Downtown Bozeman

Lizzie Williams, one of the few African-American women living in Bozeman in its early years, owned the City Restaurant, just east of the brick Cooper-Black building, seen in the center of this photo, taken in 1875, the year of her death.

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Wandering one day in Bozeman’s Sunset Hills Cemetery as she likes to do, Crystal Alegria spotted a beautiful marble headstone, erected in the days when the Wild West town was still in its infancy.

The headstone marked the grave of a woman named Lizzie Williams, who died in 1875. That was one year before Gen. George Armstrong Custer met his fate at the battle of the Little Big Horn and just 11 years after Bozeman was founded.

Lizzie Williams grave

Lizzie Williams' grave at Sunset Hills Cemetery is seen in this undated photo.

“Who the heck is this?” Alegria wondered.

That curiosity led Alegria, co-director of the nonprofit Extreme History Project, to discover a lost piece of Bozeman history — the story of an African-American woman who became one of the town’s earliest entrepreneurs.

In honor of Black History Month, Alegria will give a free public talk at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Museum of the Rockies on “The Last Will and Testament of Lizzie Williams: An African American Entrepreneur in 1870s Bozeman.”

As a history detective, Alegria found Williams listed in the Montana Territory’s first census, taken in 1870.

The census says Lizzie was 33, born in Kentucky, could read and write, and her occupation was “keeps restaurant.” Like Samuel Lewis, 37, Bozeman’s black barber from Bermuda, with whom she shared a residence, the census listed Lizzie as “M” for mulatto.

“That really sparked my interest,” Alegria said.

Just four African-American women were living in the town of 168 to 200 souls. In 1870, Bozeman was overwhelmingly white (94.6 percent) and male (76 percent).

Lizzie was born in 1834 in Louisville, Kentucky, so it’s more than likely that she grew up in slavery, Alegria said. Lizzie first came out West to Colorado Territory, probably after the Civil War ended in 1865.

“I kind of think of Lizzie as a refugee, leaving the war-torn United States,” Alegria said, “trying to find sanctuary in a place where she could have a life.”

She showed up in Montana Territory in 1868, when she owned the Southern Hotel in tiny Springville, between Townsend and Helena.

In the fall of 1869, Lizzie moved to Bozeman. She bought a lot in the center of town, on the south side of Main Street between Black and Bozeman streets, where the Running Company stands today at 126 E. Main St. She turned the tavern on the lot into City Restaurant. Lizzie also built a wood-frame building on another lot and rented it to a jeweler.

“She did have an entrepreneurial spirit,” Alegria said.

In the early frontier days, Alegria said, diverse people from all over the globe were welcomed and necessary to help little towns like Bozeman survive.

“It was kind of all hands on deck,” Alegria said. Still, because of racist views of the day, “she probably was still regarded as someone lesser than everyone else.”

Later, in 1909, Montana would pass a miscegenation law against interracial marriage (which stayed on the books until 1953) and the Ku Klux Klan was on the rise. Montana’s small African-American communities would shrink as people left for better jobs or greater safety.

Lizzie Williams' will

The last will and testament of Lizzie Williams.

Lizzie apparently became sick in 1874, when she wrote her will. Nine months later she died, on April 26, 1875. She was 41 or 42.

“It’s really interesting that she had a will,” Alegria said. “Not a lot of women wrote wills,” either because they couldn’t own their own property or had little to leave behind.

Lizzie owned commercial buildings and her home, a horse, cook stove, a good sewing machine, lace curtains, a bed, three rocking chairs, two rings and two pair of earrings.

She left half of her estate to her daughter, Rebecca Brown, in St. Louis. She left the remaining half to Lewis’ half-sister, Edmonia Lewis, living in Rome, who would become known as the first African-American woman sculptor to achieve international fame.

Both the Bozeman Times and Avant Courier newspapers wrote obituaries on Lizzie Williams, in a day when obituaries were written by the newspaper as town news, rather than written by families. They described Lizzie Williams as an independent and kind woman, who often nursed the sick, “rich and poor alike.”

Through “business sagacity and honorable industry,” the Bozeman Times reported, “she secured herself an independent livelihood… The loss of Mrs. Williams is deeply and universally deplored in Bozeman, where she had endeared herself to almost every family by invaluable services rendered in seasons of sickness... She brought sunshine into all the sick rooms she visited.”

Many mysteries remain about Lizzie Williams. Samuel Lewis was executor of her estate, and she once sold him a slice of land for his barbershop, but their relationship is unclear. Alegria has been unable to find out if Lizzie was a slave in Kentucky. No photograph of her has surfaced, though her estate listed eight framed photos.

“I think it’s important to honor that African American community,” Alegria said. “In our traditional narrative, they’ve been completely left out … To me, (telling her story) is a way to talk about some history we lost and honor that history.”

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Gail Schontzler can be reached at 406-582-2633 or gails@dailychronicle.com.

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