Race and the Wild West

Race and the Wild West

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Sarah Bickford, the Montana Vigilantes, and the Tourism of Decline, 1870–1930

by Laira J Arata

Born a slave in eastern Tennessee, Sarah Blair Bickford (1852–1931) made her way while still a teenager to Montana Territory, where she settled in the mining boomtown of Virginia City. Race and the Wild West is the first full-length biography of this remarkable woman, whose life story affords new insight into race and belonging in the American West around the turn of the twentieth century.

For many years, Sarah Bickford’s known biography fit into a single paragraph. By examining her life in all its complexity, Arata fills in what were long believed to be unrecoverable “silent spaces” in her story. Before establishing herself as a successful business owner, we learn, she was twice married, both times to white men. Her first husband, an Irish immigrant, physically abused her until she divorced him in 1881. Their three children all died before the age of ten. In 1883, she married Stephen Bickford and gave birth to four more children. Upon his death, she inherited his shares of the Virginia City Water Company, acquiring sole ownership in 1917.

For the final decade of her life, Bickford actively preserved and promoted a historic Virginia City building best known as the site of the brutal lynching in 1864 of five men. Her conspicuous role in developing an early form of heritage tourism challenges long-standing narratives that place white men at the center of the “Wild West” myth and its promotion.

Bickford’s story offers a window into the dynamics of race in the rural West. Although her experiences defy easy categorization, what is clear is that her navigation of social norms and racial barriers did not hinge on exceptionalism or tokenism. Instead, she built a life that deserves to be understood on its own terms. Through exhaustive research and nuanced analysis, Laura J. Arata advances our understanding of a woman whose life embodied the contradictory intersections of hope and disappointment that characterized life in the early-twentieth-century American West for brave pioneers of many races.

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