Today in history: Esther Hobart Morris appointed as Justice of the Peace

WYOMING — Although the exact day is unknown, on or around this day in history, the first female Justice of the Peace in the United States was appointed in the Wyoming Territory. 

In February of 1870, Esther Hobart Morris was appointed as the first female Justice of the Peace for the South Pass District of the Wyoming Territory. She was the first woman to hold judicial office in the United States. Morris was appointed following the resignation of the acting Justice of the Peace. He resigned due to women gaining the right to vote in Wyoming. 

Senator Cynthia Lummis tweeted this morning, “On this day in 1870, Esther Hobart Morris was officially appointed as the first female Justice of the Peace for the South Pass District in Wyoming. Her statue proudly stands in the Hall of Columns at the Capitol in D.C. and inside the Wyoming state Capitol. #equalitystate.”  Some sources cite her appointment date as Feb. 14, Feb. 12, and Feb. 17. 

Statue of Esther Hobart Morris on display in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S Capitol.

On December 10, 1869, Wyoming became the first territory to grant women the right to vote and to hold office. The law also led to laws giving married women the right to own their own land.  According to the National Park Service, on the day of Morris’s appointment, the county clerk sent a telegraph along the wires that read, “Wyoming, the youngest and one of the richest Territories in the United States, gave equal rights to women in action as well as words.”

Morris served for nearly nine months until the election in November of 1870. Morris wanted to run for another term but neither the republican nor the democratic party would nominate her, proving that laws can change quickly in the eyes of the law but slowly in the hearts and minds of citizens. 

In November of 2020, nearly 151 years after Morris became the first woman to hold judicial office in Wyoming and the U.S, Cynthia Lummis was elected as the first female Senator to represent the State of Wyoming in the U.S Senate.

Morris was active in the women’s suffrage movement, she attended the American Woman Suffrage Association convention in San Francisco in 1872. She also served as the vice president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association in 1876 and spoke in Philadelphia at the national suffrage convention that same year.

During the Wyoming statehood celebration in 1890, Morris was honored as a suffrage pioneer. In 1895, at age 80, she was elected as a delegate to the national suffrage convention in Cleveland.

Morris was born in New York in 1814. According to Architect of the Capitol, she was active in the anti-slavery movement. She was a seamstress, milliner, and businesswoman. Morris married twice and had three children, Archy Slack and twins, Robert and Edward Morris. 

Following her first husband’s death, she moved to Peru Illinois, and married John Morris. The Morris family moved to the gold rush camp at South Pass City in 1868-1869. In 1872, Morris left her abusive husband and moved to Laramie to live with her oldest son.  She died in Cheyenne on April 3, 1902. 

In 1960, a statue of her by Avard Fairbanks was placed in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S Capitol in Washington, DC. A replica of the statue was placed outside the Wyoming State Capitol in Cheyenne in 1963.

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