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Our Iowa, Its Beginning and Growth

Herbert L. Moeller and Hugh C. Mueller

New York, Newsom and Company


Transcribed by Debbie Gerischer & Kaylee Bopp




Iowans, between the years 1832 and 1860, had much to do to develop the new state.  But, busy as they were, they could not keep out the slavery issue, a question which was soon to divide the entire nation into two great, bitter, fighting armies, each of which was sure it was right.


Soon after the first white settlers came to Iowa the slavery question came up here as it did in all new territories.  A few Negroes were actually held as slaves in southern Iowa in early territorial days.  With Missouri, just south of Iowa, a slave state, there was often trouble over slaves and slavery along the southern boundary.

The Iowa Territorial Supreme Court made an important decision in a slave case as early as 1839.  A Negro named Ralph came to Dubuque from Missouri.  He had the written consent of his master to come but was supposed to send money to his owner to win his freedom.  Ralph did not earn and send back as much money in a certain length of time as he had promised to do.  His master then hired two kidnapers to bring him back.  The two men captured Ralph while he was working in a field and rushed him off to Bellevue where they put him on a steamboat bound for Saint Louis.

A man named Butterworth had seen what happened to Ralph.  He hurried to Dubuque, where he got the help of an officer to stop Ralph and his captors at Bellevue.  The Negro was taken back to Dubuque and given a trial.  The Supreme Court said that since Ralph had come into a free state with the consent of his master, he could not be seized for return to slavery so long as he lived here.


People living in the North who wanted to do away with slavery, by settling the slaves free, were called "abolitionists."  There were many such people in Iowa.  Some of them believed that it was right for them to help slaves to become free, even if such actions were forbidden by law.  If slaves could run away and get to Canada they became free, because their masters could not claim them there.  Abolitionists, therefore, helped many slaves to run away from their owners and get to Canada.

In order to help runaway slaves get through Iowa on their way to Canada, the abolitionists organized what they called an  "underground railroad."  It was not a railroad at all but just a number of places, called stations, scattered across the state where the slaves could be given shelter and helped along as they made their way toward Canada.  The slaves had to be hidden carefully.  If "slave catchers," as men were called who came from the South, could find the Negroes, they took  them back with them.  The runaway slaves were usually taken from one station to another at night.  They would hide in loads  of straw or in wagons which looked as if loaded with sacks of grain.

There were several "underground railroad" routes in southern Iowa.  They are hard to trace now because they were secret routes at the time of their use.  One route started at Tabor and ran through Des Moines and Iowa City to Clinton.  Another ran across Lee County.  Mr. J. B. Grinnell, of Grinnell, and other prominent men in Iowa took part in helping Negroes along the "underground railroad."


So great a question as that of slavery could not be kept out of politics.  It was the important issue in the election of 1859.  The Republicans nominated Samuel J. Kirkwood for governor.  He had become famous in the state legislature as an abolitionist.  He declared that Iowa would not permit slavery in any form or for any time within its borders.  He was thinking of the Dred Scott decision which the United States Supreme Court made in regard to the Constitution.  The Court said that a slave owner could take his slaves into free territory and then back South again to sell them because slaves were property just as horses and cattle were property.

People who opposed slavery said that the Dred Scott decision would throw all the territories of the United States open to slavery.  Kirkwood declared that Iowa did not need to pay any attention to this decision.

The Democrats nominated Augustus C. Dodge for governor.  Mr. Dodge had been a leader in state and national affairs.  As Ambassador to Spain, he had just returned from Madrid.

The two candidates held a series of joint debates.  Mr. Dodge said he would enforce any law of the land, but Mr. Kirkwood said he would violate any law that would help to enforce slavery.  The campaign was exciting and produced many interesting incidents.  Mr. Dodge, it is said, "probably looked and acted the part of a distinguished gentleman of the old school."  Kirkwood, on the other hand, "was careless of personal appearance, somewhat uncouth in dress and manner."

The difference in the two men is well illustrated in the following account:  "The last joint debate between the candidates was held at Washington September 2, and again the Republicans found a way to emphasize the contrast between their candidate as a a man of the people and Dodge as a man of aristocratic associations.  The local Democratic committee brought Dodge into town riding in the best carriage that could be found and drawn by four white horses, but the crowd had already exhausted their enthusiasm in cheering the appearance of Kirkwood riding to the scene of the meeting on a hayrack drawn by a team of oxen."

Mr. Kirkwood was elected by a majority of 3,170 votes.  Soon after the election Senator Grimes wrote to Kirkwood; "You have got a difficult task before you for two years to navigate the Ship of State without a cent of money.  There is now due to the state from several counties between three and four hundred thousand dollars, and no taxes will be paid this year, for there is no money in the country to pay with.  The government has got to be carried on principally upon credit."

The next year, 1860, Iowa voted for Lincoln for President.


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