Minerva Cogswell, Virginia City Restaurateur

There had been an African American presence in the Montana since its creation as a territory in 1864. Jack Taylor, for example, had served in the Union army before moving west and arriving in Virginia City in 1866.  Taylor worked as a teamster freighting goods to and from Virginia City. Over the years, he became a successful businessman with a number of white employees and a good deal of land and livestock.

And then there is Sarah Bickford, owner of the Virginia City water company from 1900-1931, and the only black woman in America to run a utility company at the time. I’d heard of the story of Sarah Bickford before, and even written about her on the blog, but what I didn’t know was that she wasn’t the first black businesswoman in Virginia City.

The Cogswell Cabin, which was purchased by Jack Taylor after Minerva died in 1894. Kate Steeley, Montana Heritage Commission, Oct 2019

The first African American women to operate a business in Virginia City were probably Minerva Cogswell and her sister Pathenia Sneed. Cogswell and Sneed came to Virginia City from Independence, Missouri not long after 1870. In VC they met up with Albert Cogswell, who was presumably Minerva’s husband. By 1879 the sisters were operating thriving businesses. They were taking in lodgers – include Jack Taylor – and running a bakery and restaurant that offered “meals at all hours day and night” and boasted good food “at more reasonable prices” than anywhere else in the city.

From the Montana Post, 1879

I have no idea if that last claim is true, but I admire the confidence. Speaking of, and this is a complete tangent, has anyone done a study of eating houses in territory-era Montana? Because I would eat that book up.

Although they were still racialized, African Americans like Cogswell, Sneed, Taylor, and Bickford were surprisingly well-integrated into Virginia City. This may be, in part, because of how small the black population was in Virginia City. There were only 18 African Americans residents listed in Virginia City in the 1870 census, and in the 1880 census, there were only 6, out of 346 African Americans across the state.

In contrast, the larger black communities in Helena, Butte, and Fort Benton were probably less well integrated. Even so, these black communities were politically active. Helena’s African American newspaper, The Colored Citizen, was vocally involved in Helena’s campaign to be the state capital. And E.T. Johnson, an African American barber, became Helena’s mayor in 1873. Johnson was likely the first black mayor in the west (although, Montana still a territory, and Helena was not yet an incorporated city).

The lives of individuals like Minerva Cogswell, Panthenia Sneed, Sarah Bickford, E.T. Johnson, and Jack Taylor, point to a widely diverse range of experiences for Montana’s African American community from its very beginning.

If you want to read more about Montana’s black community, I cannot recommend highly enough the Montana Historical Society’s website on Montana’s African American Heritage. This is where I first encountered the story of Minerva Cogswell. I also drew a lot of information for this post from Laura J. Arata’s excellent new book Race and the Wild West about Sarah Bickford. And finally, this post has great info on E.T. Johnson.