Rough & Tumble Deadwood, South Dakota

In the spring of 1876, U.S. Army troops were assembled to round up all hostiles and return them to their reservations by force, if necessary. In response, Hunkpapa Sioux leader and medicine man Sitting Bull summoned 10 tribes of the Sioux, plus the Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne, to his camp in Montana Territory to discuss their options. By this time, the gold rush was full blown and it was estimated that approximately 10,000 white settlers populated the Black Hills. Mining camps were established near Custer, Hill City, and Deadwood. As old claims played out, new ones were found and towns died or were born almost overnight.

Homestake Mine, South Dakota

Homestake Mine, South Dakota 1889. Click for prints, downloads and products.

The town of Deadwood was established in 1876 and the mining camp 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’s 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.

On June 25, 1876, in the valley of the Little Bighorn River, Sitting Bull and his 4,000 warriors were encamped when Custer and his troops came upon them. In an infamous decision, Custer elected to divide his command and mount an attack. Hopelessly outnumbered, Custer and his entire force of more than 200 soldiers were killed in less than twenty minutes. Congress reacted quickly and began punishing even the peaceful Sioux. Rations of food and clothing were cut dramatically and eventually, a new treaty was exacted which ceded tribal land in the Black Hills to the federal government.

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

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

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, fresh 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 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.

To settlers coming to South Dakota in the 1880s, the atmosphere was electric with prosperity and promise. New lands opened up to homesteaders, gold was harvested from the Black Hills, riverboats ran the rivers, and railroad tracks were laid to new town sites.

By 1889, the population of South Dakota was large enough to warrant statehood and on November 2, 1889, the Dakota Territory became the states of North and South Dakota.

Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull

On December 15, 1890, Sitting Bull was accidentally killed by tribal police and special agents as he attempted to leave the Standing Rock Reservation in north-central South Dakota. Big Foot, the hereditary chief of the Minniconjou Sioux of the Cheyenne Reservation, decided to move his band to the Pine Ridge Reservation to join Sioux Chief Red Cloud. As they neared Wounded Knee Creek, after an exhausting 150-mile journey, Big Foot and his weary band of 350 men, women and children were confronted by soldiers of the Seventh Cavalry.

That night when the band of Sioux prepared to camp near Wounded Knee Creek, the Army provided the ailing Big Foot with a heated tent.

The following morning, on December 29, 1890, the federal troops attempted to disarm the warriors. In the confusion, a shot rang out and troops began firing indiscriminately.

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