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History and Culture

When Women Couldn’t Vote, This Wyoming Town Paved the Way

Tucked next to the Wind River Range, you’ll find the lively historic town that paved the way for women to receive the right to vote in 1869.

In the heady Gold Rush days in South Pass City, Wyo., where 12 saloons, a collection of hotels and two breweries sprouted up almost overnight, legislator William Bright had a revolutionary idea: women in Wyoming should have the right to vote.

A saloon keeper and mine owner, Bright championed a bill for women’s suffrage in 1869, and it passed in the territorial legislature that year, making Wyoming the first government in the world to offer women full voting rights. It was also the first year of the territorial legislature.

Gold Rush Days at South Pass City in Wind River Country
Gold Rush Days at South Pass CityPhoto by Jennie Hutchinson courtesy of Wind River Country

Today, the historic mining town is a three-hour drive from Grand Teton National Park. You can drive the Wyoming Women’s Suffrage Pathway on Hwy. 28 to visit South Pass City State Historic Site, a vibrant historic ghost town with 40 restored structures and interpretive exhibits nestled along the banks of Willow Creek. As you explore it and pan for gold, you may find yourself wondering what compelled Bright to push for female voting rights 50 years before the federal government did so.

Some say Bright’s wife convinced him to introduce the bill, stressing the equal rights for the other half of humanity. While recognizing the tough, pioneer women on Wyoming’s wind-swept frontier as equals certainly was a motivating factor, there was something else. In 1869, more than 6,000 men lived in the territory, grossly outnumbering the 1,000 women. They needed wives.

Ester Morris, first female Justice of the Peace in the U.S., Vice President of the National American Woman Suffrage Assoc., National Cowgirl Hall of…
Ester Hobart Morris statuary in the U.S. CapitolPublic Domain

After receiving the right to vote, women quickly took on leadership roles. In South Pass City, 55-year-old Esther Hobart Morris became the nation’s first female justice of the peace in 1870. Down the road in the historic gold mining town of Atlantic City, you can spot bullet holes in the ceiling of the Atlantic City Mercantile, providing a window into Morris’ job listening to civil cases amid a period of lawlessness. As you dine in the mercantile-turned-restaurant-and-bar, you’ll also see mining tools, lanterns and historic photos hanging from the walls.

Beyond South Pass City, explore the nearby towns of Lander, Riverton, Dubois, Hudson, Shoshoni and Wind River Indian Reservation nestled against the majestic Wind River Mountain Range. Women here continue Morris’ legacy, playing critical roles in their communities. Take, for instance, Jessie Allen, ranch manager of Allen’s Diamond 4 Ranch, and Sarah Woltan, owner of Bear Basin Adventures, both of whom offer all-women’s horse-packing, yoga and fly-fishing adventures.

Chef Jenna Ackerman, who owns The Middle Fork restaurant in Lander, and is committed to serving sustainably raised, fresh food. You can take a knifemaking workshop in Riverton from Audra Draper, the country’s first female master bladesmith. You may even catch a workshop with Echo Klaproth, a fourth-generation rancher, writer, teacher and ordained minister from Shoshoni who was named Wyoming’s sixth Poet Laureate in 2013.

Or see women performing traditional Native American dance styles on Tuesday nights at the Wind River Hotel & Casino and Wednesday nights at the Museum of the American West.

By the Numbers: Women in Wyoming

Year Milestone
1869 Women receive the right to vote in Wyoming Territory
1870 Esther Hobart Morris becomes first female Justice of the Peace in the nation in South Pass City, Wyo.
1890 Wyoming becomes a state
1920 The 19th Amendment passes, giving women the right to vote throughout the United States