Outstanding women in Wyoming history Part I

Michael Kassel, the associate director and curator of collections for the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum, speaking at Tuesday’s Goshen County Historical Society meeting. Kassel’s presentation was on the outstanding women in Wyoming history. Cynthia Sheeley/Torrington Telegram

‘We wouldn’t be the state we are today’

TORRINGTON – The state of Wyoming has been called home by many extraordinary women throughout its history. As expected from the “Equality State,” each of these women made unique impacts on women’s rights, both within the state and the country as a whole.

To educate others on the outstanding women in Wyoming history, Michael Kassel, the associate director and curator of collections for the Cheyenne Frontier Days Old West Museum, was the guest speaker at this month’s Goshen County Historical Society (GCHS) meeting.

Before the presentation, Mary Houser, the GCHS president, started the night by welcoming everyone, offering a word of prayer and then led the group in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Then GCHS Board Member Marilyn Pettit introduced Kassel. Kassel was not only the museum’s associate director but also a writer of five books, a professor at Laramie County Community College (LCCC) and a wonderful speaker.

“One of my passions is teaching the great history of our state,” Kassel told the audience. “Our very small community has created an environment for women around the United States and across the world that people now enjoy.”

Historically the very first woman from Wyoming that impacted the rest of the country was Sacajawea and countless women followed in her footprints.  

With this in mind, the six women Kassel spoke of were women who each lived in Wyoming around the time of statehood.

Esther Hobart Morris

Esther Hobart Morris was born on Aug. 8, 1814, in Tioga County, New York. At only 11-years-old, she was orphaned and had to fend for herself. Eventually, she learned the trade of being a seamstress and then became a hatmaker and businesswoman. 

In 1841, Morris married Artemus Slack. Shortly after giving birth to their first son, EA Slack, Artemus died in 1844. After the death of her husband, she went to Peru, Illinois where Artemus had a property. However, she soon learned that she was unable to inherit any of his property thanks to local laws.

In 1851, she married a local merchant by the name of John Morris. They then added twin boys, Robert and Edward, to the family. 

About 17 years later, business in Illinois was declining and it was announced that gold was found at South Pass City in the distant western territory of Wyoming. In 1868, John and her oldest son moved to South Pass City.

“Unfortunately, what happened to Esther Hobart Morris was a very similar story to what happened to a lot of women in the 19th century,” Kassel explained. “If there was an opportunity in the gold fields, railroads or silver mines, the husband would take off and try to make his fortune. All while the wife was left back home to settle affairs and raise the kids.”

A year later, Morris arrived in Wyoming at the age of 57.

“What a lot of people may not realize is that she had a lot of adversity, even though she came to this rough and tumble frontier territory,” Kassel said. “A territory that was very hard on men and women. One of my favorite statements made by a historian is that ‘Wyoming is hell on women and on horses.”

When Wyoming first got started as a territory, women were outnumbered by men six to one. 

After women got the right to vote in November of 1869, they had to start taking on several serious responsibilities, like participating in the legal system and serving on a jury. When a position opened up in South Pass City for a new judge position, three women were nominated for the position. Two of the women rejected their nominations. 

In 1870, Morris became the first woman justice of the peace in the United States. She held the office for eight and a half months, until the next election. Her responsibilities included making sure the ballots were counted properly and presiding over civil and domestic cases.

Kassel said after stepping down Morris followed her son to Cheyenne where he had recently become editor of the Cheyenne Daily Leader. She was sought after by suffragists until her death in 1902.

“She was able to represent not only the state very well, but also the whole idea of giving women equality with men,” Kassel said. “She was a very important character.”

Theresa Jenkins

Theresa Jenkins was born on May 1, 1853, in Madison, Wisconsin, as Theresa Alberta Parkinson. She came to Cheyenne in 1877. Later that year, she married James F. Jenkins.

“Even before she came to Wyoming, she was a very strong temperance advocate and didn’t believe in drinking or smoking,” Kassel said. “She was absolutely dismayed by Cheyenne’s reputation when she got there.”

“Cheyenne had about one saloon for every 1,000 people in the city,” he continued. “She thought this was absolutely atrocious because the drinking establishments were always rowdy, and the dance halls were always filthy.”

Determined to make the city a better place for women and children, Jenkins quickly became an activist. As a member of the First Presbyterian Church in Cheyenne, she started reading rooms for the youth. She also helped organize the Women’s Relief Corps and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

As a member of the temperance union, Jenkins gave the first speech in Wyoming against the consumption of alcohol within the territory. She also had a bill introduced by the territory legislature to teach about the ill effects of alcohol and drugs to school children.

