How a myth is created: the saga of Esther Hobart McQuigg Slack Morris

When Esther McQuigg was born in upstate New York in the early 19th century, there was no indication that it would be her fate to become known in the Equality State as the “Mother of Women’s Suffrage.” One thing is for certain: in 1869 she was the first woman to serve in a government office in Wyoming Territory.  She died in 1902 and after that, people began to attribute more to her than she ever claimed when she was living.

 Her early life

Esther was orphaned at age 11, and is reported to have lived with her grandmother, earning a living as a milliner and purveyor of women’s goods.  In 1841, she married Artemas Slack, a Vermont native who was an engineer working on projects in New York.  Sadly, he was killed in a workplace accident just three years later, leaving Esther with a year-old son, Edward Archibald Slack, (1842-1907). He would have a role in elevating his mother to almost-mythical status.

 Her late husband had purchased property in Peru, Illinois, so widow Esther went there with her son to claim the inheritance. She is reported to have encountered difficulties, owing to the fact that it wasn’t until 1845 that New York became the first state to give married women the right to own property, and Illinois did not follow suit until 1869.

 An1846 marriage certificate shows that Esther Slack married Polish/German immigrant John Morris in LaSalle County, Illinois.  They might have had a child in 1849; “John Morris” age 1 is shown living with them in the 1850 U.S. Census, but there is no further mention of him.  However, in 1852 Esther and John Morris had twin sons, Edward J. and Robert C. Morris. In the 1860 U.S. Census, her husband’s name is misspelled as “Merris” and he is listed as “without business” in Peru, Illinois—the family is not mentioned. This information is in primary documents on the website ancestry.com.

 South Pass City

In 1868, John Morris and his stepson “Archie” Slack, who by this time was a college graduate and civil war veteran, decided to head west to the just-discovered gold mining region of South Pass City, Wyoming Territory. The twins, about 16 at the time and perhaps still in school, stayed with their mother in Peru.  In South Pass City, John bought and sold mining claims, and Archie advertised as the local agent for a lumberyard, served as a member of the committee to organize July 4th celebrations, purchased a 6-room log cabin, and reportedly took over ownership of the local newspaper.

 Esther and the twins arrived in the spring of 1869. The family of 5 settled down in Archie’s cabin, with both boys quickly finding odd jobs in the booming new town. Soon it became known that local Justice of the Peace J.W. Stillman was resigning from office. Archie might have been the person who persuaded his reluctant mother to apply to be appointed.

 The Suffrage Act granting women the right to vote and to hold office had just been enacted in Wyoming Territory—introduced by South Pass legislator William Bright.  Archie helped his mother secure the $500 bond required for government office, and on Feb. 14, 1870, she began serving nearly 8 months in office as a judge, despite the fact that her husband disapproved and her own education was minimal.

 Leaving South Pass

Esther Morris served less than a year to finish the Justice of the Peace term to which she had been appointed. It is reported that an 1871 fire destroyed Archie’s newspaper. He and his wife Sarah moved to Laramie, where he began another newspaper, the Laramie Independent, a rival to the Laramie Sentinel.  In 1872, Esther Morris also left South Pass and moved in with Archie and Sarah in Laramie.  There are reports that her marriage was disintegrating and she had been unsuccessful in finding a political party to support her in a bid to run for election as Justice of the Peace. 

 Robert Morris, one of the twin sons, also left South Pass after serving as his mother’s court clerk.  He moved back to Illinois, continuing to work as a clerk, and eventually had a successful career in Cheyenne as Clerk of the Wyoming Supreme Court and as a staff member for newly elected U.S. Senator Joseph Carey.  Archie moved his newspaper from Laramie to Cheyenne in 1876, where he was publisher and editor of the Cheyenne Daily Sun, which merged with the Cheyenne Leader in 1895.

 John Morris bought a saloon in the now-declining town of South Pass City, and died there in 1877.  Son Edward left South Pass and started a mercantile business in Green River.  In the 1880 U.S. Census, Esther was living with her son Robert in Illinois.  She moved around, spending time with relatives in New York, as well as Wyoming and Illinois, but she eventually settled down in Cheyenne, where both Archie and Robert resided.

 Myth making begins

Mike Massie, Laramie historian, states that Esther’s sons can be credited with initiating the debate over who instigated the move toward women’s suffrage in 1869.  Archie, the Cheyenne newspaperman, referred to Esther as “mother of woman suffrage” in an 1890 edition of the Cheyenne Sun.  Robert Morris didn’t object to that statement, and neither did his mother, though both were living in Cheyenne at the time, yet neither had ever claimed that Esther Morris had been an activist for suffrage before the bill became law.

