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Esther Hobart (McQuigg) (Slack) Morris, First Woman Justice Of The Peace 1870

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Linda Roorda

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Esther Hobart (McQuigg) (Slack) Morris was born August 8, 1812 in or near Spencer, Tioga County, New York. The “Mother of Woman Suffrage” as her oldest son, Edward, dubbed her, Esther holds the distinction of being the first American woman Justice of the Peace in 1870’s Wyoming Territory. As an early suffragist, she had an important role in gaining rights for women in Wyoming, playing a bit part in the early days of the national movement. This is her story… but first, a little background which led me to Esther.

Esther McQuigg Morris

While walking our former farm fields alongside the Catatonk Creek, the remaining dam structure and the back hill, I often pondered the fact that Esther and her extended families cleared and worked this land, hunted these hills, and sawed its timber. They watched countless sunrises and sunsets from the same perspective we have. They saw many a storm come down this valley from the north and west, smelled the same earthy aroma as spring arrived, stood in awe as beautiful rainbows appeared over that back hill, and admired the brilliant colorful hues of the valley’s various trees and sugar maples in the fall.

But, of interest to me personally, is Esther’s tie to the old “tenant house” as we called it when my husband’s Roorda family owned the farm on the corner of Ithaca Road and Fisher Settlement Road. This Greek Revival farmhouse had character! Built in the 1830s, it stood where our house was built in 1982. Esther grew up on the farmland here, but her brother, Daniel McQuigg, Jr. built this “little house” in the 1830s for his wife Eleanor’s mother, Mrs. (Rev. Asa) Cummings.

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I loved its design and floorplan; but, alas, upkeep of the house had not been maintained during the nearly 150 years of its existence. By the time we contemplated renovating it, dry rot had consumed the support beams, the main floor had separated 3 inches from a main load-bearing inner wall, and the foundation was buckling. Original imperfect glass panes were still in the windows. And, while the main floor’s ceiling was 10-12 feet high, it was too low upstairs for my 6’7” husband to stand upright.

Though wood clapboard siding had been covered by ugly faux red brick asphalt sheet siding, I loved the Greek Revival design. Opening the front door, flanked by faux pillars and little windows, we entered the main hallway. To the left was the front parlor, formerly separated by sliding pocket doors (removed by a former tenant) which opened to the dining room. The second doorway on the left in the hall led into that dining room with its original but dysfunctional fireplace. To the left of the fireplace was a smaller room that had been converted into a bathroom. The door to the right of the fireplace led into the kitchen which had a door to the west porch entrance, and a rear door to a back shed. And, to the left at the rear of the kitchen was a door which opened onto a steep staircase and upper rooms.

This back staircase intrigued me as we climbed up to what was clearly servants’ quarters separated from the other rooms upstairs by a different door and latch than found in the rest of the house. At the top of the stairs which curved left was a small room. This room had what I perceived to be original early-mid 19th century wallpaper of young belles in hoop-skirt gowns. Back in the small open hall, there was a simple wooden railing protecting one from falling over and down the stairs. This open area had a small “sitting” area that overlooked the staircase, large enough for a small table and chair(s), with another small room to the side, directly above the kitchen. A door to the right in this hall led into a larger room. This room had a very antique simple latch/lock. In here, we found a large curtain stretcher frame which had likely seen decades of use in the distant past. Unfortunately, I never thought about donating it to the town’s historical society.

But, back on the first floor at the front entrance, we return to the main hall to take the stairs up. Ed and I recall that these stairs were so well built they did not squeak like those in our new house which squeaked fairly soon after being built! However, former occupants had also destroyed this staircase’s fancy posts and banisters for firewood. There were several rooms, two along the front, two on the side, and that larger room with the door which entered the servants’ quarters. But, again, the ceiling was so low that my husband could not stand upright at any point. And, as I said, the house was in such poor condition that it was not financially feasible for us to make renovations.

Apparently not long after this “little house” was built, a sugar maple was set centered halfway between the house and the road. Still thriving in 1982 when the house came down in the fire department’s practice burn, it was damaged by the fire. We used it for firewood, never thinking to count its rings.

