Coggswell-Taylor Cabins

Home of Sarah Bickford - Montana's first female African American businessowner

Cogswell-Taylor Cabins Sarah Bickford Virginia City, Montana

This property represents three eras of African American residence and commerce in Virginia City, from 1867 through 1931. Beginning with Minerva Coggswell and later her sister Parthenia Sneed, continuing with Jack Taylor’s tenure, and ending with Sarah Bickford’s ownership, the history of the property intertwines with not only the rise and fall of the mining town itself, but more particularly the legacy of the African American presence there. The histories of these owners provide a narrative of “personal achievements and social integration of this largely under-represented group of pioneers on Virginia City’s mining frontier.”

Between 1870 and 1880, Virginia City’s African American population was small compared to other minorities such as the Chinese.  African American freighter Jack “Jarrett” Taylor was in town as early as 1866, Sarah Bickford arrived in January 1871, and Minerva Coggswell came sometime in the 1870’s.

Born in the 1840’s in Kentucky, Jack or “Jarrett” Taylor resided in Virginia City from 1866 until his death in 1926.  After serving as a Union Army stable hand, Taylor made his way to Virginia City by working for a freighting company.  He continued freighting on the vital Virginia city-Fort Benton road for the F.R. Merk Company, formerly located in what is now the Pioneer Bar on Wallace Street.  Taylor eventually became a successful real estate entrepreneur and by 1875, he owned 160 acres in the Madison Valley.  In 1880 Taylor was boarding with African American sisters Minerva Coggswell and Parthenia Sneed.  Shortly after Minerva’s death in 1894, Taylor purchased this house from her estate.  Sarah Bickford, a prominent local African American businesswoman, cared for Taylor in his final years and served as the executor of his estate. 

Sarah Bickford was born a slave in 1852 in North Carolina or Tennessee.  Sarah made her way to Virginia City and in 1872 married John L. Brown whom she had three children with.  In 1879, Brown abandoned Sarah and their only surviving child, Eva.  Sarah soon filed for divorce, stating that John was physically abusive and unwilling to support his family.  Bickford then started the New City Bakery & Restaurant in downtown Virginia City.  In 1883, Sarah married Stephen Bickford, a white man originally from Maine, prior to Montana’s 1909 miscegenation law prohibiting interracial marriage.  In 1888, Stephen purchased two-thirds of the Virginia City Water Company.  Stephen died in 1900 from pneumonia leaving Sarah his shares of the water company in his $9,500 estate.  In 1902, Sarah purchased the “Hangman’s Building” as the water company’s headquarters.  She ultimately bought out her partner in the water company, running the business until her death in July 1931.  Sarah Bickford would become an iconic Montana businesswoman for being the first and only African American woman in Montana to own a utility. 

The integration of Taylor, Bickford, and other African Americans in the community suggest better race relations in Virginia City than other parts of the country. 

Sarah Bickford
Sarah Bickford Madisonian advertisement 1880-1881

Sarah’s Madisonian advertisement, 1880-1881

Sarah Bickford death Madisonian article

Madisonian – July 24, 1931

Hangman's Building 1902 Virginia City, Montana

In 1902, the Hangman’s Building became the water company’s headquarters.

Photo Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society

Sarah Bickford Headstone Hillside Cemetery Virginia City, Montana

Sarah Bickford's Headstone at Hillside Cemetery in Virginia City, MT

Jack Taylor headstone Hillside Cemetery Virginia City, Montana

Jack Taylor passed away on September 16, 1926 and is buried in Hillside Cemetery next to Bickford.

Coggswell-Taylor Cabins 2020 Sarah Bickford Virginia City, Montana
Coggswell-Taylor Cabins 2020 Sarah Bickford Virginia City, Montana

Coggswell-Taylor Cabins Today

Jack Taylor's Madisonian ad 1902
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Jack Taylor’s Madisonian advertisement, October 30, 1902

In 2012, Sarah Bickford was inducted into the Gallery of Outstanding Montanans in the Capitol Rotunda in Helena.  In 2020, Bickford made the list for The National Trust for Historic Preservation’s “1,000 Places Where Women Made History”.

Photo Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society