Popular stories and historical accounts, buttressed by state and federal public monuments, point to Morris as a leader in the passage of Wyoming's suffrage amendment. However, Morris' leadership role in the legislation is disputed. It is clear, however, that she had strongly encouraged and influenced South Pass City saloon owner William H. Bright, then a representative to the Wyoming Territorial Constitutional Convention, to introduce in 1869 a women's suffrage clause into the territorial constitution. When the constitution was approved by territorial Governor John A. Campbell in December 1869, Wyoming became the first jurisdiction in the United States to grant women the right to vote, a right which was not granted women nationally until 1920.
Esther Hobart was born in Tioga County, New York, on August 8, 1814. Orphaned at an early age, she apprenticed to a seamstress and ran a successful millinery business out of her grandparents' home, "making hats, and buying and selling goods for women". Moreover, Hobart agitated as a young woman against slavery, reportedly during one incident countering efforts of slavery advocates who threatened to destroy a church that supported abolition.
Eight years into her millinery business, Hobart married Artemus Slack in 1841. Three years later, just short of her 30th birthday, her husband died. Morris subsequently moved to Illinois, where her late husband, a civil engineer, had acquired property. She encountered legal roadblocks, however, in settling her husband's affairs because women were not allowed to own or inherit property. Thereafter she moved to Peru, Illinois, where in 1850 she married a local merchant, John Morris. In the spring of 1868 her husband, along with Esther's son from her previous marriage, Archibald "Archy" Slack, moved to a gold rush community at South Pass City, Wyoming Territory, to open a saloon.
In 1869, Morris and her two eighteen-year-old twin sons, Robert and Edward, ventured west to rejoin the rest of their family. They first traveled by train to a waystation on the newly completed transcontinental railroad at Point of Rocks, 25 miles east of present-day Rock Springs, Wyoming. From there, Morris and her boys continued north by stagecoach. They crossed the Sand Dunes before ascending a gradual mountain pass to Mining District.
The dry, rocky landscape that confronted fifty-five-year-old Morris as she stepped off the stage at South Pass City appeared startlingly different from the fertile landscape she had known in Illinois and New York. Instead, her new home at 7,500 feet (2,300 m) in elevation meant scratching out a living in a barren gulch at the mouth of canyon near the Continental Divide. The Morrises settled into a 24-foot by 26-foot (7 × 9 m) log cabin with a sod roof that Esther's oldest son had purchased.
Winters were brutal. South Pass area residents, whose population swelled to as many as 4,000 residents, according to one estimate, either left the camp for the winter or faced extreme isolation during the long winters. Those who stayed on the mountain passed the battled sub-zero temperatures, high winds, and deep snow which might not retreat until June. Both John Morris and Archy purchased interest in mining properties soon after their arrival, including the Mountain Jack, Grand Turk, Golden State, and Nellie Morgan lodes, according to historian Michael A. Massie.
Initially prospects looked good in the midst of the gold rush, where the mines and adjoining businesses of South Pass City spurred employment for 2,000 workers during 1868 and 1869, according to a Stanford University study. But then came the bust. By 1870 most miners had left, leaving as few as 460 residents. By 1875 fewer than 100 remained.
Esther Morris had hardly settled in her new home in South Pass City when District Court Judge John W. Kingman appointed her as justice of the peace in 1870. It took some "prodding" but Morris subsequently completed an application for the post and submitted a required $500 bond. The Sweetwater County Board of Commissioners in a vote of two to one approved her application on February 14, 1870.
Subsequently, the county clerk telegraphed a press release announcing the historic event of the first woman justice of the peace. The Wyoming Territory's enfranchisement of women to vote in 1869 made Morris' unprecedented appointment possible. The clerk's telegraph to the world in part read:
"Wyoming, the youngest and one of the richest Territories in the United States, gave equal rights to women in actions as well as words."
Morris' momentous appointment followed the resignation of Justice R. S. Barr, who quit in protest of the territorial legislature's passage of the women's suffrage amendment in December 1869. However, according to author Lynne Cheney writing in American Heritage, the county board appointed Morris to complete the term of Judge J. W. Stillman.
Morris began her tenure as justice in South Pass City in 1870 by arresting Stillman, who refused to hand over his court docket. Ultimately, Morris dismissed her own case with a ruling that she as an interested party did not have the authority to arrest Stillman, according to author Lynne Cheney. Morris began anew with her own docket, holding court sitting on a wood slab in the living room of her log cabin. Cheney notes:
"When the lawyers who appeared in her court tried to embarrass her with legal terms and technicalities, she admitted her lack of training but was quick to let them know just whose court they were in. One of the lawyers who practiced before her recalled that 'to pettifoggers she showed no mercy.'"
Morris looked to her sons for support in the courtroom. She appointed Archibald as district clerk and Robert as a part-time deputy clerk with the tasks of keeping court records and drawing up arrest warrants. Her husband John's support was not so forthcoming. John actively opposed his wife's appointment and reportedly made such a scene in her court that Esther had him jailed.
Judge Morris ruled on 27 cases during her more than eight months in office, including nine criminal cases. None were overturned according to records at the Wyoming State Archives, although a few cases were appealed but upheld by the appellate court. She held her justice of the peace post until the term that she had been appointed to fill expired on December 6, 1870. Morris sought reelection but failed to muster a nomination from either the Republican or Democratic Party.
Morris' historic judgeship garnered favorable review upon the completion of her term in the South Pass News, as her son Archy was the editor. However, the historical record reveals little fanfare in the remainder of Wyoming's press. The Wyoming Tribune, published in Cheyenne, did note the comments of Territorial Secretary Lee: "the people of Sweetwater County had not the good sense and judgment to nominate and elect her for the ensuing term."
