The Blair Lottery

As we’ve noted throughout, the Blair family had extensive roots in Tennessee. Consequently, there are A LOT of Blair family members to sort through. We were able to narrow down our list of potential suspects somewhat through Sarah’s recollections and some family sources that pointed to one particular branch of the Blair family as owning Sarah’s parents, and through that branch of the family’s connections with the Gammon family. Even so, the list of potential candidates was daunting, to say the least. There were at least three John Blairs, two William Blairs, and several other variously named Blairs to consider. On a hunch, we started with John A. Blair, who was about the same age as Nathan Gammon and had extensive business dealings with the latter in both Knox and Washington Counties throughout the period in question.


Jonesborough, Tennessee, is located in present day Washington County, and centrally located in the easternmost tip of the state.



Located in Knox County, on the eastern side of the state, Knoxville was founded on June 11, 1792 and named in honor of General Henry Knox, Secretary of War in General George Washington’s cabinet. Knoxville, the county seat, had been founded, named and laid out the year before, in 1791, when the area was still a part of Greene and Hawkins Counties. It had formerly been called White’s Fort, named after a frontier stronghold.

When Tennessee entered the Union as the sixteenth state in 1796, Knoxville officially became the state capital, and remained so until 1813, when it was moved to Nashville for the first time. Knoxville was subsequently again the capital for a brief period in 1817, however, when the state Legislature met there.

The Civil War uniquely impacted Tennessee. The last state to secede from the Union, it was also the first readmitted to statehood. Internally, it was deeply divided before, during and after the conflict.

Tennessee generally aligned with the southern cause, but slaveholding was far more prominent in Middle Tennessee than East Tennessee due to geographic differences that made cash crops such as cotton and tobacco lucrative in the former region, and almost impossible in the latter. The most widely recognized division was the Cumberland Gap, a strip of elevated tableland that divided the early counties of Washington and Mero.

Change occurred rapidly. While eastern Tennessee was more heavily populated in 1790, by the turn of the century the population had shifted dramatically with the west overtaking the east.  The population of slaves in each section was even more dramatically uneven; by 1830, the region west of the Cumberland Plateau held almost seven times as many slaves as did eastern Tennessee. The 1830 cencus lists less than 18,000 total slaves in East Tennessee, and nearly 124,000 in the western district.

This contrast created marked sectionalism, as eastern Tennesseeans watched their western neighbors surge past them in affluence based on the economics of slave labor and cash crops. As W.A. Walker, Jr. writes:

“There is little evidence to show that a better or wrose breed of masters lived in Tennessee than elsewhere. We can assume that the moral and humane qualities of Tennessee slaveholders made slavery neither more nor less acceptable as an institution in Tennessee than it was elsewhere in the South. The peculiar geographical characteristics of the state served, however, to modify the economic circumstances in which slavery was applied, and both public opinion in regard to the slave institution and the lot of the slave no doubt varied according to these circumstances.”

East Tennessee, therefore, became more sympathetic to abolitionist principles, and it was in Jonesboro that the first explicitly abolitionist publication, Elihu Embree’s “The Emancipator” was published. Both the Blair and Gammon families had strong ties, both business and personal, to the Embree family.

Knoxville in particular was torn by the Civil War. In 1861, the City of Knoxville voted in favor of scession, while the county at large overwhelmingly favored remaining with the Union. The conflict among residents with divided loyalties characterized both the war years and the Reconstruction period.

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.

Tennessee Beginnings

When we started this project, we were painfully aware of several competing versions of Sarah’s early life. Some sources said Tennessee. Others said South Carolina. Some said…well, almost nothing, to be honest. We believe that if you’re going to tell a story, you have to start at the beginning, and Sarah most certainly has a beginning to be uncovered. That became the primary mission of a recent research trip to Tennessee.

To narrow down our area of focus and define a clear starting point, we chose to start in Knoxville, Tennessee. We had good reason to believe that doing so was at least based on an educated guess, based on information that came from Sarah herself: on multiple Montana census records, she unwaveringly listed her place of birth as Tennessee, and we trust her recollection.

There is some logic behind the confusion, but the deeper we dug, the more it became clear that such confusion was a more recent phenomenon, stemming from the family that owned Sarah’s parents. We’ll discuss them in some detail in upcoming posts. For now, suffice it to say that before we dug into the Tennessee archives, there were several viable possibilities for the position of Sarah’s owner: John A. Blair was our primary suspect, but his brother, William Blair, his son, William Patterson Blair, and close friend Nathan Gammon were also potential candidates. The Blair and Gammon families shared closely intertiwned personal and business relationships, and it was not unreasonable to think that slaves might have changed hands between them prior to the Civil War.

We chose to start in Knoxville for several reasons:

1. There were Blairs living in Knoxville following the Civil War, in the period when Sarah would have left to come west.

2. Nathan Gammon was a resident of Knoxville in this period, and one often repeated story is that Sarah went to Knoxville following the Civil War to live with an aunt who was married to a Gammon slave.

3. John Luttrell Murphy, who brought Sarah west with his family in 1871, departed from Knoxville.

4. Most importantly, Sarah always maintained that she was from Tennessee, and we trust her! 

As a beginning, we’ll say that for the first time, we uncovered documentary evidence that allows us to make, at the very least, a good educated guess as to where Sarah was born and raised. We have tracked down family members and scoured records that make a strong case for an interpretation supporting Sarah’s statements that this is where she came from. Coming up, we lay out our case!

Virginia City, Montana, is located in the southwestern corner of the state, between the Madison and Ruby Mountain ranges. The location of Montana’s second major gold strike, it was also the location of the territory’s second capital from 1865 – 1875. At it’s peak, the town boasted a population of perhaps 10,000 intrepid residents who flooded into nearby Alder Gulch with hopes of striking it rich and moving on.

By 1870, just five years after it’s founding, Virginia City was a thriving cradle of civilization in a territory that was still largely wild and inhospitable. Powerful American Indian tribes, including the Blackfeet and Crow, still defended territorial claims by force when settlers encroached too close to traditional homelands, and death was a very real possibility.

There were signs of decline as early as 1870. New gold strikes, like the one at Last Chance Gulch, gave rise to bigger towns, including Helena, which superseded Virginia City as Territorial Capital in 1875. Transportation, always a tricky undertaking in territorial Montana, was unabashed in bypassing Virginia City in favor of more accessible settlements. When the railroad finally crossed the state in the 1880s, Virginia City found itself more isolated than ever; the declining town was considered a poor investment prospect by railroad entrepreneurs who saw greater potential in thriving towns such as Dillon and Helena.

Decline struck Virginia City hard throughout the 1880s as population dwindled and placer mining played out. Through it all, however, an intrepid core group of dedicated residents continued to believe in their community, investing in homes, businesses, and belief in the potential for revival. From this period on, the voices within Virginia City who called for expansion of the tourism industry to the former territorial capital were heard in newspapers, circulars, letters, and actions.

Among the residents who chose to stay when many were abandoning the town was a woman named Sarah Bickford. A native of Tennessee, Bickford arrived in Virginia City in the early months of 1871 with a newly appointed Montana Associate Justice named John Luttrell Murphy. Sarah would remain in Montana for the rest of her life, and her contributions to Virginia City’s survival coincide with the harsh years of decline and depression that obliterated many other former mining communities throughout the west.

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.