Our search began in Knoxville for several reasons that have already been mentioned elsewhere: both the Blair and Gammon families had extensive roots there, and the family that brought Sarah west departed from that city in 1870. It seemed logical to start with what we knew – that at some point prior to departing for Montana with John Luttrell Murphy, Sarah was living in Knoxville – and work our way backward from there.

That researching slaves and former slaves can be tricky business goes without saying. Few researchers are lucky enough to stumble across first-hand sources that empirically pin down the whereabouts of a specific individual, especially in the tumultuous years surrounding the Civil War. But we had to start somewhere.

Through some primary research on Knox County, Tennessee, we learned that some of our suspects, the Blairs, had sunk roots in Tennessee a few counties to the east, in Washington County; there were also Blairs in Knoxville, and just across the state line, in South Carolina. All of them warranted further investigation, as did the Gammon family, which we believed owned some of Sarah’s relatives.

So our search began with Knoxville as a home base, and branched out from there to include Jonesborough, in nearby Washington County. We believe that to understand a person, you must understand where they come from -the things they saw, the places they went, the environment that shaped them. So first up: some Tennessee history.

Say Hello to Sarah

Outside of southwestern Montana, most people have never heard of Sarah Bickford. Even in the region where she lived for sixty years, hers is not a  “household name.” She never ran for public office, performed on a stage, enacted laws, or built monuments. She may not have changed the course of history, but she did, in her own unique way, make it. Our mission is to bring that history back to life and honor Sarah’s accomplishments – a tribute that is long overdue for this pioneer of Montana and female business ownership. This blog will follow the journey as we research, write, uncover, plan, learn and interpret the life story of an incredible woman named Sarah Blair Gammon Brown Bickford.

Research truly is a process, and it begins from a central inquiry. In our case, the starting point was a simple desire to learn more about a woman whose name is easily recognizable to a select group of specialists interested in Virginia City, Montana, but almost unknown to the rest of the population. We aim to change that.

I first encountered Sarah Bickford while conducting research for my master’s thesis, which focused on business and material culture in Virginia City.  Sarah’s name splashed through the pages of my research and her tenure as a business owner wove through the narrative I wrote. As I completed that project and began work on my Ph.D., Sarah’s story presented an intriguing topic of study. One of my first efforts as as doctoral student was to assist my mentor, part-time adviser, and friend Bill and the Montana Heritage Commission in applying for a Partnership in Scholarship Grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which we were fortunate enough to receive in late 2009.

We chose to title our grant project “Building Freedom in the Territorial West” because this is an apt description for just what Sarah, and other African Americans who spent their lives in Virginia City did. Most came from states that commonly served as staging areas for westward migration – Kansas, Missouri, and, as in Sarah’s case, Tennessee. In Virginia City, they often found a place that welcomed them as members of a community, and which provided opportunities to build lives based around freedom, business success, and personal fulfillment. Virginia City’s glory days faded as the nineteenth century closed, but the tenacious residents who chose to stay built a tight-knit and vibrant community that survived the hard times of war, depression, and drought. Sarah was an important member of that community, and her story is a vital part of the Virginia City story.

I fell in love with Virginia City the first time I set foot on one of it’s warped board sidewalks in the summer of 2007. The more I unravel it’s history, the more I am intrigued. I’m sure you will be too.

Much of the confusion surrounding Sarah Blair’s connection to the Gammon family stems from her relationship to one of Nathan Gammon’s former slaves, Isaac.

Documentary evidence has not yet shown exactly when and where Nathan Gammon came to own Isaac, but newspaper reports verify that Isaac lived in the Gammon household in Jonesborough during the 1840s and 1850s. When Nathan relocated his family from Jonesborough to Knoxville in 1851, he brought Isaac with him to the new city.

In Knoxville, Isaac lived in common-law marriage with Nancy Jones, a free black woman whom he later married. In testimony delivered to the Southern Claims Commission in the decade following the Civil War, Nancy, who was born free, stated that she had known Isaac since they both lived in Jonesborough. When Nathan Gammon moved his family to Knoxville taking Isaac along, Nancy followed.

