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Morris, Esther Hobart (1814–1902)

Morris, Esther Hobart (1814–1902)

Suffragist and first American woman to hold an official government position. Name variations: Esther Hobart McQuigg Slack Morris. Born Esther Hobart McQuigg on August 8, 1814, near Spencer, Tioga County, New York; died on April 2, 1902, in Cheyenne, Wyoming; daughter of Daniel McQuigg and Charlotte (Hobart) McQuigg; married Artemus Slack (a civil engineer), on August 10, 1841 (died 1845); married John Morris (a merchant and storekeeper); children: (first marriage) Edward Archibald (b. 1842); (second marriage) John (died in infancy), Robert and Edward (twins, b. 1851).

Following the death of her first husband (1845), moved with her son to Peru, Illinois, and a short time later remarried; moved to Wyoming Territory, where she promoted the cause of women's suffrage (1869); appointed justice of the peace for South Pass City, Wyoming (1870), the first woman ever to hold such a position; left her husband and moved to Laramie, Wyoming (1871); was briefly on the ballot for state representative (1873); left Wyoming for New York but later returned and settled in Cheyenne, Wyoming (by 1890).

Esther Hobart Morris, the first American woman to hold an official government position, was born in New York State on August 8, 1814, the second daughter and eighth of eleven children born to Daniel and Charlotte Hobart Mc-Quigg . By age 11, she was orphaned and sent to apprentice with a seamstress in Oswego, New York. She married Artemus Slack, a civil engineer with the Erie Railroad, on August 10, 1841, and they had one son, Edward Archibald, who was born the following year. Slack died three years later, leaving his young widow property in Illinois, so Esther and her son moved to that state, settling in Peru. Shortly after she arrived there she met and married John Morris, a prosperous merchant and shopkeeper, with whom she had three sons: John, who died as an infant, and twins Robert and Edward, born in 1851.

Esther Morris moved with her family to the booming gold rush camp of South Pass City in Wyoming Territory in 1869, where her husband opened a saloon and then turned to mining. Morris, who was nearly six feet tall, weighing a hefty 180 pounds, blunt and fiery in speech, was a born reformer. She used her persuasive powers to promote the idea of granting women the vote in Wyoming, and on December 10, 1869, that right was bestowed by the 21-member legislature. (Present-day thinking suggests that this law was passed to publicize the new territory and encourage women to migrate there.) This same group of lawmakers also gave married women control of their own property and provided for equal pay for women teachers, many years before most other states would even begin contemplating such legislation. In 1870, Morris was appointed justice of the peace of South Pass City, becoming the first woman in America to hold an official government position. The appointment drew attention in newspapers nationwide. South Pass City was a rowdy town, with no shortage of alcohol available to the miners, and during her short tenure of eight and a half months Morris tried over 70 minor cases without a reversal by higher courts. She regarded her appointment as "a test of woman's ability to hold public office." In June 1871 she issued a warrant against her husband on assault

charges. They separated soon thereafter, and Morris moved to Laramie, Wyoming, where her oldest son Edward Slack was a newspaper editor.

In 1873, Morris was nominated for state representative from her county on a woman's ticket. She soon withdrew her candidacy, while taking pains to point out that her withdrawal was not a resignation from the "woman's cause." She moved back to New York in 1874, and in 1876 participated in the ceremonies surrounding the Declaration of Rights for Women at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. She returned to Wyoming in 1890, settling in Cheyenne, where her son was now editor of the Cheyenne Daily Leader. Around that time his paper began describing her as the "Mother of Woman Suffrage." That year during the Wyoming statehood celebration, she was honored as a pioneer of suffrage. Morris was part of a tour by Susan B. Anthony in 1893 when Colorado women received the vote, and attended a dinner given for Anthony in 1895. That year she was elected a delegate from Wyoming to the national suffrage convention in Cleveland. Esther Hobart Morris died in Cheyenne on April 2, 1902, at age 87. A 1920 pamphlet on Wyoming suffrage by local historian Grace Raymond Hebard did much to solidify her reputation, and in 1960 statues honoring her were placed in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and in the state house in Cheyenne.

sources:

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women's History. NY: Prentice Hall General Reference, 1994.

suggested reading:

Larson, T. A. History of Wyoming. 1965, pp. 84–94.

Willard, Frances E., and Mary A. Livermore, eds. A Woman of the Century, 1893.

collections:

Grace R. Hebard collection, Western Historical Research Center, University of Wyoming Library, contains a few letters from persons having recollections of Esther Morris, as well as newspaper clippings, articles and interviews.

Jo Anne Meginnes , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont

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