There 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.
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?