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HBO's Deadwood - Fact & Fiction
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Do you ever wonder just how much of this popular series is fact and how much is tall tales made up for entertainment's sake?
Well, it is Hollywood and the intent is
to entertain, which it obviously did a great job of, enticing some 4 million
viewers each week while it aired from 2004-2006. The award-winning show
was one of the most acclaimed dramas on television.
However, a History Channel documentary, it is not! Heck, even I (who rarely watches television) counted down the days until the series would start again, re-watching every show of the last season in the days preceding this year's premier.
Though I know that the show weaves actual characters and real events into its popular fictionalized series, I'm just not always sure when the truth ends and the fiction begins.
I just get to thinking.... "Is that really true?" Or, "nah, that doesn't make sense." At other times, I just simply yell "That's not true!!"
Well, if you find yourself doing the same thing, here are a few bits of facts and fiction that we've sorted out, plus a little history on those real life characters.
Martha Bullock -
Played by Anna Gunn in the series, Martha was Seth's childhood sweetheart. The two married in Salt Lake City, Utah in 1874 and she went back with him to Helena, Montana. However, when Seth moved his business to Deadwood with Sol Star,
Martha and their infant child, Madge, went to stay with her parents in Minnesota. After Seth got the business going in Deadwood and helped to tame the lawless mining camp, Martha and her daughter came to Deadwood.
The couple had two more children and Martha became a pillar of the Deadwood community. More...
Seth Bullock - Hailing from Canada, Bullock started out in Helena, Montana as a young man. There, he met Sol Star and the two began a hardware business before chasing the gold strike to Deadwood. Bullock spent most of his life as a lawman in various capacities and was also a successful entrepreneur, rancher, and politician. He and his wife Martha, who became a pillar of the Deadwood community, had three children.
Bullock built the Bullock Hotel, which continues to stand in Deadwood today. More...
Johnny Burns - While little is known about this real character, he did work for Al Swearengen at the Gem Theatre. His job at the Gem was as a Box Herder, a term used to describe the person in charge of the "girls" and to keep them in line. Unfortunately, Burns was said to have been brutal on the "ladies," beating them often.
Calamity Jane - Calamity Jane was renowned for her excellent marksmanship, preference for men's clothing, and
bawdy behavior. Jane was said to have been an Army scout, a bullwhacker, a nurse, a cook, a prostitute, a prospector, a gambler, a heavy drinker and one of the most foul-mouthed people in the West. In June of 1876, she partnered with Wild Bill Hickok as an outrider for Colorado Charlie Utter's wagon train, galloping into Deadwood with a shipment of prostitutes, fres h from Cheyenne. For the remainder of her days, Calamity Jane claimed to have been
Hickok’s lover. But the record shows that Wild Bill had just recently married and his letters home from Deadwood indicate that he was happily wedded. Calamity Jane requested to be buried next to Wild Bill Hickok when she died, and there she rests. More...
(spelled Dority in the series) - Doherty acted as Al's general manager at the Gem Theater when it first opened in 1877 and was also rough with the women. Two years later finds Doherty partnering up with a man named Johnny Cooley and opening their own saloon. Somewhere along the line Doherty married while in Deadwood. He stayed in the camp until the late 1880s when he moved on to Nevada.
- A lawman and gunfighter from
Wyatt served as a Lamar,
Missouri constable before
moving on to Ellsworth,
Kansas in 1873, where he was appointed marshal. A year later he was in
Wichita before moving on to
Dodge City in 1876. Following the gold
rush with all the rest of the fortune seekers,
and Wyatt Earp
Deadwood in September 1876 and stayed until the following Spring.
Some say there was a confrontation between
Wyatt Earp and
Seth Bullock; however, the local newspapers of the time, which reported even
the most trivial event, fail to support this account.
By 1880, Wyatt was in Tombstone,
Arizona when his brother
Virgil appointed him deputy city marshal and he is best known for his
participation in the
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral along with
Earp wasn't working in a
lawman capacity, he also worked as a
teamster, buffalo hunter, gambler and
Wyatt Earp is played by Gale Harold on the HBO Series.