 Massie was the second historian from Laramie to attempt to set the record straight. UW historian Dr. T.A. “Al” Larson preceded him. In the 1978 revised edition of his book “History of Wyoming” he refuted several claims made about Esther Morris’ contributions to women’s suffrage in Wyoming.

 One of those claims came from first Laramie mayor, Melville C. Brown, who was president of the 1889 Wyoming Constitutional Convention, which retained women’s suffrage in the proposed state constitution.  He is reported to have said that Esther Morris was the one who prepared the women’s suffrage bill for Bright to introduce.  Later evidence shows this was not the case.

 “Tea Party” Myth

In 1919, Herman G. Nickerson, one of the three commissioners appointed when Sweetwater County was formed 50 years earlier, wrote a letter to the editor of the Lander State Journal. In it he claimed that he had been present when Esther Morris “gave a tea party at her residence [in South Pass City] at which there were about forty ladies and gentlemen present.”  At that tea party, he said Mrs. Morris secured a pledge from himself and Bright, both candidates for the Territorial Legislature that whoever was elected would introduce a bill for women’s suffrage in Wyoming Territory.

 In 1920, 51 years after the alleged tea party, Grace Raymond Hebard, retired UW librarian at the time, wrote a pamphlet with the title, “How Woman Suffrage Came to Wyoming.” She repeated Nickerson’s story and copies were distributed widely throughout the state. Dr. Hebard also claimed that Esther Morris had been an activist for woman’s suffrage in Illinois as well as Wyoming Territory.  No evidence to support this has been discovered.

In 1955, Mrs. Morris was chosen as “Wyoming’s outstanding deceased citizen,” as reported by Larson. Statues of her were placed in Statuary Hall in Washington, D.C. and in front of the Wyoming Capitol.

 In 2019 the web page of the Architect of the Capitol (aoc.gov) repeats the tea party story in explaining why Esther Hobart Morris’ statue was placed in the National Statuary Hall in 1960 by the State of Wyoming. 

 However, back in 1978, Larson presented conclusive evidence that the tea party story was fabrication. He agrees with what Esther Morris had said in her lifetime—that to William Bright full credit should be given for introducing the bill to grant women suffrage. Bright’s reasons for doing so are unclear since he did not state them publicly, but it’s safe to assume it wasn’t because he was asked to do so by a South Pass woman he had yet to meet.   

 In 1990, Massie added further conclusive evidence that the tea party didn’t happen, with an article in Annals of Wyoming titled “Reform is Where You Find It: The Roots of Woman Suffrage in Wyoming.” 

 One of the most damaging bits of evidence debunking the tea party was a letter preserved in the UW American Heritage Center written by Mrs. Morris’ son Robert just days after Bright returned to South Pass City from the 1869 legislature. In it, Robert states that he and his mother did not meet Bright until after the bill had been enacted.

 Massie points out that there were many other candidates vying for the legislative seat from Sweetwater County, so securing a “promise” from only two would have had little success—not to mention the fact that 40 people could hardly have fit into the Morris cabin at South Pass City.

 Contemporary pushback

Wyoming state government websites that mention Esther Hobart Morris now emphasize her important role as the first woman to hold government office in Wyoming—not as a major force in woman suffrage coming to the Territory. She can be rightly credited as the first woman to benefit from the Suffrage Act in Wyoming.

 Esther Hobart Morris served admirably as a Justice of the Peace, as few of her decisions were appealed to a higher court and those that were appealed were upheld. As she herself said: “my position as justice of the peace [was] a test of woman’s ability to hold public office . . . I feel that my work has been satisfactory.”

 Her statue, which used to stand prominently in front of the State Capitol in Cheyenne, has been moved to a “garden level” indoor passageway between the Capitol and the Herschler Building.  That area will be finished soon as a visitor center. Where Esther Morris used to stand there is now a large-scale replica of the Wyoming State Seal.

 There are still plenty of books on Wyoming history that recount the false “tea party” story. H.G. Nickerson’s account makes for a nice story, but hasn’t stood the test of time.  Unfortunately, it also raises doubts about his other historic accounts, such as his 1924 article titled “Early History of Fremont County” in Annals of Wyoming.  As historians know, once wrong information appears in print, it is very difficult to eradicate.

By Judy Knight

Caption: Esther Hobart Morris (1812-1902). Source: Women’s History Blog

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Caption: Esther Hobart Morris in Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol, which overstates her role in achieving woman’s suffrage in Wyoming Territory. Source:  Office of the Architect of the Capitol.