The Wild West of Yester-Year

Esther Morris, Justice of the Peace

By Rachel Kovaciny


Who was the first woman to get appointed a Justice of the Peace in the United States? Esther Morris, that’s who. When and where did Esther Morris sit on the bench? In the Wyoming Territory in 1870, a handful of years after the American Civil War. Esther Morris took an unusual road to judgeship because she did not attend law school. She never took the bar or practiced law. Instead, she spent her years before that as a wife and mother.

Born Esther Hobart McQuigg in New York state in 1812, she grew up in a large family. Esther’s mother died when Esther was in her early teens, so Esther helped care for the family until she left home at age twenty-one to start her own millinery business. She was quick to speak out against slavery and joined several abolitionist organizations, most of them organized and led by women. When Esther was almost thirty, she married a railroad engineer named Artemus Slack. After only a couple of years, Slack died, leaving Esther widowed, with one son to support. Slack also left behind a property in Illinois, so Esther moved there to settle his estate. But the law did not allow women to inherit property and her late husband’s affairs became hopelessly snarled, providing Esther with nothing.

In 1842, Esther remarried. Her second husband, John Morris, moved the little family to Peru, Illinois, where Esther gave birth to another son, who died as a toddler, then to twin sons. In 1868, John Morris and Esther’s son from her first marriage moved to Wyoming Territory, where they opened a successful saloon in the gold mining town of South Pass City. They also purchased shares in several mines. Esther and the twins joined them there the next year. At the end of 1869, the Wyoming Territorial Legislature passed a law giving women the right to vote. When Governor John Campbell signed it in December, Wyoming Territory became the first place in the United States to offer women this equal right. A few months later, Governor Campbell went one step farther and decided to appoint a woman to be a Justice of the Peace. He needed to replace a Justice who had resigned in protest over the Territory granting women the right to vote, and who better to appoint than a woman?

At the time, a person needed no legal training to preside as a Justice of the Peace. Justices rarely presided over serious criminal cases, but judged misdemeanors and other petty crimes. It’s unclear why he selected Esther Morris for the position, but since she had been an outspoken supporter of women’s suffrage, perhaps she seemed like a logical choice. Or maybe he knew her to be sensible and fair-minded. Esther Morris served as Justice of the Peace for nine months, filling out her predecessor’s term. She reportedly held court in the sitting room of her own home at first, which must have been awkward since her husband not only did not support his wife in her new position, but actively opposed it. In fact, he made such a fuss about her new role that Esther Morris had him jailed for causing a disturbance. Justice Morris ruled on twenty-six cases during her tenure, of which nine were criminal cases. Despite her lack of legal training, none of her rulings were ever overturned, though several were appealed. Her time as a Justice of the Peace paved the way for more opportunities for women to serve in the public arena. Less than a year after she presided over a courtroom, women were sitting on juries in Wyoming Territory for the first time.

Despite her short time in the position, Esther Morris’s contributions to the cause of women’s rights and to the upholding of peace and justice were valued highly in Wyoming. In 1890, she was chosen to present the new Wyoming state flag to Governor Francis Warren on behalf of all Wyoming women during the official celebration of Wyoming’s statehood. Esther Morris died in 1902 at the age of 87 in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where she lived with one of her sons. Hailed as a “mother of women’s suffrage,” they have honored her with two important statues, one in the National Statuary Hall Collection in Washington, DC, and another at the Wyoming State Capitol. Although she spent less than a year dispensing justice and keeping the peace, her leadership is still remembered.