- Before coming to Deadwood, E.B. Farnum, his wife and three children lived in Wisconsin. One of the first non-mining residents in Deadwood, E.B. Farnum opened a retail store in 1876. Seeing the growth potential of the camp, he also secured claims on several other Main Street lots. Soon joining up with other area businessmen, the group financed and built the Deadwood -to-Centennial Toll Road to ensure that the camp could get its needed supplies. The successful Farnum went on to invest in several Deadwood mining ventures. On August 18, 1876 he was elected mayor of
Deadwood, working first to obtain official recognition for the settlement by the Dakota Territorial government. Soon, salaries and costs for maintenance were paid with new fees levied on Deadwood's businesses. Farnum was also active as the head of the school board which established Deadwood's first school He also acted as the Justice of the Peace and judge for the community. The following year, when duties began to be split up, he failed in his bid for Justice of the Peace, and about one year later, he and his family left Deadwood for Chicago, Illinois.
Samuel Fields - More often referred to as the "Nigger General," Fields was a "real" character in
Deadwood's history. Described with words like irrepressible, duplicatory, and candescent, Samuel Fields first appeared in Deadwood during its booming mining camp days with the many other hundreds of other men hoping to find their fortunes. The flamboyant man, who went about saying that he had been a general in the Union Army during the Civil War, was referred by many names, including General Fields, General Darkey, and Sly-coon, as well as "Nigger General.” Seemingly unperturbed by the racial slurs, Fields’ antics in the camp made headlines in Deadwood's various newspapers almost immediately upon his arrival. By 1889, he was known to have been working in Omaha, Nebraska, but a year later, he was again
back in South Dakota working as a bellhop in Rapid City, after which he is lost in history. The character on the series is played by Franklyn Ajaye. More...
George Hearst - In June 1877 George Hearst, who had earlier sent an agents to offer a bond to owners of the Homestake claim, buys the four and one half acre claim for $70,000. George Hearst was a mining tycoon who had already made millions in Utah, Nevada California and Montana. The man was almost illiterate and loved poker, bourbon and tobacco. In later life his sole ambition was to be a politician which eventually led to the Hearst publishing empire. More...
Wild Bill Hickok - Born in Troy Grove, Illinois on May 27, 1837, Hickok was an excellent marksman even in his youth. Always enamored of the frontier west, Hickok joined the pioneers when he was just 17 years old. Soon, he worked as a freighter on the Oregon and Santa Fe Trails where he perpetuated his reputation with his gunfighting skills. He also served as a marshal in several Old West settlements and as an Army scout. During his travels he became a proficient gambler. Touring with Buffalo Bill Cody in his Wild West Show, Hickok was well known by the time he arrived in Deadwood in 1876. However, his stay in the rough and tumble camp would
be a short one, as he was murdered by Jack McCall while playing poker in a Deadwood saloon
on August 2, 1876. More...
Jack (John) Langrishe - Langrishe, the gay stage promoter and friend of Al Swearengen who tries to bring culture to the mean streets of Deadwood, was a real character during Deadwood's booming mining days. Though not gay and highly unlikely to have been a friend of Swearengen's, Langrishe was a real theatre owner and promoter who preferred working in the
Old West to the stages of New York's Broadway. Married to a wife named Jenette, the pair opened several theatres during their careers, including one in Denver, Colorado and another in Helena, Montana, as well
as the one in Deadwood. Before erecting a permanent building for his theatre, Langrishe temporarily operated out of the
Bella Union. More...
Lucretia "Aunt Lou" Marchbanks - Except for "Aunt Sally” Campbell, who came with the Custer Expedition in 1874, most believe that Lucretia Marchbanks was the first black woman in the Black Hills of
South Dakota. Born a slave in Tennessee,
Lucretia began to travel the west once she was freed, working in the gold camps of Colorado
before being lured by the reports of gold in the
Black Hills. Arriving in Deadwood on June 1, 1876, she soon found work as the Kitchen Manager in the
Grand Central Hotel. In no time, the hotel, which really wasn’t so grand, was better known for the great food served in its restaurant and Lucretia became better known as "Aunt Lou.” Aunt Lou went on to own a boarding house before retiring to a life of ranching in
Wyoming. Though she may have met George Hearst as she worked for the DeSmet Mine for a period, she never worked directly for him. More...