Whether Esther Hobart McQuigg ever set foot in this house, I cannot say. Her middle name of Hobart was in honor of her mother’s family, early Massachusetts settlers who emigrated from England. Esther’s mother was Charlotte (Hobart) McQuigg, b. 1779 in Canaan, Litchfield County, CT, d. 1826 at Spencer, Tioga County, NY.

Charlotte’s father, Edmund Hobart, was b.1745 in Groton, Middlesex County, Massachusetts. On 01/01/1776, he married Mehetable/Mahitabel Peck at Canaan, Litchfield, CT, having nine children (Ancestry.com) – Prescott, Charlotte (Esther’s mother), Betsey (died young), Rodney, Mille, Isaac, William, Esther, and John. Edmund d.1808 aged 63 years, buried Spencer, while Mehetable d.1832 aged 77 years, making her birth about 1755, is also buried in Spencer’s Old Cemetery.

In 1795, Charlotte’s father, Edmund Hobart, traveled with wife and family likely by traditional wagon and oxen from Canaan, Litchfield County, CT, taking the popular road past Oneonta’s Otsego Lake. Passing through Owego, Tioga Co., NY, Edmund took his family on to Spencer, NY, purchasing land which then included our property. Hobart’s oldest son, Prescott, was b.1777 in Canaan, CT. Sadly, he holds the distinction of being the first death recorded within present-day Spencer soon after the town was settled. Injured while using the indispensable axe, 17-year-old Prescott died of lockjaw in 1795. He was buried on his father’s farm until land was set aside for a cemetery about 1800 from the estate of Joseph Barker in town. This became the Old Spencer Cemetery at the corner of Liberty and Main Streets. (Spencer History)

Edmund Hobart built a successful saw mill on the embankment above the Catatunk/Catatonk Creek, roughly 500 feet east of our house. A dam was built back to the steep hill which held back a 10-15 acre millpond to efficiently run the millwheel. The ubiquitous apple orchard was established below the mill on this side of the dam, trees still producing when my husband farmed with his father from 1968 to 1985. They provided shade for the cows, and bedding protection for deer as my son and I discovered on a hike one wintry day – along with tasty apples for the animals to enjoy!

Edmund Hobart’s second son, Rodney, operated a grist mill with Daniel McQuigg on the same mill site. Daniel McQuigg married Edmund Hobart’s daughter, Charlotte, purchasing the full property in 1815 after Edmund died. (Spencer History)  Later, the Cook Mill on the same ground was known to saw “50,000 to 100,000 feet of lumber per annum” even though not running at full capacity (per the late Jean Alve, Spencer Town Historian in “Sounds of Spencer”, Random Harvest Weekly, 01/11/95). The dam was eventually breached and drained, creating a large field which my husband said contained very fertile “river-bottom” loam. All that remains of the mill(s) is a large pile of rocks among which we found a few small antique bottles. The dam was removed entirely to make way for Hollybrook Country Club’s golf course in the early 2000s.

There is quite a rich family history for Esther Hobart McQuigg and her paternal Hobart ancestors placed by a descendant at Find-A-Grave(FAGM) Edmund Hobart’s father was Shebuel Hobart, Jr., b.1715, Groton, Middlesex Co., MA, d.1805 at 90, Westfield, Chittenden Co., VT. He married Esther Parker in Groton in 1739, having 10 children. Esther was b.1721, Groton, Middlesex Co., MA, d.1789, aged 68, Hollis, Hillsborough Co., NH.

