One of Deadwood’s most colorful characters, John Perrett, more often referred to as “Potato Creek Johnny,” is credited with finding one of the world’s largest gold nuggets. Though many say the nugget was actually several nuggets melted together, the tale persists, along with stories of Perrett’s other eccentricities.
Hailing from across the pond in Wales, Perrett immigrated to the United States in 1883 when he was just 17 and before long had made his way to Deadwood, South Dakota to seek his fortune.
The impish, just over four-foot man, first worked a variety of odd jobs when he came to the area. However, by the time he reached 25, he decided to set out on his own in order to find gold. Though by this time, most of the gold was being hauled out of the hills by large mining companies, Perrett was not deterred and soon headed out with his gold pan. Also using sluice boxes, he was determined to find yet another mother lode in the streams around the Northern Hills.
Working a claim on Potato Creek, an offshoot of Spearfish Creek, Perrett let his hair and beard grow so long that he had the appearance of the “typical” prospector and soon earned the moniker “Potato Creek Johnny.”
But hitting “paydirt” would take him years. In the meantime, he married a woman named Molly Hamilton of Belle Fourche on March 13, 1907, but the marriage was rocky from the start. However, the two remained married for almost twenty years before divorcing in 1928.
The very next year Johnny made history when he allegedly found the large gold nugget. Though almost immediately, locals said that the nugget was actually a melted mass of gold that Perrett had stolen from a neighboring miner, the nugget, if not bringing Perrett riches, at least brought him fame. The claim of it being a stolen melted mass has never been substantiated.
Perrett sold the leg-shaped nugget, weighing in at 7 ¾ troy ounces, to W.E. Adams for $250, who then turned around and put it on display at the Adams Museum. Immediately, not only did the gold nugget become a tourist attraction but so did Potato Creek Johnny himself, as Deadwood visitors wanted to hear his stories.
As visitors came to his cabin in the 1930s and early 1940s, Johnny would entertain them with prospecting tales and stories of Deadwood while they watched him pan for gold. When asked about the nugget, he would often reply, “I have been looking for the rest of the leg ever since”. Perrett also was involved in several community activities and often took part in the local parades.
Potato Creek Johnny continued to “promote” Deadwood until the day he died at the age of 77 in February 1943.
John Perrett was buried at the Mt. Moriah Cemetery alongside such characters as Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, and Seth Bullock. As the funeral procession passed by the Adams Museum, its carillon chimes tolled 77 times.
Today, Potato Creek Johnny’s story and photos, as well as a replica of the original nugget, can be seen at the Adams Museum in Deadwood, South Dakota. The original nugget is stored in a safe deposit box at the bank.
© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated April 2018.
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