Jack McCall - Unfortunately, this cowardly and drunken figure was real.
Born around 1851 in Jefferson County, Kentucky, he was raised there along with
his three sisters. McCall drifted west as a young adult, joining a group of buffalo hunters. By the time he arrived in Deadwood in 1876, he was going by the name of Bill Sutherland. McCall felt insulted when Wild Bill gave him money to buy himself something to eat after losing at a poker game and shot him from behind the next day. In the first trial, found to be illegal later, McCall claimed that Hickok had shot his brother in Abilene,
Kansas and was found innocent. McCall hung about Deadwood for several days, until a man called California Joe strongly suggested the air might be bad for McCall's health. McCall got the message and believing he’d escaped punishment for his crime, headed to Wyoming bragging to anyone who would listen that he had killed the famous Wild Bill Hickok. Less than a month later, the trial held in Deadwood was found to have had no legal basis, Deadwood being located in Indian Territory. McCall was arrested in Laramie, Wyoming on August 29, 1876, charged with the murder, and taken to Yankton, South Dakota to stand trial. On March 1, 1877, Jack McCall was put to death by hanging. As to McCall's earlier claim of having shot Hickok out of revenge for his brother, it was discovered that Jack McCall never had a brother. More...
Albert W. Merrick - Born about 1839 in New York, Merrick was working in Denver, Colorado before he had another man named W.A. Laughlin set up the Pioneer newspaper in Deadwood. The first edition was published June 8, 1876. However, Merrrick didn't own the paper for long, as he sold it to R.O. Adams in 1879. Historically known as the first newspaper west of the Missouri,
the newspaper is still in publication today, however, it is located in Spearfish, South Dakota. Merrick was married to Ray and had three children. Unfortunately for the Merrick's they lost their 8 year-old son, Walter, on October 8, 1880 when he died of
inflammation of the bowels. They also lost an infant daughter in 1884. Daughter,
Tom Nuttall - Played by actor Leon Rippy, Tom is based on that actual Deadwood figure named William "Billy" Nuttall. Billy was one of the proprietors of Nuttall & Mann’s Saloon No. 10 when Wild Bill Hickok was shot by Jack McCall on August 2, 1876. However, history next finds him involved in a partnership with Tom Miller, the owner of the Bella Union Theatre, in the summer of 1877. Securing a number of talents to the Bella Union, Nuttall was managing the property when it was purchased by Mr. McDaniels in 1878 and leased to Billy Nuttall soon thereafter. The next year finds Nuttall in Leadville, Colorado, along with a score of other Black Hillers who had followed the mining rush. There, he opened another "Bella Union" in the summer of 1879, utilizing many of the actors that he had previously hired in Deadwood. While in Leadville, his wife left him in 1880 and by 1882 he was in a New Mexico jail for a gambling violation.
Reverend Henry Weston Smith - Born in Ellington, Connecticut on January 10, 1827, Smith first married in 1847 but his wife and infant son died a year later. In 1850, he became a Methodist preacher. In 1859, he remarried Lydia Ann Joslin and the couple had four children. Smith served in the Civil War and became a doctor. In 1876 he followed the gold rush to Deadwood, becoming the first preacher of any denomination in the Black Hills. Smith never had a church in Deadwood, but used the dirty streets of the mining camp as his sermon mount.
To make ends meet, the preacher did a little prospecting and worked at odd jobs. On August 20, 1876, Smith, along with Sheriff
Isaac Brown, Charles Mason, and Charles Holland, were all killed on the road between Crook City and Deadwood. The men were thought to have been killed by
Indians. The Reverend Smith was 49 years old. His body now lies at Mount Moriah Cemetery among the other notable characters of Deadwood.
