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Esther Morris tea party shaped Wyoming and U.S. history


Esther Morris held a tea party in her home in South Park City, Wyoming Territory, in September 1869 that made history. Her little tea party ultimately led to Wyoming becoming the first territory then the first state in the U.S., to allow women to vote.

Making history to accomplish her goals was nothing new to Esther Morris at the time, as Dee Brown details in his excellent book “The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West.” Esther was 55 years old at the time, having outlived her first husband and joined her second husband in his gold seeking adventures in Wyoming. Though described by Brown as “a self-reliant lady of great charm,” Esther was physically striking at about 6 feet tall. There appears to have been nothing in her nature that showed intimidation by either men or women. In fact, her calm spirit and self-confidence won her election as the South Pass City justice of the peace. That made her the first woman to hold that office anywhere in the world, according to Brown’s account.

South Pass City was a boom town on the Wyoming gold frontier in the 1860s, with a population of about 3,000 making it the largest town in Wyoming Territory. During her term of office as justice of the peace Esther Morris tried 40 cases, and not one of them was appealed.

Long a champion of women’s right to vote, Morris used her fame (she was even known back East and kidded by magazine caricatures there as a rough, tough peace officer) to work for that right in Wyoming. On the eve of territorial elections, on the evening of September 2, 1869, Esther invited 20 of South Pass City’s most influential citizens to a tea party in her small home. Two of the guests were candidates for the territorial legislature, one a leading Democrat and the other a leading Republican. Esther waited for the perfect moment then: “With quiet seriousness, she suddenly asked each candidate if he would introduce a bill in the new legislature that would give the women of Wyoming the right to vote,” according to Brown’s account of the party. Both the Democrat and the Republican promised to do so.

The Democratic candidate won election to the new territorial legislature and was true to his word, introducing a bill to give women the right to vote. The new legislator probably was influenced by his respect for Esther, and by the fact that Esther had nursed his wife back to health during a serious illness in the past.

After serious objections and wrangling over the danger of handing women the right to vote, the legislature surprised even themselves by passing the measure. Wyoming became the first territory to give women voting rights, and became the first state to do so when they were promoted from territorial status to statehood a couple of decades later.

Brown concludes the story of Esther Morris by pointing out the universal significance of her actions: Wyoming became the first place, and for many years, the only place in the world that allowed women to vote. That was a truly remarkable legacy for a very remarkable woman.