Memory  /  Obituary

Overlooked No More: She Followed a Trail to Wyoming. Then She Blazed One.

Esther Morris made history as the first female justice of the peace.
Library of Congress

Some accounts suggest that Morris spent her first months in South Pass City championing the cause of women’s voting rights and pushing for a bill establishing those rights in the territorial legislature, which first convened in October 1869. Some historians, however, say that this version of events overstates Morris’s role in the women’s suffrage movement in Wyoming’s early days.

But what isn’t disputed is that in February 1870, Morris was appointed justice of the peace, the first woman to hold the position. She was 55 and had been living in South Pass City for less than a year.

Her job wasn’t easy. Although South Pass City’s population peaked at only about 2,000 in 1869, the town was home to two breweries, a dozen saloons and several brothels. During Morris’s eight and a half months in office, she proved to be an efficient public servant. By her own reckoning, she tried about 30 civil actions, and only one of her rulings was appealed (and a higher court affirmed that one).

Several contemporary news outlets found the idea of a female judge somewhat amusing, or so their reports on Morris’s tenure would suggest. In April 1870, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, recounted her first day in court, focusing primarily on what she wore (“a calico gown, worsted breakfast-shawl, green ribbons in her hair, and a green neck-tie”). A few months later, the same publication called Morris “the terror of all rogues” and said she offered “infinite delight to all lovers of peace and virtue.”

Morris seemed to understand the significance of her role. In 1871, after she finished her term, she wrote a letter to the prominent suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker that was read at a national suffrage convention in Washington and printed in The Laramie Daily Sentinel in Wyoming.

“Circumstances have transpired to make my position as a justice of the peace a test of woman’s ability to hold public office,” Morris wrote. Her self-assessment? “I feel that my work has been satisfactory.”

In the letter, Morris described some of her responsibilities — assisting in picking juries, depositing a ballot, canvassing votes after an election — and said that “in performing all these duties I do not know as I have neglected my family any more than in ordinary shopping.”

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