African Americans

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Waiters from the Canyon Hotel in Yellowstone National Park pose for a photo on the Yellowstone River, 1896. Courtesy of the Montana Historical Society Research Center via Big Sky Country Digital Network.

After the Civil War, free black men and women came west to seek their fortunes. The West offered new opportunities to seek gainful employment. Many of the earliest black settlers worked as miners, cowboys, cooks, and domestic help. The mining towns of Virginia City, Helena, and later Butte had the largest African American populations.

African American women were afforded opportunities in the Montana Territory that were not available to them in other places. In 1895, Mary Fields became the second woman and the first black woman to work for the US postal service when she was the fastest applicant to hitch a team of six horses. She earned the nickname "Stagecoach" because she was so reliable. In 1900, Sarah Bickford inherited her husband's assets including his two-thirds share of the Virginia City Water Company and became the first black woman to operate a utility company.

The US Army employed African American soldiers in segregated regiments. The 25th Infantry regiment was one of four United States Colored Troops regiments in the country. Many companies of the 25th regiment were stationed in Montana forts in the 1880s to assist in maintaining peace with the Indians. In 1896, Lieutenant James A. Moss requested permission to form a bicycle troop staffed with members of the 25th regiment to test the use of bicycles as a military vehicle. Despite some successes and freedoms, the African American population in Montana remained very small. Discrimination persisted and, along with other non-whites, Montana African Americans were excluded from businesses and prevented from voting, often through violent means.