Eliza Stewart: First Woman Juror in America

linda-sig.jpgThere were so many “firsts” in our country in the 1800’s. Some came about quietly and some to great fanfare. The one I’m going to talk about today didn’t get a lot of attention except in the Wyoming Territory twenty years before they achieved statehood.

Eliza Stewart was born in 1833 in Crawford County, Pennsylvania. She was the eldest of eight children. Her father was Scots Irish and when her mother died in childbirth, Eliza took on the role of raising her seven siblings. Dispite all of her responsibilities, Eliza continued to attend school. She was an excellent student. She graduated from the Washington Female Seminary as valedictorian. Upon graduation she began teaching school. Eight years later, she decided to go West. She arrived in Laramie, Wyoming just as the town was about to open its first public school. Seeing as how Eliza held such glowing credentials, they quickly hired the unmarried woman as their first teacher. The first classes began in February 1869.

(That same year Wyoming granted women the right to vote and hold office.)

But, Eliza didn’t stay single very much longer. She met Stephen Boyd and fell in love. In March 1870, a few months before they were married, Eliza, at the age of 36, received a summons to serve on the grand jury.

I couldn’t find any information about the kinds of cases they heard, but it is known that they were highly praised for their work. And more importantly, it opened the door for other women to do things that before were limited to men.

I’m sure Eliza was thrilled to have blazed the trail. That was quite an honor.

Here’s a sculpted bust of Eliza that’s on display in Laramie.

ElizaBust

She didn’t stop there though. Two months after her marriage, Eliza helped organize the Wyoming Literary and Library Association. She was instrumental in establishing the first library in Laramie.

And in August 1873, she became the first woman to be nominated to run for the Territorial legislature. However, she withdrew her name from the ballot. I’m not sure that anyone knows the reason why. Eliza did remain interested in politics though and got involved in the Women’s Temperance movement a few years later. In fact, she served several terms as the organization’s secretary and traveled to the party’s national convention in Indiana in 1888.

Meanwhile, she and her husband opened a “notions” shop in downtown Laramie. They sold boots, shoes, sewing machines, and a variety of household goods.

Also, Eliza and Stephen had three children, one of whom died in infancy.

Eliza slipped on a patch of ice during the winter of 1912 and broke her hip. The pioneer who had lived such a vital interesting life died a week later at the age of 79.

Because of her and women like her, the frontier West became a more civilized, much better place. She reminds me of the strong heroines we like to portray in our books. And here, readers think we craft these characters from somewhere in our brains!

Does your family history have people who seem larger than life? Can you imagine them leaving their mark on the Old West?

Linda Broday
Here in the Texas Panhandle, we do love our cowboys. There's just something about a man in a Stetson and jeans that makes my heart beat faster. I'm not much of a cook but I love to do genealogy and I'm a bit of a rock hound. I'm also a NY Times & USA Today bestselling author of historical western romance. You can contact me through my website and I'd love to connect with you on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and more. HAPPY READING!
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Updated: January 31, 2010 — 5:03 pm

22 Comments

  1. Interesting tidbit, Linda. Thanks for sharing. I love hearing stories about women who made their mark in history, and often it is the lesser-known tales that peak my interest most sharply.

    Although, I must confess that I’m usually not very excited to see that summons card in the mail. Maybe remembering Eliza’s story will help me not to groan too loudly the next time one comes my way. LOL.

  2. I love this, Linda. Why do you think Wyoming did this? Gave women these rights so much before every other state. You wouldn’t think a western frontier state would be really forward looking. I always picture the territorial governor as having a wife he either adored or feared.

  3. Hi Karen, glad you found my blog interesting. Eliza was an amazing woman. She was pretty old when she finally got her life going. I’m sure she thought she’d be an old maid teacher for life. But, she ended up with such a full life and accomplished things she probably never dared to dream about.

    I’m not sure what her feelings were when she received her jury notice. But I do know that she was jeered an ridiculed by the men who thought a woman’s place was in the home. I think she must’ve been excited though to have been the first woman juror.

    Hope you have a great day!

  4. Hi Mary, I wish I knew why Wyoming was so far ahead of the rest of the country. It was definitely the place to be if you were a woman. I’d like to know more about that territorial governor. I’d like to think he loved his wife and respected women and thought they had things to contribute to society. But, maybe his wife threatened him severely if he didn’t bow to her wishes. LOL It’s definitely something to ponder.

    I hope you’re over the flu and feeling better.

  5. Great story, Linda. Wyoming was way ahead of its time in women’s rights. I believe their statue in the U.S. Capitol is of Esther Morris, another Wyoming woman who accomplished many firsts. My own ancestry includes some prominent pioneer figures, but (sigh) they all seem to be men.

  6. Hi Elizabeth, it’s great to have prominent pioneer figures in your past whether it’s men or women. I wish I could trace my ancestry back to pioneer days. But I have such common names (Smith and Clark) that it’s almost impossible to find them. I’m sure that whoever they were, they were probably farmers….or criminals. Ha! The family I do know anything about were of the criminal variety. 🙂 Glad you enjoyed my blog.

