Dr. Laura J. Arata
Department of History
I study the intersections of race, gender, and popular culture in the American West. As a public historian, I am committed to making history accessible. History is all about context; by exploring the complicated and often contradictory truths embedded in legends of the Wild West, I hope to help broad audiences ask deeper questions about these time-honored stories.
I have witnessed the power of learning to ask such questions in my own life. I grew up on a working ranch, where it was easy to believe the Wild West had been a real place. My education taught me to complicate those assumptions, but it was a summer field school in Virginia City, Montana, during my master’s degree program that changed how I thought about what the West was supposed to have been. It sounds cliché, but that moment changed my entire life—I came across a fascinating story that hadn’t yet been told. It involved an African American woman, born a slave, who went on to become the first Black, female public utilities owner in the nation. She also played a central role in promoting tourism at the site of a famous quintuple lynching of suspected Road Agents that occurred in 1864. There were lots of books about the Montana Vigilantes, but none about Sarah Bickford and why she chose to preserve that site.
My first book, Race and the Wild West: Sarah Bickford, the Montana Vigilantes, and the Tourism of Decline, 1870 – 1930 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020), changed that. It represents the culmination of the journey I went on in order to find Sarah, and answer the question of why she became a key figure in preserving such a gruesome legend. Because the men put to death were white in all but one instance, the legend of this event has been long-portrayed as race-neutral. The events, and Sarah’s preservation of the site, were of course much more complicated.
I faced a lot of doubt that I could find the necessary source material to write this book, but I was determined—and that was fitting, because so much of Sarah Bickford’s story was having the determination to overcome impossible odds. Learning about Sarah’s life has profoundly shaped my own, and it has humbled me in countless ways—most recently when Race and the Wild West won the 2021 Western Writers of America SPUR Award for Best First Book.