Sol Star - Born into a Jewish family in Bavaria, Germany on December 20, 1840, Star migrated was sent to live with his uncle in Ohio when he was about ten years old. As he grew into a young man he moved to Helena, Montana where he soon began a hardware business with Seth Bullock. The pair followed the Deadwood gold rush in August, 1876. Star and Bullock
expanded their business interests by purchasing a ranch, where they raised livestock, and partnered in the Deadwood Flouring Mill in 1880. Star
was one of the first town councilmen elected in 1876, served as postmaster in
1878, and was elected mayor in 1884, a position that he held for 14 years. Sol Star never married. The character is played by John Hawkes
on the HBO Deadwood Series. More...
Con Stapleton - Though the series shows Stapleton as a dim-witted card dealer at the Number 10 Saloon, who gained his short-lived marshal's position by begging Al Swearengen to appoint him, Stapleton actually was elected marshal by the miners on September 16, 1876. The first marshal elected by the Miner's Court was Isaac Brown, an event that occurred after the trial of Jack McCall on August 5, 1876. But for Marshal Isaac Brown, being a lawman would be a short-lived career. When he, along with the Reverend Smith and two other men named Charles Mason and Charles Holland were traveling between Crook City and Deadwood, they were ambushed and killed on August 20, 1876. Leaving an open position, the miner's court soon met again, this time electing Stapleton as the new marshal.
Seth Bullock was never the City of Deadwood's marshal, but was actually the Lawrence County Sheriff, a position that he didn't hold until March 1877. After becoming the Deadwood Marshal, one of Stapleton's favorite past times was organizing wresting matches, most often at the Gem Theater. Sometimes he acted as a referee and at others as a participant. Con Stapleton died in Denver, Colorado on September 10, 1879. Stapleton's character is played by Peter Jason on the HBO Series. More...
Al Swearengen - Al Swearengen in real life was every bit as ugly as the character played in the Deadwood series. What they don't tell you is that the man lured dozens of women to the camp by falsely promising good jobs in local hotels and promising to make them stage performers in his popular Gem Theater. Once they arrived, the women were virtually forced into white slavery or thrown into the street. The man was married three times and was brutal to his wives, as well as the women that worked for him. The Gem Theater caught fire twice in 1879, the second time burning it to the ground. On both occasions Swearengen rebuilt. Twenty years later it was demolished again by a third inferno. By this time, Swearengen called it quits and left Deadwood for good. Not long after, the drunk and penniless Swearengen was killed while trying to hitch a ride on a Colorado train like a common tramp. More...
Trixie - This is a more than a little "iffy." Reportedly, there were several "Trixies" who came and went during the Gem Theater's twenty-two years of operation. Potentially based on any one of the many women, there was one woman with the name spelled "Tricksie" who shot a man at the Gem Theater after he had beaten her. Though she shot him in the head, he didn't immediately die. The doctor was quickly called in, who put a probe through the man’s skull, amazed that he survived the gunshot at all. However, this nameless man did die about thirty minutes later.
Charlie Utter - Though Charlie Utter was very real, his real life persona was much different than that portrayed on the HBO series by Dayton Callie. The show depicts Utter as an unkempt man who is often uncomfortable around others, in real life, he took a lot of pride in his appearance, often dressing in hand-tailored suits and keeping his long blonde hair and mustache meticulously groomed. Even more unusual for the times, he insisted on taking a daily bath. Utter was born near Niagra Falls in New York in 1838, and spent his childhood in Illinois. When he grew up he moved west and in the 1860s he was earning a living as a trapper and a prospector in Colorado. Over the years, Charlie was a hunter, a trapper, gold prospector, mine owner, express rider and transportation businessman. Long before he ever arrived in Deadwood,
he had become a true friend to Wild Bill Hickok. Out of the most genuine respect for his friend, he claimed Bill's body when he was killed, arranged a proper funeral, and placed a marker at his
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Deadwood - Rough & Tumble Mining Camp
Black Hills Historic Characters & Tales
Deadwood - Rough & Tumble Mining Camp
Deadwood Vintage Photo Gallery
HBO's Deadwood - Facts & Fiction
Haunted Bullock Hotel in Deadwood