A History Hidden in Plain Sight: The Life of Lizzie Williams

Written by Crystal B. Alegria, Director of The Extreme History Project and Montana Historian Magazine Guest Contributor

Lizzie Williams gravestone stands in the Sunset Hills Cemetery in Bozeman.

I first met Lizzie Williams when walking through the historic section of Sunset Hills Cemetery located in Bozeman, Montana. Lizzie’s decorative white marble headstone had caught my eye. The stone is weathered and sunken into the ground on one side. As I lingered on the beauty of the stone, I noticed the death date of 1875.

My gaze traveled up to the name on the stone, “Lizzie Williams, Died at 42 years.” A young woman by today’s standards. I immediately started researching this woman, Lizzie Williams, and was rewarded with a listing in the 1870 Bozeman census. “Lizzie Williams, 33 years old, keeps restaurant, personal estate worth $400, born in Kentucky.” As I scanned the record, the most interesting detail was the letter “M” written in the “race” column. M stands for mulatto. Lizzie was a black woman. 

I wondered who this lady might have been, how and why she came to Montana, and what her life was like in 1870s Bozeman. According to the census, she had no husband and no children listed as living with her and no other obvious relations in Bozeman. An African American woman living in Bozeman in 1870 with no husband, running a restaurant was very unusual for the time. As I looked directly below her name on the census record, I noticed that she lived right next door to or possibly in the same dwelling as Samuel Lewis, a man who worked in Bozeman as a barber and who was also listed as Mulatto. Were they friends? Were they business partners? So many questions formed as I studied this document.

I continued to research Lizzie sporadically over the years. Working on other projects I would run across Lizzie’s name in newspapers, ledger books, tax and business licenses, and other historical documents. I kept filing these documents away, saving them, and slowly reconstructing Lizzie’s life bit by bit. Her story eventually emerged from these documents and became a tangible piece of Bozeman history. 

Here is Lizzie’s story as I understand it today.

Lizzie, sometimes referred to as Elizabeth, was born in Louisville, Kentucky around 1834. She worked as a hospital nurse in her early life. In the 1860s Lizzie had made her way to Central City in the newly formed, Colorado Territory where she married James N. Williams in 1862. James worked as a barber in Central City and Lizzie helped him in his barbershop.

The couple moved to Denver in 1864 where they opened the Star Barber Shop. We can speculate that Lizzie and James, like many others at the time, were hearing rumors of gold discoveries in the newly formed Montana Territory. They joined the rush to the booming new territory, setting off in June of 1865.

Lizzie and James established themselves in Helena where James opened a Tonsorial Parlor, the historical term for a place to receive a shave and a haircut, on Bridge Street and they were in business again. Helena’s Bridge Street was a raucous place in the mid-1860s. This street epitomized the “wild west” stereotypes in its truest form. It was muddy and smelled of manure, but the money was flowing so that is where James and Lizzie wanted to be. With all the chaos around them, it was a perfect opportunity to make money.

As 1868 dawned, there must have been trouble between Lizzie and James. Lizzie purchased a business license for a Restaurant and a Bar in Springville, Montana on September 11th, 1868 and James is not included on the license. For unknown reasons, James deserted Lizzie in July of 1869, leaving her and the Montana Territory for good.

Springville was a small town located near present-day Townsend, Montana.  This was one of many small mining camps that sprung up in Montana as people were testing the ground for gold and other minerals to mine. Springville was first known as Hog-Em because the miners who arrived found that a few men had “hogged up” the paying claims in the area. The post office was active from 1869 to 1879, but it was never a large town. Lizzie must have seen the writing on the wall for Springvillle, knowing the small town was not going to survive, because she moved to Bozeman in the fall of 1869.

When Lizzie came to Bozeman, the town was still in its infancy having only been established in August of 1864. At the time of Lizzie’s arrival, Bozeman had a population of about 400 people and was growing rapidly. There was talk of the railroad coming through in 1873 (it did not actually come through until 1883) and the need for her services as a cook were desperately needed.

Lizzie wasted no time in obtaining property to set up her restaurant and hotel. In January of 1870 she purchased a lot and building on Main Street for $2,200 and on January 30th purchased a business license for fifteen dollars to operate The City Restaurant and Hotel. 

In March, Lizzie posted a notice in the local newspaper, the Montana Pick and Plow stating, “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.” 

Lizzie was now set up in Bozeman, running a restaurant and hotel on Main Street but she did not stop there. In 1872, the Avant Courier newspaper tells us that Lizzie had a wood-frame building built on her lot which she rented out to a Mr. Merkle who opened a jewelry store.

By 1872, Lizzie had accomplished quite a bit in her approximately 38 years, but as she came into the year of 1874, she must have known something was not right with her health. She was sick and it probably was a sickness she was not going to recover from because on June 18th she filed for a legal divorce from James Williams and on July 14, 1874 she sat down in the presence of three witnesses and wrote her last will and testament.

Lizzie Williams original last will and testament.

 Lizzie died on April 26, 1875 at the young age of 41 or 42 years old. According to Lizzie’s probate records she was worth $3,823.11 when she died, a goodly sum for the times.

Lizzie William’s obituary is a testament to her life stating, “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 – being ever ready to answer such calls from rich and poor alike. By her natural kindness of heart and former experience as a hospital nurse, she brought sunshine into all the sick rooms she visited. She was fully reconciled to the change, being conscious almost to the last, and assuring her friends, with her latest audible breath, that she knew she was an heir of immortality.”

Lizzie Williams signed her will in 1874.

I still leave flowers on Lizzie’s grave a few times a year and visit her when I’m in the cemetery. I’m sure Lizzie Williams has descendants living today – that research and discovery is still to come. But I feel like Lizzie’s accomplishments are significant. We should all know her name and leave flowers on her grave in remembrance of a life well-lived.  

Author Bio: Crystal Alegria is the Director of The Extreme History Project, a nonprofit that makes history relevant. She has worked in the field of public history and archaeology education for last twenty years at a variety of museums and heritage organizations. She co-founded the Extreme History Project in 2009 and has helped build the organization into an award-winning nonprofit that engages the public in history through walking tours, a lecture series, workshops, oral history, preservation projects, and most recently a podcast called, The Dirt on the Past. 

One Reply to “A History Hidden in Plain Sight: The Life of Lizzie Williams”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *