Rough & Tumble Deadwood, South Dakota


Deadwood, South Dakota

Deadwood, South Dakota

Deadwood has been known the world round for over half a century. It is the smallest “metropolitan” city in the world, with paving and public and other buildings such as are seldom found in cities less than several times its size.”

– John S. McClintock, Pioneer Days in the Black Hills, 1939


The famous and the infamous have called Deadwood and the Black Hills home over the last several centuries. Lewis and Clark, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, George Armstrong Custer, Poker Alice, the Sundance Kid, Calamity Jane, and many others have all passed through here in search of fortune and adventure.

But long before the arrival of the white man, the land was home to the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee</a Crow and (or Lakota ) Indians. The Sioux, who migrated from Minnesota in the 1700’s, dominated a tract of land large enough to support the buffalo herds on which they subsisted.

At about the same time as the Lakota migration, French Canadian explorers began mapping the Missouri River and trading with the Indians for pelts and hides to be shipped back East. Adventurers Francois and Joseph La Verendrye claimed the region for King Louis XV in 1743 by placing an engraved lead plate on the bank of the Missouri River near present-day Pierre.

When President Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase with Napoleon of France, the 828,000 square-mile purchase included all of what would later become South Dakota. In 1803, Jefferson sent his personal secretary Meriwether Lewis and his friend William Clark to explore the new territory. The 31-member party met little resistance from the Indians as they passed through South Dakota. Along the Missouri River, the expedition was joined by French trader Toussaint Charbonneau and his 15-year-old wife Sacagewea, whom the Frenchman had won in a gambling match. The young Shoshone woman helped to guide Lewis and Clark all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

When the expedition returned east in 1806, their writings were widely read by would-be settlers headed for the upper Missouri Valley. As European immigrants flooded the eastern United States, white settlers gradually moved westward seeking fertile land and suitable town sites. Lewis and Clark heard tales about the Black Hills from other traders and trappers, but it wasn’t until 1823 that Jedediah Smith and a group of about 15 traders actually traveled through them.  While other adventuresome trappers also explored the Hills, most avoided the area because it was considered sacred by the Lakota.

The Lakotanever welcomed the white man to their hunting grounds and as immigration increased there was a marked decline in American Indian-white relations. The Army established outposts nearby, but they seldom entered the Black Hills. Trouble escalated when bands of Lakota began to raid nearby settlements, then retreating to the Black Hills.

Because of this, Lieutenant G.K. Warren was assigned the task of making a thorough reconnaissance of the plains of South Dakota, including the area known as the Black Hills. Another expedition was sent in 1859-60 led by Captain W.F. Reynolds and Dr. F.V. Hayden.

In 1861, residents of what is now Eastern South Dakota began organizing groups of miners and explorers to investigate the Black Hills and reports of gold. In 1862, the U.S. Congress passed the Homestead Act, which offered American citizens the opportunity to purchase 160 acres of unsettled land for about $18 an acre in parts of Dakota Territory. The settlers who made application for a homestead were expected to construct a home and plant crops upon the property. Because few trees grew on the prairies, the pioneers most often built their homes from sod strips stacked like bricks which earned them the name “sodbusters.”

Black Hills in 1890

Black Hills in 1890

In 1865, the pioneers pushed Congress for yet another military reconnaissance of the Black Hills. However, the military recognized the importance the Lakota Nations attached to the area and in 1867 General William T. Sherman stated the Army was not in a position to investigate the Black Hills and would not protect any civilians who did so. In 1868 the federal government entered into a series of treaties with the Lakota resulting in the Fort Laramie Treaty which established the Great Sioux Reservation including all lands from the Missouri River west to the Bighorn Mountains of western Wyoming.

The treaty forever ceded the Black Hills to the Lakota Sioux in an effort to bring about a lasting peace with the tribes of the plains and established agencies which would distribute food, clothes, and money to the Native Americans. The treaty prohibited settlers or miners from entering the Hills without authorization. In return, the Lakota agreed to cease hostilities against pioneers and people building the railroads. Soon, however, the well-intentioned treaty between the tribes and the settlers would be broken.

By 1870 stories continued to circulate in Eastern South Dakota about gold and other wealth to be had in the Black Hills. Though the citizens of Yankton, South Dakota again pressed for an expedition, the Army and the Department of the Interior refused, trying to discourage any entry into the Hills. However, settlers continued to enter the Lakota reservation and renewed Indian raids on nearby settlements caused General Philip Sheridan to propose an expedition to investigate the possibility of establishing a fort in the Black Hills in 1874.

This time Congress agreed and an expedition, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, left from Fort Lincoln, in what is now North Dakota. Though the purpose was to find a suitable location for the fort, for unexplained reasons, a geologist and miners were included in the party. While the soldiers searched for a location for the fort, the miners occupied their time searching for gold and on June 30, 1874, the precious metal was discovered.

Deadwood, South Dakota, 1876

Deadwood, South Dakota, 1876

After Custer’s report of gold in the Black Hills, the U.S. government tried to conceal the discovery from the general public in order to honor the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. However, word quickly spread and the frenzied citizens of Yankton again pushed the government to open the Hills, but Congress held firm. However, this didn’t stop the rush of hopeful miners.

During the winter of 1874 and 1875, the government dispatched several military units to the surrounding area to keep people from entering the Hills. The army forced as many of the miners and settlers out that they possibly could, but the sheer number of settlers far outweighed the number of soldiers, making the task impossible.

In the spring of 1875 the federal government attempted to solve the problem of ownership of the Hills by inviting American Indian leaders to Washington D.C. Negotiators in Washington, fearing war, encouraged the tribes to sell the land for cash, which the tribes desperately needed to survive as the buffalo population dwindled.

However, the American Indians refused all offers and would not relinquish ownership of the land. When the negotiations failed, the federal government ordered all tribal members to return to their reservations. Those who did not comply with the order were to be considered as “hostile.”

In same year, a miner named John B. Pearson found gold in a narrow canyon in the Northern Black Hills. This canyon became known as “Deadwood Gulch,” because of the many dead trees that lined the canyon walls. According to Colonel Richard I. Dodge, there was an estimated 800 white men mining the Hills at this time.

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