Virginia City in Madison County, Montana — The American West (Mountains)
The Remarkable Sarah Bickford
Born a slave in 1852 near Jonesborough, Tennessee, Sarah Bickford would become an iconic Montana businesswoman. Separated from her parents during the Civil War, upon conclusion of the war Sarah then moved to Knoxville, Tennessee. In 1870, local lawyer and former Union officer John L. Murphy received an appointment as a territorial judge in Virginia City, Montana. In exchange for passage west, Sarah worked as a nanny for Murphy's adopted children. They arrived in Virginia City in January 1871, where Sarah soon found work as a domestic servant.
On October 20, 1872, Sarah married John L. Brown. They lived two miles west of Virginia City on Granite Creek with their three children – Eva, William, and Leonard. In 1879, Brown abandoned Sarah and their only surviving child, Eva, as William and Leonard perished earlier in a diphtheria epidemic. Sarah soon filed for divorce, stating that John was physically abusive and unwilling to support his family. Always resourceful, Sarah then started the New City Bakery & Restaurant in downtown Virginia City. Tragically, Eva died in 1881.
In 1883, prior to Montana's 1909 miscegenation law prohibiting interracial marriage, Sarah married Stephen Bickford, a white man originally from Maine. The Bickfords had four children, Elmer, Harriet, Helena, and Mabel. In
Sadly, Stephen Bickford died of pneumonia on March 22, 1900 leaving Sarah his shares of the water company in his $9500 estate. After his death Sarah further honed her business skills through a correspondence course at a school in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In 1902, she purchased the "Hangman's Building” as the water company’s headquarters. She installed a trap door which she would open for a small fee, revealing the notorious beam from which the Vigilantes hanged five alleged criminals in January 1864. Additionally, she installed a restroom for the region's affluent tourists.
Remarkably, Sarah bought out her partner in the water company, running the business until her death in July 1931. Her inspiring life story left an indelible mark on Montana History. For more information on this remarkable woman please visit http://sarahbickford.org/
In 2009, with funding from the Ford Foundation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Montana Heritage Commission (MHC) a Partnership in Scholarship Grant to conduct research into the lives of Virginia City’s African American
Location. 45° 17.613′ N, 111° 56.73′ W. Marker is in Virginia City, Montana, in Madison County. Marker is at the intersection of Wallace Street (State Highway 287) and Van Buren Street, on the left when traveling east on Wallace Street. Touch for map. Marker is a composite plaque mounted on a wait-high post, at the southwest corner of the "Hangman's Building". Marker is in this post office area: Virginia City MT 59755, United States of America.
Other nearby markers. At least 8 other markers are within walking distance of this marker. Elling Bank (a few steps from this marker); Hangman’s Building (a few steps from this marker); Creighton Stone Block (a few steps from this marker); Barlett’s Blacksmith Shop (within shouting distance of this marker); Old Masonic Temple (within shouting distance of this marker); Pfouts and Russel (within shouting distance of this marker); Metropolitan Meat Market (within shouting distance of this marker); F.R. Merk Block (within shouting distance of this marker). Touch for a list and map of all markers in Virginia City.
Also see . . .
1. Finding Sarah Gammon Bickford.
(This link presents a complete biography of Sarah Bickford's life, the result of decades of research.)
Searching the past for the history of a teenage slave is like searching through the fog for a ghost. That is, however, precisely what Washington State University Ph.D. student Laura Arata and I have been engaged in during the 2010/2011 academic year. In November of 2009, the Montana Heritage Commission, WSU Professor Orlan Svingen, WSU PhD student Laura Arata, and I received a Partnership in Scholarship Grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The goal of the grant, when the project is complete in 2011, is for our work to serve as a national model for researching and interpreting African Americans in places where they have been largely overlooked, especially in the west. (Submitted on May 3, 2018, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.)
2. Sarah Bickford, from slave to owner of a water company.
In 1917, Bickford purchased the remaining third of the Water Company from longtime partner Philip Harry Gohn, the second investor when it was originally purchased in 1888. At this point, she became the only African American woman in Montana and possibly in the United States, to own a utility company. Known as “Montana’s First Career Woman,” Sarah Gammon Bickford managed the Virginia City Water Company until she died of (Submitted on May 3, 2018, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.)
3. Celebrating Sarah Gammon Bickford.
On April 10, 2012, Montana honored Sarah Bickford by inducting her into the Gallery of Outstanding Montanans in the Capitol Rotunda in Helena. A former slave who became one of Montana’s most prominent businesswomen, Bickford richly deserved this honor. She was the first and only woman in Montana—and probably the nation’s only female African American—to own a utility. Yet despite her public success, Sarah Bickford’s life is difficult to piece together. Like most African Americans who came west, she carried the burden of slavery, making her past especially difficult to trace. (Submitted on May 3, 2018, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida.)
Categories. • African Americans • Industry & Commerce • Women •
Credits. This page was last revised on May 3, 2018. This page originally submitted on May 3, 2018, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida. This page has been viewed 69 times since then. Photos: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. submitted on May 3, 2018, by Cosmos Mariner of Cape Canaveral, Florida. • Andrew Ruppenstein was the editor who published this page.