Archive for June, 2010

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.


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