In Knoxville, Isaac Gammon was allowed to raise a small herd of hogs. Though it was unusual for slaves to own property (and illegal in some cases), Nancy later testified that Nathan Gammon was in many ways a “kind and benevolent master” who allowed Isaac this courtesy. When the war arrived in Knoxville, some of Isaac’s hogs were slaughtered by the Union Army, desperately short of food and supplies. Isaac filed a claimfor reimbursement, which Nancy continued to press following Isaac’s death. It was settled in her favor in 1876.

Isaac Gammon was a respected member of the Knoxville community, and became the first elected black alderman shortly after the Civil War. During this time period, Sarah Blair was sent to live with Isaac and Nancy, and she changed her last name to theirs. Sarah was living with the Gammons when she left for Montana Territory late in 1870.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861 and Tennessee ultimately chose cession, Gammon became Clerk of the Court of the Confederate States – a position for which he would later be charged with treason and ultimately pardoned by President Andrew Johnson. Knoxville in particular and eastern Tennessee in general were uniquely affected by the Civil War, as we’ll discuss in another post.

All three of Gammon’s sons enlisted in the Confederate cause. William was wounded and ultimately discharged before the war ended; he then traveled to the north, where he disappeared shortly before the end of the war. His whereabouts were never discovered, but many in the Gammon family suspected he had become a victim of murder. Joseph survived the war, but died just ten years later. George was captured by Union forces and imprisoned at Camp Morton, Indiana, for more than nine months, but survived the war and went on to carry the family name for future generations.

Jennie Gammon also met with danger during the course of the war, evidently being hit by a stray minnie ball in the upper leg. Family legend holds that she refused treatment by any “Yankee” doctor, instead seeking treatment from “the valiant Confederates [who] raised in early each morning so their doctor could treat her wounds!” She also volunteered at the local Confederate hospital in Knoxville, rolled bandages, took food to wounded soldiers, and accompanied her father steadfastly through his trial for treason.

During the hard times of the war, family sources say that Nathan and Mary Gammon turned increasingly to their faith – both were devout members of the First Presbyterian Church of Knoxville – as comfort. Though they remained steadfast in their Confederate sympathies, when smallpox broke out among Federal troops quartered on the Gammon property during the war, sources say that Mary Gammon “treated them all kindly and brought fresh milk to the sick.”

Nathan Gammon’s health declined following the war, but he still managed to assist his son, Joseph, and other ex-Confederate soldiers in leaving Knoxville, where local opinion was decidedly hostile in the aftermath of war. He died on June 14, 1869 at the age of 66. Mary survived him for nearly three decades, passing away on January 6, 1895 at age 89. Jennie survived both her parents, but died tragically in Knoxville on Christmas day, 1925 in an automobile accident. She was 91 years old.

For more information see:

Margaret Gammon Pritchett, “The Gammons of East Tennessee,” McC56750, McClung Collection, East Tennessee Historical Center, July 4, 1992.

  Nathan Gammon was born on May 19, 1803, at Mount Pleasant, Sullivan County, Tennessee in the far northeastern corner of the state. He grew up in the midst of a prestigious social circle that included close friends and future Presidents Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, and James Knox Polk, and both his father and grandfather were active in Tennessee politics.

As a young man, Nathan Gammon studied law and did practice it, but he also apparently had no political ambitions, and declined to run for public office on more than one occasion, despite the urging of close friends such as Polk. He went into business instead, becoming a very successful merchant, first in Jonesboro, and later in Knoxville.

On July 20, 1824, he married Mary Erwin Hamilton, also a native of Sullivan County, Tennessee. They initially made their home in Jonesboro, where their six children were born: Elizabeth Hamilton Looney, William Hamilton, Jane Leticia (“Jennie”), Joseph Hamilton, George Alexander, and Mary Imogene. With the exception of Mary, all the children survived into adulthood.