Esther Morris, as a working mother, held court over a camp of miners, gamblers, speculators, business owners, prostitutes, and rounders. Men outnumbered women 4 to 1 in the mountain community where she lived. The challenges in the court dealing with a rough constituency were compounded by her husband, John, who had a reputation as "a brawler, an idler, and a drunk." Morris had him arrested after her term in office was over for assault and battery, according to the American Heritage Magazine.
Troubles continued to mount for the family. An 1871 fire struck the South Pass City newspaper office owned and operated by Esther Morris' son, Archibald Slack, forcing him and his wife Sarah to move to Laramie in Albany County. Perhaps it was case of cabin fever after being cooped up all season during a particularly bad winter of 1871–72 that spurred Morris to action. She left the camp and her husband. Morris traveled to Laramie where she briefly lived with her son Archibald. The former judge remained unsettled however. She moved to Albany, New York, then to Springfield, Illinois, where she spent her winters, according to Massie. Summers saw her returning to Wyoming, where she spent time with her sons. Morris' wandering ended in the 1880s when she returned to Cheyenne to live with her son Robert. Meanwhile, Morris had been but one of many in a long history of residents who saddled up and called it quits in South Pass City. Short-lived gold strikes in the 1880s, 1890s, and 1930s once again lured miners back to the mountains seeking their fortunes.
For many years, Esther Hobart Morris has been celebrated as the "Mother of Woman Suffrage". Soon after its enactment, Morris was widely credited as the instigator and even co-author of the Wyoming Territory's groundbreaking 1869 legislation granting women the right to vote. The legislation had been written a year before she became a justice of the peace, by Civil War veteran, and South Pass City resident William H. Bright.
Some detractors and critics claim the public record celebrating Morris' role as a suffrage leader is exaggerated. Reports of Morris as suffragist date back to South Pass City, where she was said to have hosted a tea party for the electors and candidates for Wyoming's first territorial legislature. Popular accounts hold that Morris' purpose for the tea party was to ensure that the candidates committed to suffrage. Yet some claim this party may have never happened.
Modern-day research has suggested that Morris' oldest son, later a Cheyenne newspaper editor, may have played a role in the origins of the story of his mother's role. Critics say that he "concocted it". Other research leads to Morris' friend Melville C. Brown, who was president of the 1889 Constitutional Convention in Cheyenne, and claimed that Morris had presented the suffrage bill to the legislature. Subsequently, Morris' son Archibald also began referring to his mother in the Cheyenne Sun newspaper as the "Mother of Suffrage".
The tea party story might have faded quietly were it not for H. G. Nickerson. Nickerson, who had discovered and opened the Bullion Mine in 1868, later served as territorial legislator. He wrote a letter to the Lander Wyoming State Journal, published February 14, 1919, in which he recounted the tea party and his attendance as a legislative candidate, some 50 years after the event had taken place. In a tip of the hat honoring Morris, Nickerson notes:
"To Mrs. Esther Morris is due the credit and honor of advocating and originating woman's suffrage in the United States."
Nickerson's story gained widespread prominence after his friend Wyoming historian Grace Raymond Hebard (1861–1936) published the account in a 1920 pamphlet entitled "How Woman Suffrage Came to Wyoming (1869)". The pamphlet eventually became so widely distributed that students throughout the state's public schools read the story memorializing Morris's suffrage feats. Hebard spent many years advancing the claim, promoting Morris as an instigator and co-author of Wyoming's suffrage legislation.
In 1960, Wyoming further celebrated Morris as a key impetus of Wyoming suffrage by donating a life-sized bronze statue of her to the National Statuary Hall Collection in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. Officiating at the Statuary Hall ceremony were Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Richard Arnold Mullens (1918–2010), the president at the time of the Wyoming State Society.
In 1963, Wyoming officials placed a replica of the same nine-foot sculpture at the state capitol building in Cheyenne. An inscription thereon hails Morris as the "Mother of Woman Suffrage". And, in 2006, the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame in Fort Worth, Texas, inducted Morris, as a suffrage pathbreaker. The Cowgirl Hall of Fame claims that her "influential efforts made it possible for women to vote in the Wyoming Territory in 1869."
Wyoming's enactment of women's suffrage in 1869 prompted a surge forward for human rights in the United States. Moreover, the territory's appointment of Morris as the first woman justice of the peace in the United States in 1870, and the first woman to hold judicial office in the modern world, drew widespread national attention.
Morris' involvement in women's causes also continued after she left the gold mines and South Pass City:February 1872: She participated in the American Woman Suffrage Association Convention in San Francisco.
August 1873: Nominated by the Woman's Party of Wyoming as a candidate to the Wyoming Territorial Legislature, a nomination that Morris declined.
1876: Served as vice president, National American Woman Suffrage Association.
July 1876: Addressed the National Suffrage Convention in Philadelphia.
July 1890: Presented the new Wyoming state flag to Governor Warren during the Wyoming statehood celebration.
1896: Attended as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, which nominated the William McKinley-Garret A. Hobart ticket. (She was not related to Vice President Hobart, who died in office in 1899.)
Esther Hobart Morris died in Cheyenne on April 3, 1902, at age 87 (or 90). She is interred at Lakeview Cemetery in Cheyenne, where a simple stone monument adorned only with her name marks her grave site. Since 1960, a statue of her sculpted by Avard Fairbanks has been one of Wyoming's two statutes in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the United States Capitol. Another statute stands at the Wyoming State Capitol.