South Pass City was born in the summer of 1867. Unlike hundreds of other Western boom towns, this one endures to the present day. A rare blend of hard work, circumstance, & foresight has resulted in one of the best preserved towns & gold mills in the West.
Rumors of earlier gold discoveries along the Sweetwater River date to the 1840s, but the promise of greater reward involving less risk had led gold seekers to focus elsewhere. Beginning in the 1860s, scattered handfuls of frontier military personnel were assigned to protect telegraph lines, Pony Express stations, & emigrant trails in the South Pass area. The first sizable gold excitement in the South Pass region took place when a party of men out of Fort Bridger located the Cariso Lode (later called the Carissa) in June 1867. The local region hosted the Shoshone & the California Mining Districts. The first boom only lasted a couple of seasons, but helped establish mining as the foundation for Wyoming’s economy .
The initial gold rush was followed quickly by a prolonged bust as eager miners & investors were rudely acquainted with the realities of profitably working the Sweetwater Mines. Many early boomers instead sought their fortunes through agriculture on the tracts of nearby public land open to homesteading. Others saw opportunity as merchants, professionals, & government workers.
Always though, there were those committed to a belief in the future of the mines. Their fidelity was rewarded as cycles of national prosperity & optimism resulted in the periodic revival of dormant mine properties. Local men obtained regular work, support industries like timber cutting & freighting surged, & the anticipation of lasting good times ahead convinced even discouraged old timers to hold on a bit longer.
A wild and wooly mining town on the edge of a frontier seems to be a strange place for a national political debate, but South Pass City was on the forefront of the Women’s Suffrage Movement of the Mid-19th century.
When Wyoming’s First Territorial Legislature convened in 1869 several bills concerning women’s rights were introduced. Nationally, the women’s suffrage movement had been pressing for access to the ballot box for decades, with no success. William Bright, a South Pass City Saloon owner, introduced Council Bill #70, giving women the vote and the right to hold office. After heated debate, the bill passed and was signed into law by Governor John Campbell.
Lured by the opportunities in gold mining, Esther and John Morris arrived in South Pass City early in 1869. A few months later, an opportunity presented itself to Esther Morris. A job! South Pass City needed a Justice-of-the-Peace. While living in the East, Esther was a supporter of suffrage and this new opportunity seemed a perfect fit. Esther submitted her name for the position and was appointed by Acting Governor Edward Lee as Justice-of-the-Peace on February 17, 1870. She was the first woman to hold public office in the United States.
Esther Morris served as Justice-of-the-Peace for 9 months in 1870. Ruling on both civil and criminal cases, Morris was by all accounts fair and efficient in her duties. By the end of her term, the bust was setting in, and she joined the thousands of disillusioned gold-rushers and left South Pass City, settling in Cheyenne, Wyoming.