9.1.3 Rocky Mountains (1850-1900): Civil Rights in the Frontier Rockies

State ex rel. Stoutmeyer v. Duffy – Nevada, 1872 (7 Nev. 342); McKinney v. State – Wyoming, 1892 (30 P. 293)

  • The Rocky Mountain region was first settled during the Civil War and in the decades immediately following the war, and the question arose whether the new territories would follow a Northern or Southern model of race relations.  Like the Great Plains states, Rocky Mountain states had few immigrants from the South and, thus, generally followed the Northern model.     
  • There were few blacks in the region except in Colorado, which also had a substantial Hispanic population (enough that the new state’s constitution required laws to be published in Spanish as well as English until 1900).  Few race-relations cases came before Rocky Mountain courts during the frontier period; in those that did, the courts  were unsympathetic to segregation and discrimination. 
  • In Stoutmeyer, Nevada’s supreme court struck down an 1867 law requiring segregation of blacks and Chinese from white pupils in the public schools.  The court reasoned that although federal law did not prohibit segregation, Nevedalaw did because the state constitution provided for a “uniform system” of schools supported by the taxes of all Nevadans. 
  • The Rocky Mountain states were also the first to allow women to vote.   The Wyoming and Utah territorial legislatures granted suffrage in 1869 and 1870 respectively; in 1893, Colorado became the first state to approve woman by direct popular vote.  All three states also allowed women to hold political offices, and in 1870 Esther Morris of South Pass City, Wyoming, became America’s first American woman judge.  In McKinney, Wyoming’s supreme court declined to extend women’s rights to jury service based on a constitutional provision limiting service to males, but the court also noted that the constitution contained a broad women’s equality clause and suggested that it would welcome a change in the jury laws. 
  • Why did the Rocky Mountain region pioneer women’s rights in this area?  The answer is not clear, but possible reasons include:  (1) the region’s harsh frontier conditions and sparse settlement during the early part of the era, which meant that clinging to traditional notions of women’s roles was often an unaffordable luxury; (2) the region’s desire to stand out in any way it could; and (3) the strength of the Granger and Populist movements in the region.  Populists strongly supported women’s suffrage and expansion of women’s rights generally, and their support was a key factor in the movement’s 1893 success in Colorado. 

“The law is not general which does not embrace all persons similar situated or conditioned, and that the mere matter of color does not place a negro in a condition or situation which, in legal contemplation, is different from other citizens. … All who pay taxes at all contribute to the establishment and support of the schools, and as one of the most inestimable blessings of the social compact, all are interested in the enjoyment of the advantages which they afford.”- Justice _, in Stoutmeyer


“Since equality in the enjoyment of natural and civil rights is only made sure through political equality, the laws of this state affecting the political rights and privileges of its citizens shall be without distinction of race, color, sex, or any circumstance or condition whatsoever.”– Wyoming Constitution, 1890