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Friday, 21 November 2008


The town of Deadwood was determined to thrive from the start, despite the fact that initially it had no legal standing, being situated in the Black Hills which was protected for the Indians by treaty.

The growth of the town was rapid. Check out the first three pictures.

The first is from 1876 and the second is just twelve years later. Whilst the third is the historic town as viewed today.

Deadwood, a wild cesspit of smallpox,whores,violence,treachery,cussing,murder - and that's not from the TV show or the series of novels by Mike (James Reasoner) Jameson.

No, that's very much from the reality of the situation - Tombstone may have been the town too tough to die, but Deadwood was the town with its foundations in hell.

Deadwood came about after George Armstrong Custer and a band of cavalrymen discovered traces of gold in the hills. Custer encouraged exploration of the area even though it was part of the Sioux reservation and out of bounds to white men. The government could do little to stop the rapid influx and by 1877 some 20,000 gold hungry men had made the trip to Deadwood Gulch.

The place got its name after a wild fire burnt a lot of the trees in the area leaving a landscape of charred, twisted, limbs. In its earliest days it was little more than a rough mining camp - because it was on Indian ground no law existed. The towns residents would let off steam in the many brothels and saloons that sprung up on seemingly every vacant spot of land.

Wild Bill Hickok was killed here in the No. 10 Saloon - shot in the head, while playing cards. His hand, Aces over Eights, will forever be known as, "Deadman's Hand". The event took place on August 2nd 1876 when Jack McCall shot the gambler and gunfighter in the back of the head.

Hickock was buried at Ingleside Cemetery but he was later moved to Mount Moriah which is where he rests today.

In the TV show Seth Bullock is a good friend to the gunfighter but in reality Bullock, a Canadian from Ontario, didn't arrive in the town until August 1st, a day before the gunfighter died. Bullock didn't know Hickock but he would later become a confident of Theodore Roosevelt.

Bullock arrived in town with his long time friend and business partner, Sol Star ( the pair are pictured on left) - it had been an arduous wagon ride to get to Deadwood but the pair immediately set about setting up a business. They peddled pans, pots, cigars and chamber pots from a premises they constructed at the corner of Main Street and Wall Street.

Less than a month after arriving in town Bullock had become de-facto sheriff and then when Lawrance County was formed in 1877 Bullock became its first sherrif appointed by Governor John Pennington.

Martha Jane Cannery, also known as Calamity Jane was also a prominent figure in early Deadwood. She settled in Deadwood in 1876 and at various points claimed to have married Wild Bill Hickock but this was later disproved. She would nurse many people suffering from smallpox in the town and became an important and much loved figure even if she had often served as a prostitute from time to time in many of the town's brothels. In her later years she travelled with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Circus and when she died she was buried alongside Wild Bill in the Mount Moriah Cemetery.

In April 1877 Ellis Alfred Swearengen opened his Gem Theatre in the town. Swearengen enlisted young women to work as dancers but soon forced them into a life of prostitution. Women who worked for him were routinely beaten if they got out of hand. He turned them all into Laudanum so that he would have an hold over them.

The Gem was a massive success and claimed to gross over $5,000 a night during those early years. Swearengen was arrested by Sheriff Bullock many times for assualt, disturbing the peace and non payment of taxes. In 1878 the sheriff had the Gem closed an auctioned to pay off debts. But no one had the guts to bid and so Swearengen kept the place and continued trading.

There is no clear photograph of Swearengen but it is thought that the man in the stage at the far left of the Gem in the photograph below is him.

All the wildness seen on the TV and in the books was there in the real Deadwood and then some....


Charles Gramlich said...

Deadwood is one of those names that is always evocative to me. And I always imagine dipping a toe in that cesspool. I might not have the guts in real life, but in imagination it's fun.

David Cranmer said...

I enjoy 'forgotten history' like this. Most of what you posted here was unfamiliar to me.

Chap O'Keefe said...

The unfamiliarity isn't surprising, David. Until recent times, western fiction tried to ignore the reality. A very sanitized West was presented in the old pulps with an emphasis on the bold pioneers and adventurers; the clean, courageous lawmen. Then the adult westerns tried to present the West as a place of jolly, unending sexual romps.

Today, you can still encounter problems when you try to bring into your stories some of the reality touched upon here by Gary. In my last published book, Misfit Lil Cleans Up, I had problems with Black Dog, a fictitious mining camp/emerging town of the Deadwood kind. In my next to be published, Blast to Oblivion, setting part of the story in the red-light district of Denver brought similar calls for toning-down. The latest trend, at least as far as library fiction goes, seems to be for a return to keeping Mrs Grundy happy. I'm sure Matt Braun didn't have these problems when he novelized the Mattie Silks story.


