Celebrating Sarah Gammon Bickford, a Montana Story

For this week, we bring you a post from the archives, a celebration of the life of Sarah Bickford, a remarkable Montanan who arrived in Montana in 1870. Although small, there has been an African American population in Montana since well before it even became a territory, including E.T. Johnson the mayor of Helena in 1873.

Sarah Bickford was born as a plantation slave in 1852 near Jonesboro Tennessee. After the Civil War, she moved to Knoxville and lived with her aunt (biological or adoptive, it’s not yet clear). There, she got a job as a nanny for John Murphy, who took her with him when he moved to Virginia City, Montana in 1870. She worked as a chambermaid before marrying and having three children (all of whom died in childhood). By 1880, her husband had disappeared from the historical record, according to oral tradition he had died. In 1883, she married again, this time to Stephen Bickford, a white farmer and miner who had moved to Montana from Maine in the 1860s.

The two were extremely prosperous. Sarah operated a bakery and boarding house as well as a truck farm and orchard. In 1888 Stephen bought a two thirds share in the Virginia City Water Company. Sarah worked as the Company’s bookkeeper until Stephen’s death in 1900 when she inherited his share of the Company. She ended up buying the remaining shares of the company. In an era when segregation was getting worse across the nation, and Jim Crow laws were growing harsher and harsher, Sarah Bickford owned the company that supplied water to Virginia City. She was the only black woman in Montana, and quite possibly in all of the United States, to operate a utility company at that time.

Virginia City
Virginia City

That’s quite a tale, but in recent years it has gotten even more interesting. In 2011, a team of grad students participating in a field class re-discovered Sarah in the Virginia City archives. Sarah’s first husband, John Brown, did not die as previously assumed. Court records from November 1880 indicate that Brown beat Sarah and threatened her life, and that she filed for divorce. The court granted her the divorce and custody of their child Eva, who later died.

Remember, we’re talking about a mining town in 1880, a place we can safely assume is both male dominated and infused with Victorian principles. That Sarah had the courage to take a divorce case to court, and to win, speaks of a character of strength and determination. That she went on to thrive, to build a new family, and to own a utility company before women even had the right to vote makes her one of the most fascinating characters in Montana history.

For more info on Sarah, visit Finding Sarah Gammon Bickford. The Montana Historical Society has an excellent site dedicated to the history of African Americans in Montana, and Montana Women’s History is a great resources for the extraordinary stories of Montana women.