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The Birth of Deadwood
The early modern history of the Black Hills is largely the history of Deadwood. The town was effectively born of the gold rush of 1874-6.
The "sooners" were among the first to learn of gold in the Hills. Scientific expeditions, such as the Jenny campaign, confirmed the presence of the yellow metal, above and beyond the flush of speculation. Sooners, succumbing to the temptation of gold, squatted illegally in the Hills area before being forcibly removed by the authorities. The U.S. army and cavalry, however, found it increasingly difficult to keep prospectors out when regional newspaper editors like Charlie Collins of the Sioux City Times promoted the rush through rich depictions of possibilities in the Hills. Collins himself helped organize an expedition of sooners.
The U.S. government resolved upon another round of cession of land from American Indians, without, however, achieving a voluntary surrender. Washington initially attempted to uphold treaty obligations, thus postponing settlement of the region. The governments efforts failed, however, due to the onrush of hundreds of prospectors.
These prospectors became known as "argonauts," a term also tagged to California "49ers" during their own gold rush. The Dakota rush winded northward, eventually hitting Deadwood Gulch, where John B. Pearson is credited with finding the first "placer diggings." Tents and shanties in the mining camps sprouted up, serviced by entrepreneurs and opportunists. Rapid City began as a gateway to Deadwood, and, indeed, the parent companies for many "Hay Camp" (Rapid) enterprises were located in Deadwood.
While the populace's ethics might have been flawed, much of the disorder was probably explained by the excitement amid the physical discomfort. Generally speaking, wide-open atmosphere of early Western settlements helped spawn lawbreakers. There was a widespread perception that the law was crooked, twisted by and for the benefit of the rich. Outlaws who claimed they had been driven into crime by unjust men or bad luck received considerable sympathy from the press. The many threats to body and soul produced a vigilante justice. Those charged with enforcing the law were not always dependable. The early population was overwhelmingly male, producing a fertile field for prostitution. The houses of ill-repute were well known throughout the area, and were considered legitimate businesses. Deadwood's early establishments were combination saloon-gambling outfits, with the gambling in the rear.
Few men turned back once their hearts had been set on gold. Those who returned to the East were replaced. Railroads such as the Deadwood Central gained from the rush by shipping supplies to mining areas. Telegraph lines were soon established. Notably, one of the first United States senators from South Dakota, Gideon C. Moody, a lawyer and migrant from New York, was a Deadwood resident.
A million dollars of gold at $20 an ounce were produced in June and July of 1876. The Homestake produced more than $100 million in gold between 1877 and 1901. The hundreds of Chinese railroad workers who went through "tailings" left by the less-careful miners usually did quite well. These workers had "josh houses," referring to the incense burned at Chinese temples, and maintained a rudimentary culture on the outskirts of Deadwood. Although instrumental in constructing railroads, the Chinese usually remained in the area only briefly as a result of local prejudices and their own success. Indian tribes were disturbed by migrations across reservations, but the cumulative effect of sporadic Indians raids on the area was small though unnerving.
While most prospectors went unremembered, the names of a few Deadwood personalities have survived. Moses and Fred Manuels' arrival in Deadwood was perhaps most significant. The brothers, along with Hank Harvey, found the lode which evolved into the Homestake Mine, a huge continuing outfit. The now-famous Hearst family managed Homestake for a time.
Deadwood history contains a thousand dramas. For example, Actor, scout, lawman and gambler "Wild Bill" Hickok arrived in Deadwood after a term as marshall in Abilene, Kansas, a cow town that functioned as a stopping point on the way to Texas from the cattle markets of Chicago. Hickok, a crack-shot, had been dismissed from his Abilene job for over-enthusiasm. Jack "Broken Nose" McCall, seeking revenge for the slaying of his brother in Abilene, caught Hickok in a saloon with his back to the door during a card game holding a hand now known as the "dead man's hand." McCall shot Hickok in the head. Soon afterward, McCall was hanged in Yankton, and Hickok, along with many other past and future notables, was buried at Mount Moriah cemetery.
Edward Wheeler's Deadwood Dick novel series helped to popularize the town. Present-day Deadwood is a thriving gaming town and a popular touring location, with a varied and colorful history that continues to attract visitors.
Information taken from Story of the Great American West, Reader's Digest; Those Good Old Days in the Black Hills, by George Moses.