Deadwood, South Dakota: Truth and Legend

Updated on September 17, 2019
Gerry Glenn Jones profile image

Gerry Glenn Jones is a writer of fiction and nonfiction, as well as scripts for theatre and film. This is a factual account.

A photograph of Deadwood in 1876. General view of the Dakota Territory gold rush town from a hillside above.
A photograph of Deadwood in 1876. General view of the Dakota Territory gold rush town from a hillside above. | Source

Welcome to Deadwood, South Dakota

Deadwood is a famous western town in South Dakota that gained notoriety for several reasons. It was founded after gold was discovered in 1874 in the Black Hills. The town quickly grew to an unofficial population of 5,000, but Deadwood's birth as a town and outpost was, in fact, illegal: the land had been granted to American Indians in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.

Some people think they know everything there is to know about Deadwood's intriguing history and its celebrated citizens, as I did. But after I began researching and writing this article, I realized my knowledge didn't even scratch the surface of the true Deadwood. With that in mind, I added a little history quiz throughout this article that includes true facts about the town and its people. If you like history quizzes, take the following multiple-choice test as you read the article to find out what you really know.

Gold Is Discovered in the Black Hills

The discovery of gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota was actually made in 1874 by calvary men under the command of Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer. Even though the Treaty of Fort Laramie had stipulated that this area of land belonged to American Indians, Custer was determined to explore the area.

Gold and "Deadwood Gulch"

In 1875, a man named John B. Pearson discovered gold in a gulch in the Black Hills. The gulch was lined with dead trees, and the name "Deadwood" was born. The town, which is 4,533 feet above sea level, is the county seat of Lawrence County, South Dakota. On Sept. 26, 1879, a fire severely damaged the business section of the town, but it soon bounced back–this time, with buildings built of brick and stone rather than lumber.

The Women of Deadwood

As Deadwood began to be populated with an influx of miners, it was inevitable that women would follow. Eventually, they did, but not soon enough, for in the late 1870s there were 200 men for every woman. One woman that arrived early (and later became a "Pony Express" rider) was Martha Jane Cannary Burke, better known to us today as "Calamity Jane." She was very brave. This couldn't be more apparent than when she helped nurse the sick during a smallpox epidemic that struck the Black Hills in 1878.

It has been said that Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok were lovers, but no one has been able to verify that. She is, however, buried next to him.

 Calamity Jane with gun.
Calamity Jane with gun. | Source

Wild Bill Hickok and the Infamous Hand of Cards

Deadwood had already attained a lawless reputation when Wild Bill Hickok arrived there in 1876 to gamble. As he sat at a table, playing poker in one of the town's saloons, he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall, who said he did so to avenge his brother's death. He claimed that Hickok had killed his sibling.

Wild Bill Hickok.
Wild Bill Hickok. | Source

Because Deadwood had no law in place at the time, a group of miners held a trial in the McDaniel’s Theatre where McCall was found innocent then quickly skipped town. His trial was later determined to be illegal and he was re-tried in Yankton, the capital of Dakota Territory, where he was found guilty and hanged in 1877.

Grave of Wild Bill Hickok.
Grave of Wild Bill Hickok. | Source

A Well-Known Outlaw Sets up Residency in Deadwood

Another well-known outlaw set up residency in Deadwood against his will. Harry Alonzo Longabaugh, better known to all as the "Sundance Kid," was arrested for a robbery that took place in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, and spent several weeks in the Deadwood jail before escaping.

Henry 'Sundance Kid' Longabaugh, one of the "Wild Bunch."
Henry 'Sundance Kid' Longabaugh, one of the "Wild Bunch." | Source

Deadwood Is Finally Tamed

We have talked enough about outlaws. Let's give the good guys a shout-out.

Seth Bullock, who was a storekeeper from Canada, arrived in Deadwood in 1876 and after a while saw the need for law enforcement there. He was appointed the first sheriff of the newly formed Lawrence County by Governor Pennington. In addition, he was also the sheriff of the provisional government in what is now known as South Dakota. It is said that during his law enforcement career, he never killed a man, but he was very instrumental in bringing law and order to the region.

Wyatt Earp was cutting firewood around Deadwood in the winter of 1876 and 1877 and selling it to the citizens there. When he offered to help Bullock with the unruly town, Bullock told him he didn't need him, and evidently, he didn't.

Seth Bullock in 1893.
Seth Bullock in 1893. | Source
Deadwood, South Dakota today.
Deadwood, South Dakota today. | Source

Now that we've traveled to Deadwood, South Dakota and met some bad men and some good men (a woman too), we have become more attuned to the way life was in the early days of Deadwood. But life still goes on there, and so does crime. It's a constant that never goes away, no matter where you are on this Earth. We are always in need of a man or woman like Seth Bullock to keep good and bad on an even keel.

Be sure and watch the very interesting video in this article, which is presented by South Dakota Public Television.

Deadwood Pioneer: A Face From The Past

Questions & Answers

  • Is Al Swearengen a real or fictional character from the Gem hotel circa 1876?

    Yes, he was real.

  • What was the hand Wild Bill had when shot?

    According to some historians, the "Dead Man's" hand consisted of two-pair of black aces, black eights, and an unknown hold card.

© 2018 Gerry Glenn Jones


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    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      19 months ago from Sunny Florida

      I really enjoyed this article. It is so interesting, and the video added to my knowledge about Deadwood. I would like to visit there. I failed many of the quiz questions, but I did get a few right. Very good article!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      19 months ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Gerry,

      This is a fascinating article about Deadwood, South Dakota as well as some of the famous people who who lived and died there. I like how you did a quiz first and then answered each question. That cemetery must be a very interesting one to visit!

    • Gerry Glenn Jones profile imageAUTHOR

      Gerry Glenn Jones 

      19 months ago from Somerville, Tennessee

      Let me know how you did on the quiz?


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