George Eliot wrote “Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” The Extreme History Project hopes to remember some of our dearly departed in Bozeman and surrounding region by sharing with you the stories of people buried in our local cemeteries. Watch this space to learn just who those people are in the cemetery. They all have lifetimes of stories to tell.
Lizzie Williams – An Early Bozeman Business Woman
Not everyone in history is well documented, millions of people have been born, lived out their lives in relative quiet, and are buried, forgotten, in thousands of cemeteries around the country. Yet these people have a story to tell. Here in Bozeman, one of these relatively undocumented people is Lizzie Williams, whose grave lies in Sunset Hills Cemetery.
First, the facts. We know several things about Lizzie, she was an African American woman who lived in Bozeman. The 1870 census lists her as a 33 year old mulatto, with her occupation listed as “keeping restaurant.” The Montana Pick and Plow, an early Bozeman newspaper, describes her restaurant in an article from 1870, “CITY RESTAURANT, re-fitted, re-opened, & re-finished. Mrs. Lizzie Williams, former proprietress of the Southern Hotel, Springville, will be pleased to see all her old customers and the public generally. The table will be supplied with all the delicacies of the season and every attention shown to all patrons.” We also know that Lizzie built and owned a store on Main Street that she rented out to an individual named J.P. Merkle, who operated a jewelry and clothing shop out of the space. There is no mention of a husband in the census records.
In 1870, about 180 African Americans lived in Montana Territory, most living in towns such as Butte, Helena, and Fort Benton. These individuals constituted about 1% of Montana’s population in 1870. This is the highest proportion of African Americans living in Montana ever. In the early 20th century, many African Americans moved out of the state and the African American population has never again reached the 1% mark.
Many African Americans moved West after the Civil War and found employment in Montana Territory as ranchers, miners, barbers, laundresses, cooks, or servants. Race relations were a hot topic in Montana during these early years, Republicans and Democrats argued over African American suffrage and school segregation. Overall, Montana’s record seems to be one of “striking racial ambiguity.” While violence against African Americans was uncommon, racial tensions did occur. As Historian Barbara Behan puts it, “[M]any white westerners favor[ed] black civil rights in theory, while displaying varying degrees of willingness to protect or recognize them.”
We can infer that Lizzie Williams was a well-respected woman in the Bozeman community. In 1874, the Bozeman Avant Courier, the local newspaper, ran an article describing a theft from Lizzie Williams’s home in which about $300 in green backs, gold, and county warrants were stolen. The perpetrator was found and brought before the court, but not before he had spent some of the money. The Bozeman Avant Courier says, “the parties receiving [the ill gotten money] kindly returned [it] to the proper owner.”
In a time just after the Civil War, when many African Americans were struggling for equality and recognition from their white neighbors, Lizzie Williams was a businesswoman, accepted by her community and accorded equal rights under the law. Her story tells of woman who flouted traditional ways by moving to Bozeman as a single African American woman and owning a business she ran herself.
Mrs. Williams’ obituary from the Avant Courier on April 30th, 1875 says, “In Bozeman, April 26th, after a long illness, Mrs. Lizzie Williams, aged 41 years. For years Mrs. Williams has resided in Bozeman, and from the time of her coming among us to the date of her last illness she has always been the devoted nurse in the sick chamber and ever the friend of the poor and afflicted. He smiles upon those who smooth the paths of their fellow beings here; and surely Lizzie will receive the crown from the master.”
Behan, Barbara. “Forgotten Heritage: African Americans in Montana Territory, 1864-1889” in The Journal of African American History Vol. 91. No. 1.
Avant Courier, August 22, 1872
Bozeman Avant Courier, September 19, 1872
Avant Courier, May 8, 1873
Avant Courier, April 30 1875
Avant Courier, April 3, 1874
Montana Pick and Plow, March 10, 1870
“History of Montana 1739-1885” Michael Leeson
Year: 1870; Census Place: Bozeman, Gallatin, Montana Territory; Roll: M593_827; Page: 112A; Image: 228; Family History Library Film: 552326