‘Race and the Wild West’ Book Review

Race and the Wild West: Sarah Bickford, the Montana Vigilantes and the Tourism of Decline, 1870–1930, by Laura J. Arata, College of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2020, $24.95

With regards to Montana Vigilantes, nothing is ever clear-cut. They’ve been each lionized and condemned for hanging (or “lynching”) highway agent after highway agent in such 1860s gold rush cities as Bannack and Virginia Metropolis. These executions (20 in January 1864 alone) had nothing to do with race, or little or no (one early “harmless” sufferer was a Mexican, José Pizanthia); not like the lynching happening within the South, no sufferer was black. After all, Montana Territory had few resident black women and men then, and it’s nonetheless that manner at the moment (0.6 % of the inhabitants). One Virginia Metropolis black girl, the fascinating Sarah Bickford, is the main focus of this e book, a Western Writers of America 2021 Spur Award finalist for greatest biography. One would possibly suppose Bickford, who was born into slavery and arrived in Virginia Metropolis in January 1871, would have condemned the extralegal executions within the territory. Properly, perhaps she did (she by no means mentioned so a technique or one other and was by no means bodily current for these lethal occasions), however she got here to run the town water firm, and whereas headquartered within the Hangman’s Constructing she turned an early proponent of vigilante tourism.

Maybe the actual fact she was a shrewd businesswoman had one thing to do along with her selecting for her headquarters the very web site the place on Jan. 14, 1864, vigilantes lynched 5 highway brokers, together with “Clubfoot” George Lane, aspect by aspect from a central beam. Sarah stored the hangman’s beam uncovered, preserving and selling the house. One resident mentioned Sarah “didn’t miss the chance to gather a number of dimes from curious guests wishing to see the hangman’s beam.” As to why Bickford (1852–1931) did it, writer Laura Arata, an assistant professor of historical past at Oklahoma State College who specializes within the historical past of race and gender within the American West, affords this educated opinion: “In taking on the water firm and a web site of vigilante historical past, Sarah appropriated that legend as one thing of a defend, creating a novel area of interest for herself that enabled her to sidestep the pitfalls of refusing to occupy a regular social house whereas appropriating sure financial and social privileges not typically accessible to black girls.”

After all, Sarah Bickford’s connection to the Montana vigilantes is just one facet of her story. Within the first two chapters Arata covers Sarah’s youth in Tennessee and her first marriage, to Irish immigrant John Brown (“If slavery had been its personal type of hell, being united in wedlock to John Brown was not a lot of an enchancment”) and the lack of three youngsters. Chapter 3 focuses on race in Virginia Metropolis and the West (together with how the Chinese language group was seen), whereas Chapter 4 seems at Sarah’s second interracial marriage, to Stephen Eben Bickford, who died in 1900 and willed her and their three youngsters his shares within the Virginia Metropolis Water Co. Chapters 5 and 6 element her time operating the water firm, of which she turned sole proprietor in 1917, making her the one black feminine public utilities proprietor within the nation.

The pioneering actions of Nineteenth-century black residents of Montana and most all over the place else have acquired little protection via the years. One exception within the “Treasure State” is Bickford’s modern Mary Fields (aka “Black Mary,” “Coloured Mary,” “Stagecoach Mary,” and so on.) a tough and hard hard-drinking, gun-carrying star-route mail service. Bickford was none of these issues, but she was much more—a courageous black pioneer who, because the writer suggests, defied conference in a white man’s world “in such a manner that her femininity and respectability remained unimpeachable.” Her affiliation with vigilante tourism in a city that was the capital of the territory when she acquired there however wanted “Wild West historical past” to outlive within the twentieth century and past is perhaps what attracts readers to this e book. However it was her affiliation with the Virginia Metropolis Water Co. and the way in which she embodied racial pleasure and consciousness (and instilled it in her youngsters) that ought to most impress readers.

—Gregory Lalire

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

By Laura J. Arata

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