In November of 1851, Nathan Gammon moved his family from Jonesboro to Knoxville, which was rapidly becoming a terminus for seamboat navigation and a center of trade for eastern Tennessee. Steamboats were the primary method of transport until the railroad arrived in 1854, and Gammon proved adept at the occupation of commission merchant. He developed a large freighting business that operated out of a warehouse on the Tennessee River at the foot of Gay Street. His eldest son, William, eventually went into business with him as an assistant.

Gammon anticipated the changes railroad transportation would bring, and became the first Passenger and Freight Agent for the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad when it arrived in the city. Skills acquired in that position, and experience as a stenographer, later earned him an appointment as Clerk of the District Court of the United States.

Among the first Justices of the Peace elected in Washington County was John Blair, who also served as a Lieutenant Colonel under John Sevier in 1791 against the Cherokee, Chickamauga, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. Early in September 1793, “troops from Washington District under Colonel John Blair reinforced General John Sevier’s troops in the battle of Etowah,” in what marked Sevier’s last act of military service.[22]

John Blair II accepted a large land grant in Washington County, where he continued to live until his death in 1819. He served on the Tennessee State Legislature and remained active in local politics. In 1812, he erected a massive brick mansion on the outskirts of Embreeville, near the Bumpass Cove mines. It was there, near Jonesborough, where his family was raised. His oldest son, John Blair III, was born there in 1790 and remained in Washington County throughout his life, dying there in 1863 in the midst of the Civil War. John Blair III was the owner of a slave girl named Sarah, born on this property in the latter months of 1852.[23]


[22] History of Washington County, Tennessee, 1988, 24.

[23] Census records indicate that Sarah was born on the John Blair III plantation in Jonesborough. She was still living there in 1860, when she appears on the census as an eight year old.

The residents of Washington County were left without any formal protection or support from any official government—state or federal—as rumors swirled regarding the act of cession. To remedy this problem, delegates from Washington County met at the courthouse in Jonesborough on August 23, 1784 and voted to establish the independent State of Franklin, with John Sevier elected president. In November, North Carolina chose to repeal the April cession act and formed the Washington County militia into a formal brigade with John Sevier serving as brigadier general.

The State of Franklin once again petitioned North Carolina for recognition and protection, with Sevier delivering a full report to the Assembly in early 1785. Legislators replied “by suggesting to North Carolina that the United States was just as entitled as they to the land which had been ‘conquered by our own joint efforts,’” and unanimously supported separation. Sevier then petitioned the Continental Congress for statehood; “when the votes were counted, Franklin missed being the fourteenth state by one vote.”[19] Franklin continued to function independently, however, even making treaties with the Indians to open land on the French Broad River. Conflict over the formal structure of government and adoption of a state constitution, however, hindered the government from running smoothly, and rivalry with North Carolina continued unabated. As one historian notes, “both governments imposed taxes, but most citizens chose to pay neither.”[20]

Colonel John Tipton, elected to the North Carolina Senate in August of 1786, blamed Sevier and the State of Franklin for the troubles eliciting tax revenues from citizens, and in 1788 issued a warrant for seizure of Sevier’s stock and slaves to pay for unpaid North Carolina taxes. The seizure was successful, but on discovering it, Sevier quickly mustered a militia of 150 loyal supporters and set up camp a mile from Tipton’s home. A stand-off ensued for several days before Sevier’s forces retreated to Jonesborough and Tipton returned the property. When Samuel Johnson took over as governor of North Carolina several months later, he issued a warrant for Sevier’s arrest on the charge of high treason. Loyal supporters effected an escape, but in 1789 Sevier took an oath of allegiance to North Carolina and was in August elected to the state senate, made retroactive to 1784; “in other words, it was as if Franklin had never existed, and he had held that post the entire time.”[21]

The State of Franklin was officially dissolved in 1788, and Tennessee organized with the final execution of cession formalized on February 25, 1790. In May of that year, Congress officially established a territorial government called “Territory of the United States South of the River Ohio,” which included all of East and Middle Tennessee. Though Sevier was interested in the position, the first governor was William Blount.


[19] History of Washington County, Tennessee, 1988, 20.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 21 – 23.