Shebuel Hobart, Sr. was b.1682 in Groton, Mass, d.1764 at Pepperell, Middlesex Co., MA; he mar. Martha Prescott b.1690, Groton, MA, d.1774 aged 84 yrs, Townsend, Middlesex Co., MA. Shebuel’s parents were Rev. Gershom Hobart, b.1645 of Plymouth County, MA, a graduate of Harvard seminary in 1667; he m. Sarah Aldis in 1675, b.1652, 14 children. Gershom survived the Groton, Massachusetts Indian massacre of 1676; one of his children was killed, while one taken captive was released a year later. Gershom’s father was Rev. Peter Hobart, b.1604 of Hingham, Norfolk, England; he is said to have arrived at Charlestown, Massachusetts on June 8, 1635. (FAGM)
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Esther’s father, Daniel McQuigg, Sr. was b.1776 in either New Hampshire or Massachusetts, and d.1833 in Spencer, Tioga Co., NY. Meeting in Spencer, Daniel Sr. married Charlotte Hobart, b.1779 in Connecticut; she died 1826 in Spencer, NY. They had 11 children, including (per the late Jean Alve, Spencer Town Historian): Daniel, Jr., b.1801, Charles b.1803, John b.1805, Edmund H. b.1807 in Spencer, Jane b.1808, brother Jesse/Jessie b.1810, Esther Hobart b.1812 (J.A.) or 1814 (online), brother Mindwell b.1814, Eliza b.1816, Charlotte Susan b.1819, and George b.1821.

John McQuigg, Jr., Esther’s grandfather, a Revolutionary soldier, arrived in Owego, NY from Massachusetts between 1785-1788. He was b. 1750 in Hillsborough Co., NH, d.1804 Owego, Tioga Co., NY. (FAGM) He m. 1) Mollie Gilmore – ch.: John M. McQuigg, III, b. Oct 13, 1771; and 2) Sarah Coburn – ch.: Mary b.1774, Daniel Sr. b.1776, Elizabeth b.1778, Robert b.1780, Jesse b.1783, Sarah b.1783, Patience b.1787, David b.1791, Rachel b/1793, Jane b.1795, Diadana b.1796. (J.A.)

John McQuigg, Jr.’s will was probated in December 1804, presumably the year he died (FAGM), though Alve noted he died in Owego in 1813. He was buried in the cemetery of Owego’s first church. After the church burned, the graveyard on Court Street was abandoned with John McQuigg’s gravesite now unknown. (FAGM) Spencer Town Historian, Jean Alve (JA), wrote in her 08/03/85 newspaper article, “A Pioneer Family and a Family of Pioneers”, that “John McQuigg of Scots-Irish descent came from Massachusetts to the village of Owego by way of Otsego Lake and the trail along the Susquehanna river in the period from 1785-1788. He died in Owego in 1813.” But, if his will was probated in December 1804 (FAGM), then he obviously died prior to 1813 (JA).

John McQuigg, Sr., was b. 1706 and d. 1794 in Bedford, Hillsborough Co., NH, recorded as a petitioner for the incorporation of Bedford May 10, 1750, a selectman from 1752-1759. He m. Mildred Lawson b. 1710, d. 1788. (FAGM)
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Into this hardy family was born Esther Hobart McQuigg, clearly descended from a long line of survivors unafraid of life on the western frontier.

As a daughter of Daniel, Sr. and Charlotte (Hobart) McQuigg, Esther was the eighth of eleven children, the second of four daughters. By the time she was 11, Esther and her siblings had become orphans, their mother dying in 1826, their father in 1833. Her youngest siblings were sent to live with older siblings or various relatives in New York and Ohio, possibly Michigan, while Esther was apprenticed to a seamstress. She “ran a successful millinery business from her grandparents’ home [perhaps her Hobart grandmother], ‘making hats, and buying and selling goods for women.’” Esther was also not afraid to take a stand as an abolitionist in opposing pro-slavery rivals threatening to destroy a church.

