Deadwood, South Dakota

Deadwood Marshall Badge

Wild Bill Hickcock, Calamity Jane and many other colorful characters walked the (often) lawless streets of Deadwood, South Dakota in its early days.

Deadwood was located in a canyon called Deadwood Gulch for the many dead trees along the canyon walls that towered above it. The saga of lawless Deadwood began, appropriately enough, with an illegal settlement inside territory that had been promised by treaty to Native Americans. But once word got out in 1874 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, and the population of Deadwood exploded practically overnight.  By 1876, a million dollars in gold had been mined from the surrounding Black Hills.

During that same year, Deadwood would gain its two most famous citizens–James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickcock, and Martha “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 Navy Colt revolvers conspicuously mounted in butt-forward holsters, was already legendary for his skill with a pistol.  General George Custer, among others, said that Hickock was the fastest draw and best shot he’d ever seen. It was said that he could draw and fire and, without ever appearing to aim, unerringly hitting what he aimed at, and do it faster than most men could even think about doing so. Part of his reputation was likely exaggeration, given the technical limitations of the revolvers of that day, but there has been ample testimony from numerous witnesses that he was both quick and deadly with a gun.

Hickock was betrayed by his own lightening reflexes and failing eyesight in 1871. While facing down a crowd of drunken cowboys on the main street in Abilene, Kansas, he caught sight of a figure running toward him from a side street. He drew and fired two shots in the direction of the motion, and fatally wounded Deputy Marshal Mike Williams, who had run toward the confrontation to come to his aid. Hickock was fired from his job as Marshal in Abilene two months later, and never worked as a lawman again.

Deadwood Scene

In 1876, 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 he was nearly blind from an eye disease similar to Glaucoma.

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 Jane Cannary–”Calamity Jane”–also came to be well known in Deadwood for her keen marksmanship, her propensity for dressing in men’s clothes, her boundless appetite for hard liquor, ability to tell outrageous lies and her extremely colorful “muleskinner’s” vocabulary. She had been, by turns, a teamster, nurse, cook, prostitute, prolific drinker and an Army scout. She was also greatly enamoured of Wild Bill. When she died in 1903 of pneumonia brought on by heavy drinking, she was buried beside him at her request.  They were buried on a hill overlooking Deadwood in Mount Moriah Cemetery.   Modern visitors to their graves leave empty whisky bottles as a tribute to the hard-drinking pair.

As for the lesser known citizens of the town, most of the miners were peaceable enough, but like most frontier mining camps, Deadwood 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, a former 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.  In 1889, the population of Dakota Territory–swelled by incom ing 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 had been named Superintendant of the Black Hills Forest Preserve. He was a personal friend of Teddy Roosevelt, having ridden with the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War. In 1905 Bullock was appointed U.S. Marshal for the state of  South Dakota.

Firearm Type: Single-Action Revolver
Nation Of Manufacture: USA
Military Service Dates : 1873-1892
Variations: Winchester Cartridge Variations, .38-40, Frontier
Ammunition: .45 Colt
Wars:  Indian Wars, Spanish-American War
Recent Prices at Auction for Originals: US $200-$6,000+ (Varies Wildly)

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