In 1889, Jenkins wrote a rebuttal for Popular Science to a well-known professor’s article called “The Relation of the Sexes to the Government.” The professor’s article said that “men were better at politics than women because they were unburdened by child-rearing. And women would make very poor voters with little real political power or influence.”

Kassel said in her rebuttal titled “The Mental Force of Women,” she said, “What you fear is this, that women might reform man. He has shown clearly that he cannot reform himself. Women in asking for the ballot ought to say to men, we will make better use of it than you have.”

During the Constitutional Convention discussing statehood for Wyoming, Kassel said someone mentioned that they didn’t think it was a good idea to carry on giving women the right to vote into statehood. Jenkins immediately organized a massive rally of women to parade on the territorial capitol.

“Her buggie ride apparently sent her into labor with her third child and she missed the whole affair,” Kassel said. “[Even so], the women did break into the capitol building and stormed the territorial legislature and everybody forgot about declining women the right to vote.”

After Wyoming achieved statehood, Jenkins was invited to address the crowd during the July 23 celebration. Later, she was elected as the first woman to represent the republican party at the national convention. She also led campaigns to bring women’s suffrage to Colorado.

In 1919, she attended the National American Women’s Suffrage Association and was asked to help ensure that Wyoming was a signatory for the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. After speaking with the governor, it wasn’t long before Wyoming became the 27th state to ratify the new amendment. 

Jenkins continued to be a strong advocate for women’s rights until she passed away in Cheyenne on February 28, 1936.

Grace Raymond Hebard

Grace Raymond Hebard was born on July 2, 1861, in Iowa. In her early years, she was homeschooled due to bad health. But later, she graduated from the State University of Iowa as the only woman in her engineering class. 

Hebard’s first job was working for the U.S. surveyor’s office in Cheyenne. In 1885, she got her master’s degree by letter and by mail from the University of Iowa. After her survey job ended in 1889, Hebard became the deputy engineer for the Surveyor General’s Office of Wyoming.

“However, she didn’t like the work and was looking for something else,” Kassel said. 

In 1891, Hebard was given a position on the board of trustees for the newly opened University of Wyoming (UW). Shortly after, she also became the paid secretary of the board, filling faculty positions and helping operations run smoothly. As she became more involved in the university, Hebard moved to Laramie.

In 1895, she started up a correspondence course again with the State University of Iowa to get her PhD. At the same time, she became the librarian for the university.

“She gave up no job,” Kessel explained. “She just kept adding to her plate. The next year, she became a secretary of the correspondence school at UW and also the agricultural extension office. I think she slept eventually.”

In 1898, the board offered her the position of president of UW, however, she turned them down. At that time, she was actually working on passing the Wyoming Bar Exam and was the first woman to do so. She was also UW’s champion golfer and tennis player.

“As you might imagine, she was considered to be a very formidable character, and a lot of people began to worry about the power that she had on campus,” Kessel said. “Because of her power, she drew attacks from the press that she had too much influence over the university.”

In spite of that, in 1906, she became the associate professor of political economy. This development was criticized by one of her male colleagues who criticized her for her lack of credible credentials publicly. 

“The board responded by forcing him out and she took over his job,” Kessel continued. “Then she became the head of political economy and sociology.”

Later, fascinated with history, Hebard began to write books about Wyoming history. These books included “The Government of Wyoming,” “The Pathbreakers from River to Ocean,” “The Bozeman Trail,” “Washakie” and “Sacajawea.”

“A lot of the stories that we heard about as kids, she’s the first historian that actually put them into print,” Kessel said. 

Hebard was the first person to do markers across the Oregon Trail and identified a lot of the grave sites. She also began another program to Americanize foreign-born immigrants and help try to end child labor in the United States. 

When Hebard passed away in 1936, she received praises from UW’s president, future governor of Wyoming A.G. Crane and former Wyoming governor and Senator Robert Carey.


“These are only six of the women that represent our wonderful territory and our wonderful state,” Kessel told the audience. “As you might recognize, they have made a national significance and certainly a statewide significance on what we are and how we perceive ourselves.” 

“Without their considerable effort and their considerable acumen, the love of our state and the power that they had with their own personalities, we wouldn’t be the state we are today,” he continued. “So, I think we should recognize these women as being extraordinarily strong women of Wyoming.”

This story was split into two parts in order to appropriately tell the stories of each of these incredible women. Part two will include the stories of Estelle Reel, Caroline Cameron Lockhart and Nellie Tayloe Ross. Look out for part two in the next edition of the Torrington Telegram.