway slave, and therefore Montgomery could not reclaim him.

They also ruled that Ralph owed Montgomery the $550, but that Montgomery could not recover the money by enslaving Ralph again.

Ralph continued to live near Dubuque for a while and then moved to the Muscatine area.

The decision did not mean that Iowa was favorable to free black people.

The state passed a number of discriminatory laws against African-Americans in the next several years. Most Iowans at that time were anti-slave, but also anti-black.

Justice Charles Mason, the first Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court, who issued the ruling in “in re Ralph,” was a native New Yorker who had attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

During the Civil War, he was a Peace Democrat — a “Copperhead” — who favored the South’s right to secede.

It was therefore all the more striking that the first case the Iowa Supreme Court ever heard ruled in favor of a black man.

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