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Deadwood, located in a canyon called Deadwood Gulch for the many dead trees along the canyon walls that towered above it, exploded into a boomtown after gold was discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory in 1874. Once word got out that gold had been discovered in the Black Hills, the army was unable to stem the tide of would-be miners pouring into the Territory.
The saga of lawless Deadwood began, appropriately enough, with an illegal settlement inside territory that had been ceded by treaty to Native Americans. The influx of white settlers and miners flagrantly violated those treaties with the Lakota Sioux and other tribes who considered the Black Hills sacred, and made future trouble with the tribes inevitable. Regardless, the town's population exploded practically overnight, and by 1876, a million dollars in gold had been mined from the surrounding Black Hills.
During that same year, Deadwood would gain two of of its best-known citizens--James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickcock, and "Calamity Jane" Cannary. They, along with many other colorful characters walked the (often) lawless streets of Deadwood in its early days.
Hickock, a flamboyant character who carried two ivory-handled Colt Navy revolvers conspicuously mounted in butt-forward holsters for cross-handed drawing, was already legendary for his skill with said Colt pistols. General George Custer, among others, said that Hickock was the fastest draw and best shot he'd ever seen. It was often said that Hickock could draw and fire--unerringly hitting what he aimed at--faster than most men could even think about doing so. At least part of his reputation was likely hyperbole, given the technical limitations of the revolvers of the day, but there has been ample testimony from numerous witnesses that he was both quick and deadly with a gun.
Hickock had been fired as marshal of Abilene, Kansas after an unfortunate incident in which he accidentally shot one of his own deputies. Hickock was single-handedly standing off a mob of 50 or so drunken cowboys--a feat made possible by the intimidation factor of his fearsome reputation as a gunman. The deputy came running to his aid, but Hickock--whose eyesight was likely already deteriorating--only saw an armed figured running at him. Drawing and firing with his usual deadly speed, he fatally wounded the unfortunate deputy.
Hickock took a job--along with Calamity Jane--as an outrider on a wagon train bearing a fresh shipment of prostitutes bound for Deadwood. Upon arriving, he settled in to pursue his hobby of drinking and playing poker. Rumors were circulating that he was being considered for the job of town marshal, though this is doubtful, since by the time of his arrival in Deadwood, Hickock was nearly blind from the eye disease that had caused his sight to steadily diminish. Just a month after his arrival in Deadwood--on August 2, 1876--Wild Bill, finding other chairs already taken, unwisely took a seat in a poker game with his back to the door. It was a fatal mistake. He was shot in the back of the head by Jack "Broken Nose" McCall, who would eventually hang for the murder.
Martha "Calamity Jane" Cannary also came to be well known in Deadwood for her keen marksmanship, her propensity for dressing in men's clothes, her voracious appetite for hard liquor, her ability to tell outrageous lies, and a colorful vocabulary that would put any muleskinner to shame. She had been, by turns, a nurse, cook, prostitute, gambler, prolific drinker and an Army scout. She was also enamoured of Wild Bill. When she died in 1903 of pneumonia brought on by heavy drinking, she was buried beside him by her own request, in Mount Moriah Cemetery on a hill overlooking the town. Visitors to the cemetery today often leave whiskey bottles near the two graves, as a way of paying tribute to the pair.
Most of the miners were peaceable enough, but like most frontier mining camps, this one attracted its share of shady characters, soiled doves and saloons--a volatile combination that was sure to trigger violence. The fledgling town averaged at least a murder a day in its first year. But the richest gold strike in the Black Hills had been found in Deadwood Gulch, so the town continued to grow at a furious pace, despite its unsavory reputation.
By 1877, Deadwood was quickly changing from a lawless mining camp to an organized community. Tents and shanties gave way to wooden buildings. The town elected a government, including a sheriff--Seth Bullock, the hardware merchant--to enforce the law and keep order. After a fire came close to destroying the downtown business district in 1879, an ordinance was passed decreeing that buildings had to be built of brick and stone. By 1889, the population of Dakota Territory--swelled by incoming settlers--was large enough for statehood, and the territory was admitted to the Union as the states of North and South Dakota.
By the early 1900s, Seth Bullock was Superintendant of the Black Hills Forest Preserve and a personal friend of Teddy Roosevelt, having ridden with his Rough Riders in the Spanish American War. In 1905 Bullock was appointed U.S. Marshal for South Dakota.
Wild Bill Hickcock, Calamity Jane and many other colorful characters walked the (often) lawless streets of Deadwood, South Dakota in its early days.
Deadwood, South Dakota
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