The First Woman Juror in America: Laramie’s Eliza Stewart
By Phil Roberts
Laramie women made history in March of 1870 when five of them became the first women in the world to serve on a jury. The first name drawn for jury duty that spring, less than six months after Wyoming’s first territorial legislature granted women equal political rights, was Eliza Stewart, a Laramie schoolteacher.
While her "first" makes her noteworthy in history, her many other accomplishments seem lost to contemporary historians. Born Sept. 8, 1833, in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, Stewart was the eldest of eight children. Her maternal grandparents came from Scotland about 1797, settling in Pennsylvania. Her father was Scots Irish. Her mother died soon after the birth of the last child. Stewart took on the role of raising her seven younger siblings.
Despite the hardships involved in this endeavor, she continued to attend school—and excel. She graduated in 1861 from Washington Female Seminary in Washington, Pa., as class valedictorian. Her valedictory address, ten typed pages of rhymed verse titled "Entering Service," was published in the newspaper in Meadville, Pa.
For the next eight years, she taught school in her native Crawford County. For all appearances, she seemed likely to remain a single schoolteacher, close to her hometown. However, in December 1868, she decided to move West, arriving in Laramie just as the town was about to open its first public school. When it was learned she was a veteran teacher, she was hired—the first teacher in the Laramie public schools. First classes began in February 1869.
Later that summer, in August, 1869, the Rev. F. L. Arnold came to Laramie to organize the Presbyterian Church. Eliza Stewart was one of the charter members.
Shortly after that, she met Stephen Boyd, a machinist in the Union Pacific car repair shops who had come to Laramie before the first train arrived in 1868. Boyd, born in Canada, came to the United States and settled along the South Platte River near Denver before hiring on to the Union Pacific. They married in July 1870 in Cheyenne.
Before her marriage, however, Stewart received the call to serve on the jury. The jury apparently did a credible job and Stewart’s unique position as the first woman selected gained some local fame. Nonetheless, when jury service ended, Stewart returned to teaching.
She and her new husband moved to a house on Third Street, between Grand and Garfield where, in the backyard, a "good well" provided water for them and their neighbors.
Two months after her marriage, Eliza was named to the organizing committee for the Wyoming Literary and Library Association. She helped draft the constitution and became a charter member of the organization, one of the first in Wyoming to promote libraries and the arts. She also continued to write poetry.
She wrote one poem, titled "The Snow, the Beautiful Snow," during one of the hardest winters in early Laramie history—1871-72. In verse, it tells the story of how trains were snowbound for weeks and Christmas gifts did not arrive until March of
the following year. Pioneer stockman Ora Haley had to postpone his wedding because his bride could not get through to Laramie from Omaha because of the snowdrifts on the UP tracks. (The poem is held, along with other Boyd materials, in the collections of the Wyoming State Archives, Cheyenne).
In August 1873, Eliza became the first woman in Wyoming (and probably the entire United States) to be nominated to run for the Territorial legislature. For unknown reasons, she declined nomination, withdrawing her name from the ballot. (Some 37 years later, Laramie resident Mary Bellamy became the first woman elected to the Wyoming legislature, none having served in that body during the territorial period).
Eliza Stewart Boyd retained an active interest in politics, however. Part of her interest came in her support for prohibition of liquor. In November 1883, she was a charter member of the newly organized Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) in Laramie, serving for many years as the organization’s secretary. In the Prohibition Party’s state convention in February 1888, she was selected as one of two Wyoming delegates to the party’s national convention, held that June in Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, her husband Stephen Boyd opened a "notions" shop and shoe store in downtown Laramie. Even though he is listed as owner, according to advertisements in the Laramie newspapers for the period, Eliza evidently managed the shop while Stephen apparently continued to work for the railroad. Among the items sold in the shop were "boots, shoes, and sewing machines."
She continued to play an active role in Laramie’s "society." In the winter of 1912, she read a paper at ceremonies opening Whiting School in Laramie, in honor of Miss Whiting, a long-time teacher and administrator. Three weeks later, Eliza Stewart Boyd slipped in a patch of ice in front of her home and broke her hip. Within a week, the 79-year-old pioneer died. She was survived by two of her three children (one died at the age of two months) and her husband who lived until 1917. One daughter, Bertha, never married. The other daughter Lillian Condit had one son, Elwyn Boyd Condit.
Eliza Stewart Boyd’s obituary noted her service as Laramie’s first schoolteacher and her service as the first woman on a jury in America. But it also listed her service in promoting women’s rights and Prohibition as well as her pioneering work in promoting literature and the arts in Laramie. Largely forgotten today except for her jury service, her life and career are examples of how women brought to Wyoming—and Laramie—not only lessons in moral rectitude, but an appreciation for the arts, books, and the humanities on the high plains of the frontier West.
Eliza Stewart Boyd is among the many women memorialized in the Women in the West Center, located on South Second Street, Laramie, just a couple of blocks from where Boyd spent much of her life.