The Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives will continue its Brown Bag Lunch series on Wednesday, June 22, with historian Laura Arata presenting her new book, Race and the Wild West: Sarah Bickford, the Montana Vigilantes, and the Tourism of Decline, 1870 – 1930. Perhaps no story better illustrates the complicated realities of the American West than the life of Sarah Bickford – born a slave in eastern Tennessee, she traveled to Montana Territory as a teenager in 1870. There she married twice (both times to white men), bore seven children (four of whom lived) and divorced once. In 1900 she inherited her second husband’s shares of the Virginia City Water Company and became the first African American female public utilities owner in the nation. For the last two decades of her life, she preserved and promoted tourism in a historic building best known as the site of an 1864 quintuple lynching by the Montana Vigilantes. The enduring legacies of the American West within which Bickford carved a niche in heritage tourism for herself were made possible by broad fascination with the Frontier and the Wild West – ideas which continue to maintain a strong hold on American identity in the present. Race and the Wild West is the first full-length biography of Bickford, and situates her within the world of the 19th and 20th centuries in which she lived. It is a Montana story and an American story that complicates and illuminates our ideas about what the West was and what it was supposed to have been
Laura J. Arata is Associate Professor and Director of Public History at Oklahoma State University. She received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Washington, and MA and PhD degrees from Washington State University. During her time at the latter, she served as co-principal investigator for the Hanford History Project. Her first book, Race and the Wild West: Sarah Bickford, the Montana Vigilantes, and the Tourism of Decline 1870 – 1930 won the 2021 SPUR Award from Western Writers of America for Best First Non-Fiction Book and the Gita Chaudhuri Prize from the Western Association of Women’s Historians. She grew up on a farm in central California, where the idea of the Wild West was alive and well.
The presentation will begin at noon and run about an hour at the Archives, 17 W. Quartz Street. Guests may bring a sack lunch and the Archives will provide coffee and water.
For more information, contact the Archives at 782-3280.