Monday, February 18, 2013

Sarah Bickford Revisited

Historians have long told the story of Sarah Gammon Bickford. From slave to Virginia City businesswoman, her life was remarkable.  She was born in North Carolina, and when Sarah was young, her parents were sold and she never saw them again. After the Civil War, she traveled to Virginia City in 1871 as governess to the children of the John L. Murphy family. She soon married John Brown, a white miner, and they had three children. As the story goes, by 1881 two young sons and her husband had died. Her daughter Eva lived to be nine years old and then she died around 1883. Sarah started over, marrying Stephen Bickford, a miner and owner of the local water company. The couple had four children. Her children recalled that growing up, their mother told them poignant stories about her first family. Stephen died in 1900, leaving Sarah to run the water company. She was likely the only black woman in the nation to own a utility at that time.

But there is an epilogue to Sarah’s story. A diligent student researcher recently discovered divorce proceedings in the Madison County Courthouse. Even Sarah’s family apparently believed her first husband had died. But this proved that Sarah took her life into her own hands and charged her first husband with cruelty and abandonment. Samuel Word was her defense attorney. Her husband, John Brown, did not appear in court. Sarah accused him of threatening to kill her, beating her, and leaving her and her children. The judge granted her divorce and gave her sole custody of Eva, their only surviving child. The discovery of Sarah’s divorce gives a new dimension to the life of Sarah Bickford, and adds real courage to her other qualities.
P.S. Lots more research about Sarah Bickford at this blog, plus the Sarah Bickford house in Virginia City.
P.P.S. Remember this remarkable woman?

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