Western Life

History of Deadwood, South Dakota

During the ‘Black Hill Gold Rush’ in South Dakota, which started in 1874 and ended in 1877, miner John B. Pearson discovered Deadwood. There was a canyon within the Northern Black Hills where he found gold, and it became known as Deadwood Gulch due to the army of dead trees found there. Everyone started calling it Deadwood and now more than 125 years later there is a population of almost 1400 people residing there. The place has a rich history filled with lawlessness and violence, which is surprising, considering that now it serves as a county seat for Lawrence County. Let’s explore more about Deadwood and its association with the Wild Wild West.

Old Is Gold

Image: Alarax / Shutterstock.com

At the time when it was discovered, Deadwood became a site for miners to mine gold. Due to the lawlessness of that region, many shady and rough characters appeared in Deadwood, making its early days quite wild. Since the population consisted of mostly males at that time, many gambling establishments, dance halls, brothels and saloons established there which turned into legitimate and well known businesses.


Deadwood slowly developed from a mining camp to a full blown community where people started to live in brick and wood buildings. A town government was organized by the community and Seth Bullock became the sheriff who had to maintain law and order in the county. However, attempts to convert former mining camp Deadwood into a civilly run county almost failed. In 1879, on September 26th, a fire broke out on Sherman Street at a bakery and almost wiped out the whole business district of Deadwood. However, the community did not give up and rebuilt the district right back up, this time using stone and brick rather than cumbersome lumber.

Prominent Figures

Nearing the 1900s, Deadwood did convert itself into a flourishing commercial district. However, the certain image of this Wild West town has been forever tarnished due to the people and events that took place there. Many urban legends surround the town due to figures such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok who left a prominent mark.

A gold mining town that has established its own laws was bound to attract gold seekers, gamblers, outlaws and gunslingers. That is why Wild Bill Hickok came to Deadwood in the first place – to gain a fortune. Within a couple of weeks, Hickok was shot in the head while he was playing poker, which is where the popular term ‘Dead Man’s Hand,’ emerged.

Image: Paul R. Jones / Shutterstock.com

Calamity Jane was also a popular figure in Deadwood’s history, and her grave can be found next to Hickok’s in Mount Moriah Cemetery.

Deadwood Isn’t Dead After All

Even though it went through a lot of economically trying times and witnessed three fires, Deadwood is one Wild West Town that didn’t end up becoming a ghost town. After gambling was legalized in 1989, Deadwood begun to flourish once more. Either way, the historic relevance it has linking back to the old Wild West times, is enough to keep Deadwood lively.

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