Interesting point Keith - We just have to keep slugging away and hope things'll change.

David - there's a great monthly magazine called The Wild West and their website gives some great historical information. When I visit the states next year I'm going to see as many of these western towns as possible.

Joanne Walpole said...

Very informative and interesting. Thanks for taking the time to enlighten me. As for the realism of the Old West being toned down in fiction, I like the sanitized version. Not as extreme as Gene Autry but the John Wayne True Grit type level. If I want realism, I watch the news. :-)

David Cranmer said...

Chap, I'm reading a bio of Max Brand and the author says that Brand basically didn't want to get into the details of the real west and instead imagined it as he wanted it to be.

Archavist, I checked out the excellent Thanks.


I think the fine balance is the blending of the two - there's nothing wrong with escapism but there should be some realism of the period, warts and all, if only for flavour.

Anonymous said...

I agree. I think stories of the Old West that are sanitised lose their power, and may be why the western is not so popular these days. The John Wayne films bore me silly, but modern westerns like Broken Trail and Deadwood I love.



I think the western is on the verge of a comeback of sorts. In the film world the western has definitely matured but then there were always mature themed western even with JOHN WAYNE - The Searchers, Red River. But I know what you mean and it only takes one blockbuster western movie or mega western novel and the genre's up and kicking again.

Anonymous said...

its never gone away

Chap O'Keefe said...

Joanne -- Are you the writer who has a BHW, Long Shadows, coming out in May '09? If so, I'd be glad to have any info about yourself, and your further views on what should/shouldn't be in westerns, for Black Horse Extra.

My own view is that the BHW line should have room to accommodate a reasonably broad range of material. But in the final analysis I'm with Gary and Jeanette when it comes to choosing reading for my own entertainment.

The successes of the Deadwood series and Broken Trail showed very clearly what a modern TV audience wanted. That said, I considered the amount of coarse language in Deadwood was unrealistic. Some of the words used in the dialogue were not common parlance of the time.

David -- Frederick Faust was ahead of his era in that his characters were not stereotypes -- not all "black hat" or "white hat" -- and therefore came across with a certain degree of reality even though the backgrounds might have been mythical.


Anonymous said...

I myself love black horse westerns. I'm fifty year old and largely housebound, due to illness and don't know what I would do without these books from the mobile library.

Joanne Walpole said...

I think there's room for all types of everything and there's nothing wrong with that. As long as you know what you're getting, where's the harm? That's why we have blurbs, remote controls and off buttons so we can make choices.


JO - Very true but the point is that westerns do need some realism these days as the audience are bombarded with historically accurate images via the movies and TV. Writers would hate their work to be thought of as twee.

Joanne Walpole said...

I think I'm guilty of giving different meanings to realism and historical accuracy. People say realism re. Deadwood for instance and I instantly think bad language and graphic violence - not for me. However, say historical accuracy and I think detail like period clothing, settings, tools, equipment, values, weapons and terminology, etc. As with anything, everybody will have their own interpretation, pre-conceived ideas and expectations. I find, as time goes by, I need a bit less realism and a bit more whimsy but that doesn't mean I want to compromise on the historical accuracy.
This is a good debate by the way.


Jo - I take your meaning and I understand where your coming from. I don't like too much violence myself, though you'd never tell from my early crime stories, but it's just that when it does happen I'd prefer it to be realistic. You can't always show the consequences of an act in a narrative but I think there should always be a subtext of such.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Gary, Your blog moves on as blogs must, but may I illustrate your last point, which is a very good one?

In the opening pages of Blast to Oblivion, a dirty, smelly man with murder on his mind arrives in Denver and dallies at a house on The Row. The prostitute he visits, a minor character, later becomes a witness interviewed by the hero, Joshua Dillard.

In a few lines I tried to convey the implications for the girl of her mode of living. One of the lines was "The last thing a working-girl needed was to catch pants rats."

In toning down the Denver scenes, that line was one of the bits that came out. A shame, I thought. It conveyed so much in so little. But there you are, reality that was once okay in a book for the libraries apparently isn't now.



And that's such a good line too - very descriptive. I think I'll write a post proper on this very subject in a few weeks time - open up the debate further. I'm a real whore and will do anything to increase my blog hits.