Pioneer Days in the Black Hills by John S. McClintock
The Wild West the Way It Really Was -- Or Was It?
As a baby boomer who grew up watching television in the 1950s, much of my viewing was westerns. Back then, I gave little thought to the content. Some were more enjoyable than others; some were violent; some were comical and some just were a story to occupy my time. As I grew older, if I gave them any thought at all, I thought of them as fictionalized accounts based on a handful of facts, true or not.
I just finished John S. McClintock's account of life in the Black Hills of South Dakota and was stunned by how much of the drama that was portrayed in early television programs was not far from reality. McClintock's chronicle of events is as accurate an account as anyone would be apt to find.
Here we find the pioneers who sold everything they owned to travel to the Black Hills in search of gold or opportunity. Some were newly arrived immigrants and others were civil war veterans and survivors who had lost everything or had nothing to come home to. Others were just thrill seekers or fortune hunters. Some were successful, other were not. The drama surrounding the gold mining is what one would expect. Some lost everything and turned to crime to support themselves. There is the a fair share of cattle rustling and horse stealing. Some made strikes and took their gold into the town of Deadwood, where they drank or gambled it away. Worse, many were swindled out of it or killed over it.
In a town where there was initially no formal law enforcement, the gun fights of the television westerns are a reality. People taking the law into their own hands to punish the guilty by hanging or shooting is not uncommon.
There are the conflicts between the white settlers and the Native Americans with atrocities and misdeeds on both sides.
We see the reality of stage coach rides, wagon trains and pony express.
Let's Examine The Author, John S. McClintock and His Credibility
John McClintock was born in 1847 in Missouri and came to Deadwood in 1876. Even in the autobiographical foreword of the book he doesn't go into detail about his early years and education. Doing the math on his date of birth and when he traveled to the Black Hills, it doesn't seem possible he could had an extensive formal education. There is little biographical information on John McClintock that I could find in any other source. Yet, his writing skills seem excellent. His extensive vocabulary and effective story telling are amazing.
He is one of the survivors of this rough and tumble hard existence. He started out as a placer miner and went on to have real estate holdings and operate a livery stable. He also operated a stage coach line. John McClintock lived to publish this book at the age of 92. He was as sharp as ever and credited with a "remarkable memory". This is more than believable by the precise dates throughout the book.
Much of the book is also based on articles he previously wrote and the many notes and chronicles he had. His attention to detail leads to the reader to believe that every word is the true unvarnished fact, brilliantly recalled. This is a wonderful first hand account.
Chapter After Chapter of Colorful Characters
Take a look at what really happened to Wild Bill Hickok who was assassinated in Deadwood. The event is detailed in McClintock's book. Calamity Jane was a real person and associated with Wild Bill. Maybe some of the heroic attributes we assign to these people from rumor are not so well deserved. Are they good guys or bad guys? Read the accounts that McClintock presents and you be the judge.
There is a discussion of "Deadwood Dick" and also an incident with Billy the Kid.
Today the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota is a tourist attraction due to its "celebrity graves" including Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. But after reading Pioneer Days you will find the colorful and sometimes truly tragic back story of how many of Mount Moriah's residents got there. Many of these people were previously unknown to me, but their biographies are fascinating.
Life Was Incredibly Harsh
There are obvious realities of what it would be like to live in an largely unpopulated and lawless town, but after reading Pioneer Days in the Black Hills, so much more comes to light that the modern reader has probably never thought of.
What is even more eye opening is how the pioneers dealt with an overcame adversity. They used extreme ingenuity in the ways they built dwellings, gold mining equipment and survived.
Food was not always easy to come by. The cattle drives that we see in Westerns are the way fresh meat was brought across the county to remote areas without farms. In the case of a remote area, such as Deadwood, it's a necessity. Yes, they could hope for a successful hunt of wildlife, but they are competing with each other and the Native Americans for those food sources.
Not only are characters given vivid biographies throughout the book, but the last chapter sums up the individuals in dedicated chapters. If ones knows there ancestors lived in Deadwood or that area of South Dakota, it might be possible to trace information.
Each dedicated chapter gives the name of the individual some with birth dates or date or arrival in Deadwood and where they arrived from or place of birth. Then the chapter goes on to explain their significance and role in the early years in Deadwood. Some show the name and maiden name of the women before they married. This book written in 1939 also lists the surviving descendants and their place of residence at the time of the writing.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
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© 2019 Ellen Gregory