Grants Support History and Humanities at Virginia City, University of Montana | State and regional

In 1870, teenage Sarah Gammon set out in a boxcar for the nearly 2,000 mile journey from Knoxville, Tennessee, to the burgeoning western mining town of Virginia City.

Orphaned from slavery, her trip was at the behest of John Murphy, who during the Civil War had commanded black infantry troops. Gammon had been hired as a nanny for Murphy’s two foster children.

Although Murphy’s stay in Montana was short, Gammon went on to become one of the best-known and successful black businesswomen of her time, owning a public service – the Virginia City Water Company. She is now better known as Sarah Bickford, the last name of her second husband.

The Hangman Building was where Sarah Bickford had her Virginia City Water Company headquarters.

Montana Heritage Commission

Virginia City

A recent endowment for the National Endowment for the Humanities American Rescue Plan Humanities Organizations will fund further research on people like Bickford and other African Americans linked to Montana history.

“The effort is to really fill out the story as best we can and have a plan to talk about it,” said Chere Jiusto, executive director of Preserve Montana, who is part of the consulting team for the project. .

The grant of $ 191,488 to the Montana Heritage Commission will help stabilize the cultural organization and support its continued work after the setbacks of last year’s pandemic, Jiusto added.

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Sarah bickford

Slavery separated Sarah Bickford from her family before she became a pioneering western businesswoman in Virginia City.

Montana Historical Society

The project “will support MHC staff and several renowned academics, to document the legacy of African American settlers in the Virginia City gold mining past, work to preserve three residences and buildings that reflect their history, and share the stories of these African American pioneers with the public, “according to a press release from the Montana Heritage Commission.” These properties were home to enterprising black women – Sarah Bickford and her sisters Minerva and Parthenia Coggswell, as well as the cargo ship Jack Taylor.

“The African-American properties of Virginia City are rare places where the lives of black settlers are reflected on our early gold mining frontiers,” said Elijah Allen, executive director of the commission. “In Virginia City, we are fortunate to have three properties where visitors can visit and imagine what life was like for black pioneers in Montana, just after the Civil War, in the early mining districts. “

Allen added that he was particularly interested in shedding light on Montana’s first black female entrepreneurs while also “learning about the many hardships she and others faced in the 1860s.”

Sarah Bickford House

Sarah Bickford’s home has been updated for modern Virginia City residents.

Montana Heritage Commission


Two of the buildings are log cabins built in the 1860s and later connected by a false facade. Minerva Coggswell acquired the property, according to her will, “through her own hard work”.

She and her sister, Parthenia Sneed, did laundry, ran a restaurant, and in 1880 looked after boarders like African-American Jack Taylor, born in Kentucky.

Taylor served in the Union Army as a stable arm during the Civil War and came to Virginia City in 1866 as a freight carrier. He accumulated enough wealth to purchase 160 acres nearby, where he raised and sold cattle. When Coggswell died in 1894, he purchased the cabins in Virginia City. Then Bickford acquired them after his death.

“The story of the house is really important because it shows how they got there, found a way to make a living and be part of the community,” Jiusto said.

Another of the structures is known as Hangman’s Building, the place where vigilantes suspended five outlaws in 1864 and which Bickford later purchased as the seat of his water service.

Jiusto said the Virginia City work would provide an interpretation showing how the city’s blacks were representative of others across the mining west. Sadly, she noted, not much remains of these other communities, while Virginia City is teeming with preserved structures.

“It really is a long-needed effort with such a rare setting for properties,” Jiusto said.

Sarah Gammon Bickford

As a teenager, Sarah Bickford traveled to Montana and became one of the most successful black businesswomen in the state.

Public domain

The two-year project will begin this fall and run until 2023, according to MHC. The work will include the preservation and interpretation of properties, artefacts, restoration of a heritage garden and a new virtual tour of a mobile app and online exhibits. The garden will reflect what people were growing at the time, Jiusto said.

In a 2014 article, University of Oregon history professor Kingston Heath said the cabins, “owned and occupied by several generations of African-American pioneers, may better tell the story of the perseverance, family and community ties and entrepreneurship among people of color in this gold mining town. ” He added that the buildings are “important because of how they were used and by whom rather than their architectural fabric.”

The research will help recognize African Americans, minority citizens who, according to historian Ellen Baumler, are often not recognized for their “indelible marks on our history.”

As in other parts of the United States, however, black people in Montana have faced prejudice and discrimination. They were excluded from businesses and often confined to menial jobs. This resulted in tight-knit black communities, exemplified by the Virginia City pioneers.

Coggswell Taylor House

The Coggswell Taylor Houses were reunited in the 1890s. Minerva Coggswell acquired the houses where she operated businesses with her sister.

Montana Heritage Commission


The National Endowment for the Humanities received 937 eligible applications and was able to fund 292 organizations affected by the coronavirus pandemic through its program which distributed $ 87.8 million. Part of the program awarded funds to state social science organizations. Under this, Humanities Montana received $ 626,658 while Wyoming received $ 591,737.

The grants targeted “cultural and educational institutions to help them recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, retain and rehire workers, and reopen sites, facilities and programs,” according to the NEH website.

The other two grant recipients in Montana were: the Crow Language Consortium for the production of two books on the history of Crow and three humanities projects at the University of Montana.

UM grant

The $ 499,000 grant to the University of Montana “will support programming, courses and scholarships in history, literature, anthropology and Native American studies within the College of Humanities and Sciences at UM,” according to UM.

“For us in the humanities, this is a very big deal,” wrote Tobin Miller Shearer, professor of history and African American studies at UM and UM’s Institute of Humanities. , in an email. “Normally, if we’re really, really lucky, we might get a grant in the range of $ 30,000 to $ 50,000. It is several orders of magnitude larger.

The money will be used to publicize the humanities with a series of speakers, films and a new website examining racial justice, death in the COVID era, indigenous knowledge and several other areas, Shearer said.

He explained that the grant money is “less focused on creating new knowledge through research and more on disseminating and interpreting existing knowledge to the public. Our goal is to provide Montana residents with the knowledge and frameworks to understand issues of racial justice, COVID-era death, Indigenous knowledge, and several other key areas. “

UM said the funding would also support a “postdoctoral fellowship, a summer course for high school students interested in the humanities, and additional funding for graduate student research, program support, and scholarships.” .

Gillian Glaes, program director for the Institute for the Humanities and Humanities at UM and visiting associate professor of history, called the grant a “game changer” when it comes to supporting faculty, students and scholars. programs that will enable innovative work.

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