As part of the Extreme History Project lecture series, Crystal Alegria, M.A., spoke in front of a full Hager auditorium on Feb. 16 about the life, death and impact of one of Bozeman’s earliest residents, Lizzie Williams. Speaking with visible enthusiasm, Alegria led the audience through her involvement in the research of Williams’ life.
Beginning with her first encounter with Williams’s legacy, Alegria described Williams’ headstone which can currently be found in one of Bozeman’s cemeteries. Alegria remarked on how richly made the marble headstone from the 1870s was. Alegria described her amazement when, completely out of the blue, Williams’ name appeared again in an old census during the course of one of her other research projects.
However, Alegria’s interest was not solely formed around the unexpected appearance of Williams within the census, her interest was also piqued by Williams’ registration in the census as an “M,” which signifies that she was an African-American. In addition, Williams was recorded as having moved to Montana from Kentucky, which, according to Alegria, gives her a high probability of having come from slavery. Alegria stated that she originally thought of Williams as a pioneer but, after a discussion with several of her colleagues and after looking at words like “migrant” and “immigrant,” she later exchanged the term “pioneer” with the word “refugee.” Alegria stated that “Lizzie was fleeing a country that was in turmoil, the U.S. after the Civil War, and she was fleeing a place that was dangerous to her.”
After moving to Montana, Williams was shown to have operated a bar in Springville, a town that was located near present day Helena. However, Alegria states that this phase of Williams’s life did not last long. She inevitably packed up shop and moved to Bozeman where she purchased a store on main street, a building that stood close to where the Chocolate Moose stands now.
During 1874, and after nearly eight years of owning and operating a restaurant and rental property, which she let out to a jeweler, Williams fell ill and wrote her last will and testament before passing away on April 26,1875. The will and testament is what led to Alegria hitting “the researchers jackpot” as she called it. Williams’ will not only gave Alegria Williams’s signature, but it also gave her an intimate look into Williams’ interactions with Bozeman’s 1875 population of 392 people.
Some of Williams’s most notable relations within Bozeman were her close ties to Samuel Lewis, a barber, and her ties to his half-sister, the world-famous sculptor Edmonia Lewis, to whom she bequeathed half of her estate.
“So how can we use and understand Lizzie’s story?” Alegria queried near the end of her lecture. She went further by saying, “I encourage you all to have a conversation with a friend or a family member when you’re walking by the running company downtown”—Bozeman Running Co. is another building nearby Williams’ old plot. Alegria called for the audience to facilitate a conversation about the richly diverse history that Bozeman enjoys and how it affects a campus that currently enrolls 104 African American students, making up only one percent of the total student body.
The driving philosophy behind the lecture “The Last Will and Testament of Lizzie Williams: An African American Entrepreneur in 1870’s Bozeman” is to bring awareness to the history of Bozeman’s diverse influences.
Written by Sam Klusmeyer