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Gold, Guns & Guts...

DEADWOOD, South Dakota



Gary B. Speck



Deadwood is located at north end of Black Hills. It is on US 85,12 miles southwest of Sturgis, or ten miles south of I-90 at EXIT 17, at a point seven miles east of Spearfish.


Deadwood is ranked up there in Ghost Town annals with Virginia City, Nevada, and Tombstone, Arizona. The ghosts don't have a lot of room as a 1990 population of 1830 verifies. Even so, compared to 25,000 during its boom years, things have quieted a lot. Never-the-less, Deadwood is still a very historic old mining town that played host to the best and worst the Old West could offer, and it is very appropriate that we honor this one-time mining city. Present Deadwood is a touristy stop, and is a full service small community full of historic old buildings and sites, and they also have an active Chamber of Commerce/ Visitor Bureau.


The Black Hills gold rush originally began in late July 1874, when the 7th Cavalry under the command Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer searched the Black Hills area for a location to establish an army post. They were also trying to see if gold was present in the area, as rumors of rich gold deposits had circulated for many years. On French Creek (near the present town of Custer), two of Custer's soldiers, Horatio N. Ross and William McCay panned for and found gold. Word leaked out about their finds. Even though the land was set aside as a homeland for the local Sioux Indian tribes, and was "protected by the government" by the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty, miners still snuck in. A group of 28 people from Sioux City, Iowa headed by John Gordon staked out claims and set up a winter stockade (in what is today's Custer State Park), but in the spring of 1875, they were given a military escort out of the hills to Cheyenne, Wyoming.


This created such a furor with the Sioux, a war developed between them and the white intruders. As more miners arrived, more soldiers came to the region to protect them, and the warring parties saw more casualties. It all came to a head in July 1876, when the largest battle of the campaign was fought, and Custer and his command were wiped out at the Battle of the Little Big Horn to the west in Montana. This infuriated the American public, and a campaign to wipe out the Indians began.


Within a year the Sioux were demoralized and weakened so bad that the Americans controlled their ancient lands in the Black Hills.


Back on Deadwood Creek, 25,000 miners had arrived in Deadwood Gulch, and the City of Deadwood was booming. Due to rapid growth, crowded conditions and slap-dash methods of construction, fire swept through the wooden city in 1879. A few years later, in 1883 a flood washed through the gulch taking out more of the town. The citizens banded together and rebuilt each time with better materials and larger buildings. Today the streets are lined with 1-3 story brick buildings dating back to the glory days of the 1880s and 1890s after the baptism of fire and flood.


Due to its extreme isolation, the worst elements of the West arrived, and Deadwood City rapidly grew into one of the wildest, wickedest mining towns in the West. Some of the more famous personalities that passed through included James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok and Martha Jane "Calamity Jane" Canary. Hickok arrived in the summer of 1876 after a tenure as town marshal in Kansas from 1869-1872 in both Hays City and Abilene. He also spent a year touring with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1872-1873. He had recently married Agnes Lake (11 years older than him), and hadn't been in town more than a few weeks when he was playing poker in Saloon #10 and was shot in the back of the head by a man named Jack McCall. That building was a victim of the 1879 fire, and today its replica stands on Main Street.


Calamity Jane arrived during the peak of the gold rush, and her actual occupation is not really known. She could drink, ride, shoot and cuss with the best of them, and is said to have had a "liaison" with Wild Bill Hickok. The two of them are buried side-by-side in the Mt. Moriah cemetery. Calamity's marker gives her last name as Burke, so it appears she married sometime before her death in 1903.


In 1961 the downtown core of the fading town was declared a National Historic Landmark, and any new construction must match and blend in with the old. In 1989 gambling was legalized in Deadwood, which gave the badly faded mining town a much-needed boost. By 1991 over 80 locations offered gaming. Although gaming predominates the town's economy, the town looks more like an Old West boomtown than Las Vegas, due to a lack of glitter and neon. The tourists come, and Deadwood is again booming, although on a quieter scale. Nearby Lead is home to the fabulous Homestake Mine, America's largest underground gold mine. It is still active, and still dominates the economy of Lead. Tours are available ($), and are well worth the price.


This was our GHOST TOWN OF THE MONTH for October 1998.


This is one of the towns featured in my newest book, GHOST TOWNS: Yesterday & TodayTM.





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FIRST POSTED: October 01, 1998

LAST UPDATED: March 20, 2005




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