Blog, feminism, History, politics, The Yankee Road, women's rights, Writing

Wyoming: More Ladies, Please

We will remain out of the Union a hundred years, rather than come in without our women [voters]! – Message about Acquiring Statehood from the Wyoming Legislature to the US Congress, 1890.

In 1869, The Union Pacific (UP), commonly called ‘the transcontinental railroad’, was about to join up with the Central Pacific Railroad (CPR) in the desert around the Great Salt Lake in Utah. In truth, it was not crossing the continent. A traveler could cross from Atlantic to Pacific by rail, but there were changes of trains and railroad companies, especially in Chicago. The first true ‘transcontinental’ had to wait for the completion of Canada’s Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1885, when a traveler could go from Halifax to Vancouver on the same line.

The rail connection in the desert meant that travellers who wanted to visit or relocate in the west, could do so fast and efficiently, in days instead of months if going by wagon train on the Oregon Trail. By eastern standards, the Territories and States west of the Mississippi-Missouri Rivers were underpopulated, which meant less political clout, a smaller local market, and less money for public services. This was especially the case in Wyoming, where the Union Pacific ran along its southern border for hundreds of miles.

Unfortunately, the new Territory had acquired a reputation among the emigrants on the Oregon Trail as being a place where the crossing was interminable and settlement was improbable, if not impossible. The realization that the high plateaus of the Territory might make good range land for cattle and that there were large petroleum deposits underground were years and sometimes decades off.

Wyoming had applied for Territorial status, but action was delayed by the refusal of Republican politicians to approve of any measure as long as President Johnson was in office. Meanwhile in Wyoming’s South Pass area, around 60 miles south of today’s US 20, there was a minor gold rush that had brought a large number of prospectors into the area, increasing the population of Wyoming. Further, the railroad preferred to deal with Territories and States on matters where its interests and the power of the politicians intersected. Dealing with Washington was both slow and complicated. Also, settlers might provide a market for some of the landholdings the company had acquired for building the railroad.

In April 1869, President Grant signed the bill creating the Wyoming Territory. He appointed a Republican, John A. Campbell, as Governor and made Edward Merwin Lee Territorial Secretary. Campbell was born and raised in the Yankee Western Reserve part of Ohio and was an Army ‘bureaucrat’ serving under General Schofield, both during the Civil War and in Reconstruction afterwards. He remained as Governor until 1875, when he was appointed to a post in the State Department. 

Lee was born in 1835 in Guilford CT, a member of a Yankee family who could trace its New England ancestry back almost 200 years. Lee had become a lawyer and, probably in the mid- 1850s, had settled in Port Huron MI. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he enlisted as a cavalry officer in Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s Michigan ‘Wolverines’. He took part in a number of engagements, including the battle of Gettysburg. In 1863, he was captured by the Confederates and spent 14 months in two POW camps. He was paroled in late 1864 and was not able to take an active part in the rest of the War.

Things now get a bit fuzzy, but it seems that he returned to Connecticut and, in 1867, was a member of the State legislature, where he proposed a bill that advocated women’s suffrage. The idea died in committee. Lee accepted his Wyoming post in 1869 and moved west, still nurturing his ‘suffragette’ feelings.

A number of factors made progress possible there. First, the population and the legislative houses were small, so convincing a few people was easier than in an entrenched eastern State government. Second, Wyoming was desperate for more population, both as an economic base and for influence in Washington; it also suffered from a gender imbalance of 3:1 and it was possible that settlers might be attracted to a Territory that recognized women politically. Third, a recent arrival to the Territory played an effective role in getting some new lawmakers to support women’s suffrage.

Esther Hobart McQuigg Morris was a Yankee woman from Tioga County NY. This county borders on what was called the ‘Wyoming country’ to its south in Pennsylvania, over which, in the 1770s, Connecticut settlers and the Pennsylvania militia had fought the ‘Pennamite War’. By coincidence, the western ‘Wyoming’ had been named by a Washington politician who was also from that part of Pennsylvania and the name stuck, simply for lack of a better one.

At the time, Esther was a 6-foot 180 lb., twice married woman who fit the role of a Wyomingite. She was widowed 3 years after her first marriage, went from New York to Illinois, where she had to fight to get property that she inherited from her husband and became radicalized at the injustices she had to bear. Her second husband decided, after 20 years of marriage, to go out to South Pass City in Wyoming to the goldfield there and her 3 grown sons followed. At 56, Esther sold her property and followed them west just as the boom collapsed and prospectors moved on north to the Bighorn range, where there were new rumors of gold.

