CHEYENNE — The movement to restore the statue to Esther Hobart Morris to her historic perch in front of the Capitol building has diminished in the wake of the pandemic, the collapsing economy and the budget crisis.
Yet I suspect that effort will come back reinvigorated when everything settles down.
Therefore, a recent biography of the nation’s first woman justice of the peace remains pertinent and a worthwhile addition to Esther’s story
Published last year (The Year of the Wyoming Woman ) by Kathryn Swim Cummings after years of research, it is offered as the “unembellished” story of the first national female judge.
I’ll get to the unembellished part later.
But first, this is a book that does a nice job of rounding out Esther’s character. Cummings does this through her access to personal letters between Esther and her family.
Esther was the seventh of 11 children born in 1812 to Daniel McQuigg and Charlotte Hobart in Tioga County, New York.
She grew up on a large farm originally owned by her grandfather in the village of Spencer.
Although busy with farm chores, she was beginning to be affected by the changes sweeping the country. She became an avowed abolitionist and later, a supporter of the women’s suffrage (the vote).
Like all women of that time, she was a victim of the laws.
In New York, married women were not allowed to own, control or transfer land until the law changed in 1848.
“A man could desert his wife, take the children and leave her with no recourse,” Cummings wrote
She was powerless. She couldn’t even vote to change the laws.
Esther in 1842 married a successful civil engineer, Artemas Slack, who worked on the New York And Erie Railroads.
They settled in Oswego, New York and had a son, Archibald Artemas, always called Archie.
Sadly Esther’s husband became ill at age 32 and died.
His will left land in Illinois to Esther and their son.
But New York law prevented her from taking possession of her inherited property.
Scared and angry, a widow at 30 with a seven-month-old son, she went to Illinois where New York law did not apply and she could claim the land she inherited.
She met John Morris, a merchant from Poland, in Ottawa, Illinois, and married him in 1846.They had a son John and twins Edward and Charles.
Son John died in a cholera epidemic, leaving his father so grief-stricken he began drinking more.
Things went downhill. He lost his business. He started to travel more away from home.
Needing money, Esther went back to sewing and hat-making to help support the family.
She contemplated divorce and continued her interest in women’s issues.
“The only time I was ever lost was when I was quiet,” she wrote in one letter.
The Gold Rush in South Pass brought Esther to the Wyoming Territory. Her husband John Morris and her son Archie were high on the prospects of the area and bought gold mine shares.
This was the root of the myth of the famous tea party. It held that Esther was such a polished hostess and such a good lobbyist that she had convinced a key legislator, William Bright, to sponsor the women’s suffrage act in the Legislature in the forthcoming session.
And this important meeting was attended by dozens of other dignitaries in her tiny cabin in South Pass City in winter.
Didn’t happen. Wyoming historians, beginning with T.A. Larson and including Cummings stomped and extinguished the myth, once and for all.
“Esther represented lots of unhappy women at that time with no education and no rights,” Larson is quoted as saying in the book.
But Esther did perform as the first woman justice of the peace. So that stands.
The unembellished parts Cummings referred to includes the tea party and another story about Esther having her husband arrested for disturbing her courtroom.
That’s not likely either, although perhaps she should have.
Cummings has done a good job here. It is a very complex book because it covers so many members of such a large family.
So even though Esther wasn’t a Susan B. Anthony, that’s OK.
She is ours.
We want her back in the sun.
Joan Barron is a former longtime capitol bureau reporter. Contact her at 307-632-2534 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Catch the latest in Opinion
Get opinion pieces, letters and editorials sent directly to your inbox weekly!