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
Deadwood, South Dakota was once one of liveliest mining camps in the country after gold deposits were found which led to the Black Hills Gold Rush. Unlike other popular mining camps, Deadwood never died when the gold played out. Today, it continues to be the Lawrence County seat and a popular destination. The entire city is on the National Register of Historic Places.
The famous and the infamous have called Deadwood and the Black Hills of South Dakota 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, Crow, and Sioux (or Lakota) Indians. The Sioux dominated a tract of land large enough to support the buffalo herds on which they subsisted.
The Lakota never 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.
In the early 1860s, groups of explorers, miners, and homesteaders began to push into the area, which further angered the Lakota. Subsequently, a series of treaties were made with the Sioux, including the Great Sioux Reservation which included all lands from the Missouri River west to the Bighorn Mountains of western Wyoming. However, by 1870, stories of gold in the Black Hills began to circulate and the treaties were broken as people flooded into the area.
In 1875, 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 were an estimated 800 white men mining the Hills at this time.
The town of Deadwood was established in 1876 and was soon swarming with thousands of prospectors searching for an easy way to get rich. At first, the settlement was made up of tents and shanties, but as the population grew these were replaced with brick and wooden structures and false front businesses. Fortune struck Fred and Moses Manuel, who claimed the Homestake Mine, which proved to be the most profitable in the area. Through 1901, the Homestake produced $100 million in gold and continued to operate for the next century, until it finally closed in 2001.
Although the Manuel’ had been lucky, there were hundreds of others that were not so fortunate. Though most of the early settlers of Deadwood were gold miners, the lawless region naturally attracted a crowd of rough and shady characters.
Like many towns of the American West, these particular individuals made the early days of Deadwood rough and wild. A mostly male population eagerly patronized the many saloons, gambling establishments, dance halls, and brothels, which were considered legitimate businesses and were well known throughout the area. Ninety percent of the female population of Deadwood were prostitutes. The new mining town averaged one murder per day in that first year.
By July of 1876, a million dollars of gold at $20 an ounce had been taken from the Black Hills. That same summer saw the arrival of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane in Deadwood. When he arrived, Hickok was already a legendary figure, having received numerous sensational newspaper accounts which described his legendary gun-fighting skills. Wild Bill had been dismissed from his job as a marshal in Abilene, Kansas for over-enthusiasm. The former actor, scout, lawman, and gambler quickly began to frequent the Deadwood saloons continuing his long-time habit of playing poker.
On August 2, 1876, Hickok was playing poker at Nuttall & Mann’s #10 Saloon. Ignoring his cautious habit of sitting with his back to the wall, the table was already filled and he took a seat that exposed his back to an open door at the rear of the saloon. Given the advantage of surprise, Jack “Broken Nose” McCall, slipped from behind, shouted “Take that!” and fired a shot into the back of Hickok’s head.
From Hickok’s fingers fell two aces, two eights, and another card, a combination that has since been known as the dead man’s hand. McCall, a drunken nobody trying to make a name for himself, later claimed that he was seeking revenge for the slaying of his brother in Abilene, Kansas by Hickok.
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, fresh from Cheyenne, Wyoming. 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 married.
As chance would have it, he never saw his wife again, and in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery, it’s not Wild Bill’s wife who occupies the grave next to his. Wild Bill shares his final resting place, as well as his place in history — by her decree, not his — with the self-proclaimed Queen of the Wild West, Calamity Jane.
By 1877, Deadwood was evolving from a primitive mining camp to a community with a sense of order. The crude tents and shanties that had housed the early miners quickly gave way to wood and brick buildings. The community organized a town government that relied on Sheriff Seth Bullock to keep law and order. The gradual transition of Deadwood from a mining camp to a civilized community nearly came to an abrupt end.
On September 26, 1879, a fire started at a bakery on Sherman Street and rapidly spread to the business district of Deadwood. The fire damaged the business district of the town, but, rather than give up, the community rebuilt itself. The fire made clear the need for regulations preventing another fire. The local government enacted laws that would permit only certain building materials for building construction. After the fire, Deadwood rebuilt itself in brick and stone rather than in lumber.