In the fall of 1869, Esther threw a lawn party to which she invited the two opponents for the local seat in the new Territorial legislature. She apparently extracted promises from both individuals that, if elected, they would introduce a woman suffrage bill in the legislature. William H. Bright was elected and he kept his promise and, when he became head of the Territorial Senate, introduced Bill 70, which read:

Every woman of the age of 21, residing in the Territory, may, at every election, cast her vote; and the right to the elective franchise and to hold office under the election laws of the Territory shall be the same as other electors.

It could be that the Democratic legislative majority thought they were going to embarrass the Republican Governor, but, after pondering the issue for four days, he signed the bill and it became law. With the exception of the story about Esther’s lawn party, there is no indication that women were involved in any local suffrage movement.

As a Republican and war veteran, Secretary Lee was on record as favoring women’s suffrage. He had read with interest, the failed attempt of another legislator, Congressman George W. Julian, a Radical Republican, who had supported women’s suffrage since 1847 and was a good friend of Lucretia Mott, to get the House to pass a women’s suffrage bill that would apply only to the US Territories.

Julian argued that these had great male-to-female disparities, in contrast to the more settled States, where, due to the War, somewhat the reverse was true. He felt that this problem might be overcome were the Territories given women’s suffrage, thus attracting Eastern women to these Western Territories. Apparently, Lee had read this Bill with interest and, upon taking up his position in Wyoming, proposed in a number of newspaper articles that Wyoming ought to try it out. As well, couple of weeks before the Legislature was to meet, Lee had introduced a prominent suffragette, Anna Dickinson, at her speaking appearance in Cheyenne.

Besides feeling that this was the moment, Lee, as State Secretary, knew that it would be easier for a Territory to pass such legislation because it only required a simple majority in the Legislature rather than the 2/3majority plus a referendum of the (male) voters required in a State. That, plus the small number of legislators in the Territorial government, nine members in the Senate and 12 in the House, made the chances for success better.

As well, being a lawyer and politician himself, he had the ear of the Governor. He also found an ally in William Bright, a saloon keeper in South Pass City. Bright was an uneducated Unionist Virginian, but publicly felt that, as black males had just been given suffrage rights, his wife and mother had just as much right to vote: a kind of reverse racism.

Surprisingly, some of the women’s suffrage activists in the East thought this development to be of little importance, because Wyoming had such a small population.  Others were not so blasé. Susan B. Anthony took up this demographic argument, encouraging young women to move west to attain what should be their rights. Gradually the suffragette movement realized that this Territorial law was a legitimation of their cause. Their opponents across the country dismissed it as ‘freak legislation’. The Territorial government, undaunted, went on to pass significant legislation relative to women and property rights, something that may have had Esther Morris’ ideas included, given her Illinois experience.  

Early in 1870, while the Governor was away in the East, Edward Lee became the Acting Governor. He, with the legal help of one of the Supreme Court Justices, appointed three women to vacancies for Justice of the Peace positions. The terms were shortened in order to put them on a consistent schedule with the first Territorial elections. Esther Morris and two other women became the first women (in the world, perhaps) to be appointed to a significant public office.

Esther was appointed as Justice of the Peace in South Pass City. She viewed her position as ‘a test of woman’s ability to hold public office’. Unfortunately, she had to give up the office less than a year later as the foreshortened initial term expired and she could not get a nomination from either party for re-election. She did handle 26 cases, mostly assault and battery and collection of debts. In the end, Esther did not leave the Territory. Instead, she and her husband parted when she stayed in Wyoming with her grown sons, who had decided to remain in Wyoming, living in Cheyenne and Laramie.

Late in 1870, a court in Laramie empanelled some women as jurors, which provoked the Eastern media once again, since they would be involved in judging men, but, like Esther Morris, they did their duty properly and the controversy died down.

In that same year, September 8 saw Wyoming’s first Territorial election Day. A 69-year old grandmother, Louisa Swain, had walked from her home to downtown Laramie to do some shopping. Once there, she noticed the local polling place was just opening up and, on the spur of the moment, decided she would vote. The person in charge let the elderly lady in a bit early and Louisa Swain became the first legal voter in a general election, as opposed to a local one, such as for a school board, in Wyoming and likely in the US and maybe in the world.

Needless to say, when Wyoming applied for statehood twenty years later, in 1890, the suffrage issue was resurrected in the East. By then, however, the men of Wyoming were used to, and trusted women to carry out public functions properly and, as noted in the introductory quote above, refused to back down in the face of this Washington opposition. In the end, the US House narrowly passed the motion for statehood, with Susan B. Anthony and other suffrage leaders looking on; later on, the Senate likewise approved it and President Harrison signed the bill into law.