Two days after her birthday at age 29 in 1841, Esther married Artemas Slack of Owego on August 10, 1841 in Owego, Tioga Co., NY. A civil engineer with the Erie Railroad, Artemas was b. March 5, 1811, son of Jesse and Betsy (Burnham) Slack of Windsor, Vermont. Artemas and Esther’s son, Edward Archibald Slack, was born October 1842 at Owego, NY. Sadly, just seven short months later, Artemas Slack died in May 1843 at 32 years. “As a highly respected civil engineer, Artemas traveled throughout the Upper Midwest until he was accidentally killed in Illinois.” (p.11. Wyoming Woman Suffrage, WWS.)  Artemas was buried in the Presbyterian Church Burying Ground at Owego, NY, leaving Esther a young widow and single mother. (Find-A-Grave, FAGM)

Since Artemas left property in Illinois to his wife, Esther removed to Peru with her young son, Edward Archibald. There, “Ester Slack” met John Morris, “a prosperous merchant and shopkeeper,” whom she married in Peru, Illinois on February 17, 1846 as recorded in the registry at LaSalle County, Illinois. (Biographical Encyclopedia, BE)

John Morris was born 1812 per gravestone, or between 1813-1817 in Poland per Federal census records (age 33, merchant, in 1850; 44 in 1860; and 57, miner, in 1870). The U.S. Army Enlistment Record (Ancestry.com) notes his enlistment on January 2, 1836 as John Moryoski, age 22, born 1814, Brestezo, Poland, a farmer. He was noted to be a saloon keeper, miner, and then a coroner in 1872. John and Esther’s first son, John, died as an infant, with twin sons born November 8, 1851 in Peru, Illinois – Edward J. and Robert C.

Edward J. Morris (1851-1902) was elected assessor of Laramie County, County Clerk of Sweetwater County, and was a partner in the W.A. Johnson store in Green River, later known as the Morris Mercantile Company, and also established the Morris State Bank. (FAGM)

Robert C. Morris (1851-1921) was noted to be “the most expert reporter the state ever had” for the Wyoming State Supreme Court, later partnered with his twin brother in the Morris Mercantile Company in Green River, taking over the business after his brother died. (FAGM)

As above, Esther was born in or near Spencer, Tioga County, NY on August 8, 1812 (year on tombstone photo at FAGM; date per JA) or 1814 as per numerous articles about her. Even Federal census records note her age discrepancies (Ancestry.com):
1850 age 32, husband John Morris, age 33, Archibald Slack 7 (her son), John Morris 1, Salisbury, LaSalle County, Illinois;
1860 age 43, listed as “Sarah”, husband John Merris/Morris age 44, twin sons Edwin and Robert, both age 8, Peru, LaSalle Co., IL;
1870, June 1st, age 57 as was husband John, South Pass City, Sweetwater, Wyoming Territory.
1880 age 77, census taken on the 4th and 5th days of June 1880, Sangamon, Springfield Co., IL. (Note 20 year age discrepancy between 1870 to 1880 by my review Ancestry.com.)
1900 age 85, 86 or 87, with 7 written above a 5 which also appears to have a 6 within it, residing in the home of her son, “R.C. Morris” (Robert C.). Perhaps she had previously claimed a younger age than she actually was so as not to be listed older than her second husband, John Morris.

Published August 3, 1950 in the “Waterloo Daily Courier” of Waterloo, Iowa under Ripley’s Believe It Or Not – “Mrs. Esther Morris of Cheyenne Wyoming was a justice of the peace 48 years before the U.S. gave women the right to vote! The first Woman Judge – Mrs. Esther McQuigg Morris (1813-1902), who died at Cheyanne, Wyo. on April 2, 1902, at the age of eighty-nine, was known as the ‘Mother of Woman Suffrage in Wyoming.’ She was the first woman judge in America, being chosen justice of the peace of South Pass City, Wyo. in 1870, shortly after women received the vote in the Territory, but 48 years before the U.S. gave women the right to vote.” (Ancestry.com) With her 90th birthday upcoming in August 1902, this notice would make her birth year the more accurate 1812.

In July 1869, John and Esther Morris joined the gold rush and moved their young family west, not to California but to South Pass City in Sweetwater County, Wyoming Territory. Gold was discovered here in the late 1860s. Though the working Carissa Mine closed in 1956, it remains open for public tours.  With their children, John and Esther settled into a 24×26 foot log cabin on Lot 38, South Pass Avenue. (pg.11, Wyoming Woman Suffrage, WWS) The 1870 Federal Census for South Pass City records John, age 57, a miner, with his wife Ester, age 57, Justice of the Peace, Edward, age 19, occupation of clerk in store, Robert, 19, Deputy District Clerk, and Edward Slack, age 27, District Clerk.

