In 1868, some remote and apparently useless land was ceded to the Lakota Indian tribe in perpetuity by the U.S. Government in the Treaty of Laramie, and no “foreign” settlements were permitted under the treaty’s terms. This wild and mountainous territory was unsuitable for farming or ranching, and the Oregon Trail used by emigrants lay far to the south. So for some years, the Lakota roamed the Black Hills as they had for generations, hunting and fishing and following the trails set by the course of nature. They believed that the spirits that guided their destiny resided in certain natural landmarks, and that therefore those places were sacred and untouchable. Other tribes were allowed access to the Black Hills, and for the most part, peace reigned.
Then in 1874 Col. George Armstrong Custer led a military expedition into the Black Hills and returned to civilization to announce the discovery of gold on French Creek. Within weeks, a horde of gold-seekers descended on what had been a quiet gully in the heart of the Hills, and the town of Deadwood was born. Lawless, bawdy, corrupt, and illegally settled, Deadwood became the mythic capital of the Wild West, home to gunslingers, gamblers, and prostitutes, as well as to the businesses that supplied the prospectors.
Wild Bill Hickock was shot to death in a Deadwood saloon and is buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery overlooking the town. Calamity Jane, pursuant to her deathbed request, is buried next to her old friend, Wild Bill. Deadwood today still wears the tattered remains of its former finery, with sawdust-floored saloons, proud Victorian buildings, and kitschy architecture.
Driving through the Black Hills National Forest on the way to Deadwood, we passed through some of the most beautiful country we’ve ever seen. A gracefully winding highway followed the dry bed of a stream that in the winter can become a raging river, flanked by towering hills carpeted in lush evergreen trees. The air was cool and silent, except for occasional bird calls.
It’s not hard to understand why the Lakota resisted the incursion of the white men into their sacred territory, especially since that incursion was made solely for those white men’s financial gain and with no thought of the consequences to the land. Often during our drive west, we had this same sense of empathy with the Native Americans who were displaced from the land they loved and respected and were forcibly removed to reservations for the convenience of the U.S. Government and its most powerful citizens.
Deadwood has often been the setting for tales of the Wild West, most recently the HBO mini-series Deadwood, starring Timothy Olyphant and Ian McShane. The movie Dances with Wolves was filmed mostly in the Black Hills, and its star Kevin Costner built and still owns the Midnight Star, a successful casino and restaurant on Main Street.
That street is dotted with ice cream parlors, casinos, restaurants, and shops selling souvenirs capitalizing on the historical notoriety of Deadwood. Every day there is a re-enactment of the shooting of Wild Bill Hickock in Saloon #10, reputedly the site of the original gunfight, where walls display photographs of many of the early residents of the town, along with the “Dead Man’s Hand” (aces and eights) held by Wild Bill when he was shot and killed. No one can accuse Deadwood of displaying excessive good taste, but it gives you the chance to remember playing cowboys and Indians in a town where it all actually happened.
For more photos of Deadwood, click here.