When the Revolutionary War began in 1776, tensions between settlers, Indians, and the British had been running high for more than a decade. In July of 1776, John Sevier was in charge of building Fort Lee at Nolichucky when fleeing settlers warned of an impending attack by Cherokee Indians.[12] Sevier went on to serve in the war with a man by the name of John Blair II—the father of John Blair III, who owned Sarah as a child. Both Sevier and Blair served as prominent members of the early government of Washington County.

Sevier was also a prominent member of the Washington County Militia, serving as Lieutenant-Colonel. John Blair II served in several campaigns against the Indians during this time. Both men served at the Battle of King’s Mountain, “the battle for which they are best known…and which represents the most concerted effort of all the citizenry” of Washington and Sullivan Counties.[13] Taking place in 1780, approximately 225 British and 30 Americans were killed in a battle, with another 180 and 60 wounded, respectively. Prisoners numbered more than 800 on the British side, most of which were sent to Virginia, where seven accompanying Tories were hung. According to historians on both sides of the war, “the Battle of King’s Mountain was the turning point for the American Revolution in the South.”[14]

It is common misperception that Washington County land grants were awarded to Revolutionary War soldiers; in reality, all lands were purchased in order to finance North Carolina’s war debts. In 1783, the sale of lands was authorized at a price of ten pounds specie certificates per one hundred acres, and land warrants for service were issued in sections of as little as 640 acres for privates, up to 7,200 for lieutenant colonels and chaplains, and 12,000 for brigadier generals.[15]

At this time, in the aftermath of the war, the federal government was struggling to pay of war debts as well; Congress had “voted to pay itself and the civil servants, but left the Continental army unpaid.”[16] George Washington averted anarchy among his troops by “talking his men into accepting land warrants as pay,” and demanding cession of lands from certain of the former colonies.[17] North Carolina ignored this order until April 1784, at which time “the Assembly voted 52 to 43 to cede all lands west of the Appalachian mountain watershed to the federal government…with the stipulation that if Congress did not accept the territory and notify the state within one year, the act was void.”[18]


[12] History of Washington County, Tennessee, 1988, 15 – 16.

[13] Ibid., 18 – 19.

[14] Ibid., 19.

[15] Ibid., 20.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

The western reaches of the area, which later became sites of cities such as Knoxville and Chattanooga, were still controlled by the powerful Cherokee Indians; the area which later became Jonesboro, however, lay in “a neutral zone separating quarreling northern and southern tribes, with both using it primarily as a hunting ground.”[7]

The first white men to traverse the area were probably the members of the Hernando De Soto expedition in 1559. More than a century later, a man named James Needham was dispatched from Fort Henry, Virginia (now Petersburg), by Colonel Abraham Wood for the purpose of exploring the area. Needham’s party consisted of right Indians and an indentured servant named Gabriel Arthur. The party explored buffalo trails as far as the area which later became the site of Johnson City, and stayed for a short time with the Cherokees before returning.[8] This was likely the last exploration until 1749, when a survey marked the line between North Carolina and what would later become East Tennessee. In 1760, American icon Daniel Boone reportedly “left evidence of his presence in Washington County” when he carved his name and an inscription about killing a bear on a beech tree growing near the Watauga River.[9]

For the decade between 1760 and 1770, most of the visitors to the area were “long hunters,” or settlers who lived near the Virginia and North Carolina borders but ventured on prolonged camping and hunting trips during which they explored the area to the south. It was likely “their descriptions of a territory where land could be had for the taking [that] challenged the more daring ones to start for this Eden.”[10] Hunters familiar with the area often served as guides for prospective settlers.

King George III’s proclamation of 1763 forbidding settlement beyond the crest of the Appalachian Mountains legally ended prospects for settlement of the area, but was largely ignored by settlers who continued to push their way across the ill-defined borders. “In spite of successive treaties with the Indians, each of which cede more land to the white men, families built cabins and moved beyond the boundaries set forth in the treaties. This encroachment gave rise to cabin-burnings, scalping, raids and retaliatory expeditions by both whites and Indians, a continuation of violence lasting until nearly 1796, the year that Tennessee became a state.”[11]

Throughout this time period, the region was abundant with game and wildlife, ranging from wolves, panthers, bear, buffalo, deer, rabbit, squirrel, opossum, and raccoon. Plentiful water and fertile land encouraged settlement and the growth of crops including tobacco. Forest land also proved a valuable resource, with oak, maple, ash, poplar, walnut, cherry, cedar and pine making lumber a profitable export. Mineral deposits in an area later known as Bumpass Cove would also prove to be a valuable export.