Esther Hobart (McQuigg) (Slack) Morris was a woman of stature, a hardy pioneer. “Nearly six feet tall, weighing a hefty 180 pounds…a born reformer,” Esther was a woman who radiated strength. Speaking in a “blunt and fiery” manner and adept at articulate passionate speeches, she was a fervent crusader for her cause. (BE) With her ancestral background of pioneers on new western fronts, she supported and promoted women’s rights at a time when it was more often a volatile subject. After America’s Civil War granted rights to former slaves, she was now among the increasing voices promoting woman suffrage, or right to vote.

In Wyoming Territory, William H. Bright, introduced CB70, the suffrage bill to give women their right to vote and hold office. “Passing CB70 was not a joke gone awry. Instead, a genuine belief in woman suffrage, a way to promote the territory, and the notion of temporary experiment with this reform influenced the Wyoming legislators.” (pg.8, WWS) It was believed that “Being the first government to pass a woman suffrage bill would invite national publicity and create a positive, progressive image which would induce more settlement.” (pg.9-10, WWS)

On December 10, 1869, women were, indeed, granted the right to vote in Wyoming. “This same group of lawmakers also gave married women control of their own property and provided for equal pay for women teachers, many years before most other states would even begin contemplating such legislation.” It was of note that within a short time, the nation’s first female jurors were also seated, as was the nation’s first woman justice of the peace. (BE)

Not long after, on February 14, 1870, Esther Morris began her appointment as Justice of the Peace for South Pass City, Sweetwater County in Wyoming Territory. She paved the way as the first American woman ever to hold such a position. Newspapers around the nation informed interested readers of her auspicious appointment. Morris presided over a rowdy western town of about 2000 souls for eight-and-a-half months. Alcohol was readily available from two breweries for miners who frequented “a dozen saloons and several brothels.” https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/23/obituaries/overlooked-esther-morris.html Morris tried about 30 cases (New York Times Obituaries, NYT)  or 27 cases (pg.14, WWS), or over 70 minor cases (BE), meting out justice as her strong common sense deemed appropriate. Most cases brought before her involved debt disagreements, but she adjudicated “ten assault cases, including three with the intent to kill.” (pg.14, WWS)  Indicative of Morris’s ability is that not one of her decisions was reversed by a higher court, even after one case was taken to appellate court.

As expected, the era’s news media “found the idea of a female judge somewhat amusing, or so their reports on Morris’s tenure would suggest. In April 1870, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper recounted her first day in court, focusing primarily on what she wore – ‘a calico gown, worsted breakfast-shawl, green ribbons in her hair, and a green neck-tie’. A few months later, the same publication called Morris ‘the terror of all rogues’ and said she offered ‘infinite delight to all lovers of peace and virtue.’” (NYT)

A year later in June 1871, Morris supposedly issued a warrant against her husband for assault. Quite possibly a rumor, “one story asserted Esther had tried her husband, John, for drunkenness and had him tossed in jail. Denying it, she replied, ‘A man is not alowd to be judge of his wife much less a woman of her husband. It would not be a legal proseding.’ Common sense, more than the knowledge of the law, explains the success of Morris’ tenure as justice.” [pg. 14, WWS]

At the conclusion of her term, Esther decided not to seek reelection. Her son, Robert, “explained his mother’s decision by noting she had received ‘much glory’ from holding the job and demonstrated that women could perform well in elected office. In other words, she had accomplished her goals.” She also knew her husband opposed woman suffrage and probably her job as justice of the peace. [pg.14, WWS] Unfortunately, with their marriage already failing, the couple separated. Leaving John Morris behind, Esther Morris removed to Laramie, Wyoming to be near her eldest son, Edward Slack, a newspaper editor. (BE)

