Dead Man’s Hand

Aces and eights.  A dead man’s hand.  So called because that is what James Butler Hickok held when he was shot from behind in a saloon in Deadwood, South Dakota in August 1876.  One of the greatest gunslingers of the Old West lay dead from a gunshot in the back of the head, aged only 39.  Just another legend added to the history of Deadwood, a gold rush town in the Dakota Territory that began in the late 19th century when the discovery of Black Hills Gold created a frenzy.

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During its heyday, Deadwood was a lawless town, full of prospectors, gunslingers, and anyone else looking to make their way on the frontier.  Sunk deep in the sacred Black Hills of western South Dakota, the town’s mere existence was born in illegal activity.  A place sacred to the Lakota Sioux, the Black Hills were officially ceded to the tribe with the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868.  When gold was discovered, the treaty didn’t stop the area being flooded with opportunity seekers.  New money brings with it saloons, brothels, and lawlessness. Gunfights were common, famous names such as Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok walked the streets, and it took time for Deadwood to gain respectability.

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These days Deadwood is a caricature of its former self.  Buildings that once housed prostitutes now sell t-shirts.  Saloons try to capture the rustic feel of what once was, but these days tourists belly up to the bar to have a drink and the only gunfight you might see is staged. Despite that, the streets are laid out the same and the hills that surround the town make you feel as if you’ve slipped through a crack in time, going back to when the streets were mud instead of blacktop and the sidewalks were of wood instead of concrete.

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You can still see the Bullock Hotel, built by Seth Bullock, a businessman that arrived to Deadwood the day before Hickok was murdered.  Bullock would go on to become the sheriff of Deadwood (as gloriously portrayed by Timothy Olyphant in the TV series Deadwood).  He and others played a large role in converting Deadwood from a murderous mining camp to an established frontier town. Bullock and his partner built a hardware store and later the town’s first hotel.  Teddy Roosevelt, a deputy sheriff from Medora, North Dakota at the time, would meet Bullock and become lifelong friends with him saying  “Seth Bullock is a true Westerner, the finest type of frontiersman.”

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Perhaps the best way to get in touch with the Deadwood of the 19th century is to visit Mt Moriah Cemetery.  It sits high atop a nearby hill overlooking the Deadwood Gulch.  The lives of those buried here are the history of Deadwood and the Old West itself.  There are murderers and madams buried here, along with victims of Indian attacks, businessmen, ministers, and gold panners. All strata of society and all ages of Deadwood are represented by the tombstones that dot the steep hillside. The famous and infamous are also here, including Hickok, Bullock, Calamity Jane, and Potato Creek Johnny.

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The cemetery is a quiet spot in the sacred hills overlooking Deadwood.  A fitting place of repose for trailblazers whom fate brought together for a purpose. Standing there looking down on the town they built, my mind thought back to that August day in 1876 when Hickok was shot down by a young drunk with a chip on his shoulder.

Perhaps, like Deadwood today, he was the victim of his own infamy.

All photos by the author.

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