[7] History of Washington County, Tennessee, 1988. This is interesting to note, as the land which later became the site of Virginia City is located in a region that has long been considered to serve the same purpose, with ancestral claims of the Lemhi Shoshone being largely overlooked or forgotten.

[8] Ibid, 7 – 8.

[9] Ibid., 8.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

Jonesborough is centrally located in present day Washington County, in the far eastern corner of Tennessee.[1] Washington County was once a vast area encompassing land that “stretched grandly from the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River,” originally designated as the “Washington District” of North Carolina’s Provisional Congress in 1777.[2] The original 42,244 square miles it encompassed would later become the state of Tennessee.

In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, there were only two small communities in the county, both located on the extreme northeastern borders at the confluence of the Watauga, Holston, and Nolichucky Rivers. Loosely organized as The Watauga Association, “they duly elected representatives and sent them in 1776 to North Carolina with a petition requesting that state to govern the area,” which was done in 1777 when Washington County was designated. An earlier petition for admission to the state of Virginia had also been ignored.[3]

Ownership of land in this region was, however, hotly “contested by territorial governments, Indians, royal grantees or their heirs, land speculators, and immigrants.”[4] With original claims stretching back to Virginia in 1609, the area overlapped with grants made by a Carolina colonial grant issued in 1629. Finally, in 1783, Lord John Carteret, later Earl of Granville, “claimed his ancestor’s interest in a Carolina Grant” and secured legal title to about two-thirds of the area.[5] Many of these sections were then sold to purchasers. Confusion continued, however, as “both Virginia and North Carolina were hard-pressed to deal with claims by the Indians, whose rights during the interim had been ignored by officials who had been awarded land grants,” and there was still no clear survey showing the line of demarcation between the territories.[6]


[1] Note that the spelling has varied over the years, with “Jonesborough” and “Jonesboro” being used interchangeably until 1983, when the former, original spelling was formally adopted.

[2] History of Washington County, Tennessee, 1988 compiled by the Watauga Association of Genealogists – Upper East Tennessee, MC31040, McClung Collection, ETHC, 7.

[3] Ibid., 7, 15.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

There has been some confusion as to the role of the Nathan Gammon family in Sarah’s life. Some sources have attempted to assign ownership of a young Sarah to the Gammons, based solely on the idea that it would have made sense given the fact that following the Civil War, Sarah did indeed change her last name from Blair to Gammon. Some researchers are eager to name Nathan Gammon’s second daughter, Jane Leticia (“Jennie”) as Sarah’s owner based on the fact that Sarah had some education when she arrived in the west, and Jennie was a devoted school teacher.

Jennie Gammon did in fact own a young slave girl at the time of the Civil War…her name was Lucy.

Another theory we encountered was that Sarah passed between the Blair and Gammon families through marriage. The connection between the Blair and Gammon families is not in question: Nathan Gammon’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth Hamilton Looney Gammon (b. 23 August 1825, d. 14 April 1898) married William Patterson Blair, son of John Blair III, on October 19, 1820, in Jonesboro, Tennessee, where both families were living at the time.

Following the marriage, William and Elizabeth Blair moved to Warm Springs (later renamed Hot Springs) near Ashville, North Carolina, where William operated a stage line. There is some evidence that the couple owned slaves while residing in North Carolina; however, none appear to be the correct age to be Sarah.

A brief history of what we know about Nathan Gammon and his immediate family will be helpful as we begin to unravel the complexities of Sarah’s late childhood and teenage years. Nathan Gammon was a close friend of the Blair family, and there are many connections between them that hold some bearing on our story.