Morris recognized her own role in the national emergence of women’s suffrage. After completing her term as justice of the peace in 1871, she wrote a prominent suffragist, Isabella Beecher Hooker. Her letter was read at the national suffrage convention in Washington, D.C., and printed in Wyoming’s “The Laramie Daily Sentinel”: (NYT) “Circumstances have transpired to make my position as a justice of the peace a test of woman’s ability to hold public office… I feel that my work has been satisfactory.” In describing some of her responsibilities such as assisting in picking juries, depositing a ballot, canvassing votes after an election, Morris noted that “in performing all these duties I do not know as I have neglected my family any more than in ordinary shopping.” (NYT)

In 1873, John Morris bought his first liquor license for his saloon, continued to work in the local mines and speculated in properties. (WWS)  He died in South Pass City on September 29, 1877. [In 2011, Clint Black noted for Find-A-Grave that “John’s gravestone in Cheyenne may be a memorial. City records record burial in 1876.”] John’s obituary in the Cheyenne Sun noted he was the step-father of the paper’s editor, Edward Slack. Age 63 at death, he had emigrated from Poland, arrived in South Pass City in 1868, established himself as a saloon keeper, a miner, and elected coroner in 1872. (FAGM)

In the same year of 1873, Esther Morris was nominated for Wyoming state representative from Albany County on a woman’s ticket. Withdrawing not long afterward from the election bid, she made it clear, however, that she was still very much a part of the “woman’s cause.” Moving back east to Albany, New York in 1874, she continued her suffragist efforts, taking part in ceremonies for the 1876 “Declaration of Rights for Women” at Philadelphia’s Centennial Exhibition.

Traveling west yet again, Morris eventually settled in Cheyenne, Wyoming in 1890 where her son, Col. Edward Archibald Slack (1842-1907), had become owner/editor of the Cheyenne News and later the Daily Leader. Slack gave his mother the honorary title of “Mother of Woman Suffrage.” Previously, Col. Slack had begun the publication of the Laramie Independent newspaper, followed by the Laramie Sun.

This was also the year of Wyoming’s statehood, being the 44th to join the Union on July 10, 1890. During celebrations, Morris, “honored and respected for her great ability and heroic womanhood,” was given a prominent celebratory role. Morris presented Gov. Francis E. Warren the new state flag of Wyoming “on behalf of the women of Wyoming, and in grateful recognition of the high privilege of citizenship that has been conferred upon us.” (NYT)

Morris was part of a tour by Susan B. Anthony in 1893 when Colorado women received the vote, attending a dinner given for Anthony in 1895. That same year, Morris was also elected a delegate from Wyoming to the national suffrage convention in Cleveland, Ohio. (BE)

Esther Hobart (McQuigg) (Slack) Morris died at age 87 or 89 (depending on source) on April 2, 1902 at home in Cheyenne, Wyoming, the town where she is buried.

A pamphlet published in 1920 on Wyoming suffrage by local historian Grace Raymond Hebard contributed in great part to establishing Morris’s reputation for the many women’s rights she helped achieve. In 1960, statues to honor Morris were placed in Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol and in the state house at Cheyenne, Wyoming. (BE)

Though Esther Morris will always be remembered for her brief time as the first woman Justice of the Peace, she is only rarely mentioned for her important advocacy for women’s suffrage. Yet, she worked fervently among the more recognizable suffragists like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree), Lucy Stone, Julia Ward Howe, Carrie Chapman Catt, Lucretia Mott, and so many others.

Being the first woman justice of the peace, Morris is typically named alongside Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman elected to Congress in 1917, and Sandra Day O’Connor who, in 1981, became the first woman Supreme Court justice. (NYT) Not until 1920 were all American women given the right to vote, women who have benefited from Morris’s “satisfactory” execution of the trust placed in her as the first American woman justice of the peace.

As noted, the three sons of Esther Hobart (McQuigg) (Slack) Morris carried on their mother’s legacy and that of her siblings and extended family as leaders within their communities… rather fitting for a woman of hardy pioneer stock.

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