  7. Hi Linda!

    Wonderful story. Interesting how an individual can influence so many things. Every single one of us is so important. Think of what the world would be if we all reached our potential?

    I loved this post.

  8. Hi Kay, I’m glad you found my post of interest. The West had so many men and women who braved new frontiers and made the world a better place. I’m sure at the time, they thought nothing of their contributions. They just did what they thought was right. Yes, things would be a lot different if more people today put aside their differences and saw only how we’re alike. They have a lot to give if they’d quit looking at “what’s in it for me?”

    Hope your day is full of happiness and inspiration!

  9. Hey Linda,

    This is one of my favorite post. The west had so many brave people. I wish everybody would come together and help each other out like they did in the 1800’s. Of course, I would want to live with the Native Americans because they are such sacred people

    Well Linda thank you and I hope that I help make a difference in somebody’s life

    Walk in harmony,
    Melinda

  10. hi Linda, terrific post. And yes I just got a jury summons. I’m glad I read of Eliza today to get me inspired about it LOL. I had known that Wyoming was quite progressive with women’s rights, but your post is full of so much more. Thank you! oxoxoxoxxo

  11. Hi Melinda, I’m glad you enjoyed my post. Yes, the West had no shortage of courageous people who made such a difference. I think most people today are too self-centered and only out for they can get. To make life easier for someone else is truly the mark of a great man. I, too, hope I can make a difference while I’m here. That’s what I strive for.

  12. Hi Tanya, strange that you just received a jury summons. Most people view serving on a jury as a great inconvenience. I know I usually do. But I can imagine that Eliza Stewart was so happy to do something that had been a man’s territory for so long. She must’ve been so excited. I just wish I could find something about the cases she heard. To me, that would be very interesting.

    Good luck on your jury summons!

  13. Eliza Stewart was a fascinating, pioneering woman. Thanks for the look at her.

  14. Hi Linda, Wonderful blog! Eliza Stewart was a true heroine, a trailblazer with a full life. That’s what impressed me most . . . she did everything from raising children to running a business to serving in government. All that, and without a single modern appliance! No fast food! No dishwasher or microwave . . . I admire her!

  15. I have been summoned manytimes for jury duty. Have never actually had to serve. The most interesting ones were the time that I got two letters from the courthouse. One told me my jyry term had ended, and thank you very much, the second said my name had been selected to serve on a jury panel for the next few months. I call and was told it was the luck of the draw. I asked the officer if she could please draw the next lottery numbers because perhaps then I could win!

  16. Tracy, glad you found Eliza Stewart interesting.

    Vicki, you make me laugh. Yep, Eliza was quite a woman. To do all she did and not one modern appliance. She makes me ashamed of myself. If my dishwasher or microwave goes out it’s the end of the world and life as I know it. The thing that really gets me about Eliza is that she started a little late in life. Just imagine what all she could’ve accomplished had she gotten an earlier start.

    Connie, that’s odd about your jury duty letters. Looks like they couldn’t make up their minds. I only had to serve on jury duty one time and it was a traffic violation offense. Very boring. I wonder what it’d be like to be on a murder trial. Hope I never have to find out.

  17. Great post, Linda!

    I suspect Wyoming gave women such liberal rights so that more women would come there. 🙂

    I don’t have anything to prove it, but my dad told me that my grandma rode in one of the Oklahoma land runs. Oh, if only I could pick her brain. She’s long gone though. She was born in 1876.

  18. Linda, this is so fascinating. I love the story. It’s interesting what we find when doing regular old research. Absolutely, one of the coolest stories I’ve heard about for a while. Sure do plan on keeping this story in the back of my mine just in case one of my heroines needs to be strong and sassy. Don’t they all? Sorry, I’m so late remarking, but I guess the snow slowed me down. Hugs, P

  19. I had to laugh at Connie’s response. Since I was in the legal field all of my professional life, I never even came close to being on a jury, although I did get through voir dire once. But, when the judge called me to the bench and introduced me to the plaintiff’s attorney who didn’t know me, I got dismissed for “cause”. Now that I can serve, I’m too old! My rear goes numb and my mind wanders. Enjoy your next jury duty.

  20. Avatar

    Thanks for an interesting post.

  21. Vickie, wow that’s so neat about your grandma! It must’ve been really thrilling racing across the Oklahoma prairie in a rush to get some land. I wonder how many fights broke out that day. Bet there was a bunch.

  22. Hi Phyliss! Great of you to make it by. Yeah, that snow was something else. You got it much worse up there where you are. No wonder you’re going a little slow. Glad you liked my subject matter today. Eliza’s story really is kinda neat. The most amazing thing is what she accomplished after getting kinda a late start. Seems her life didn’t really begin until she was almost 40. I’m glad she found love though, being the romantic I am.

    Yeah, I hear you about sitting still for so long. My rear goes numb too. And here I thought I was the only one! And we won’t even discuss the mind-wandering issue! Thanks for the laugh.

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