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History of Deadwood, South Dakota

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Deadwood was established in 1876 during the Black Hills gold rush. In 1875, a miner named John B. Pearson found gold in a narrow canyon in the Northern Black Hills. This canyon became known as "Deadwood Gulch," because of the many dead trees that lined the canyon walls at the time. The name stuck, and, over 125 years later, the U.S. 2000 Census cites Deadwood's population as 1,380; and the town sits some 4,533 feet above sea level. Given its colorful, violent, and lawless beginnings, few could have imagined that Deadwood would someday serve as the county seat for Lawrence County, as it does today.

In 1874, under the command of General George A. Custer, a government- sponsored expedition confirmed the presence of gold in the Black Hills. The U.S. government tried to conceal the discovery from the general public in order to honor the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie, which forever ceded the Black Hills to the Lakota-Sioux. The government also dispatched several military units to forts in the surrounding area to keep people from entering the Hills. However, people illegally entered the area anyway, searching for gold or adventure. Despite the efforts of the military and federal government, the American populace learned about the discovery of gold in the Black Hills. Influenced by dreams and greed, the 1876 gold rush was on in the Black Hills. Once Deadwood was established, the mining camp was soon swarming with thousands of prospectors searching for an easy way to get rich. Such luck happened to fall upon Fred and Moses Manuel, who claimed the Homestake Mine, which proved to be the most profitable in the area. Although the Manuels had been lucky, others were not so fortunate. Most of the early population was in Deadwood to mine for gold, but the lawless region naturally attracted a crowd of rough and shady characters. These particular individuals made the early days of Deadwood rough and wild. A mostly male population eagerly patronized the many saloons, gambling establishments, dance halls, and brothels. These establishments were considered legitimate businesses and were well known throughout the area.

By 1877, Deadwood was evolving from a primitive mining camp to a community with a sense of order. The crude tents and shanties that had housed the early miners quickly gave way to wood and brick buildings. The community organized a town government that relied on Sheriff Seth Bullock to keep law and order. The gradual transition of Deadwood from a mining camp to a civilized community nearly came to an abrupt end. On Sept. 26, 1879, a fire started at a bakery on Sherman Street and rapidly spread to the business district of Deadwood. The fire damaged the business district of the town, but rather than give up, the community rebuilt itself. The fire made clear the need for regulations preventing another fire. The local government enacted laws that would permit only certain building materials for building construction. After the fire, Deadwood rebuilt itself in brick and stone rather than in lumber.

In 1890, the railroad connected the town to the outside world. The Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad helped bring the community together as a civic entity. The railroad also brought people to the area from various ethnic groups. Chinese immigrants were among those building the railroad. Hundreds of Chinese came to the Black Hills looking for work in mines or commerce. Many settled in Deadwood, where they sought work in restaurants, laundries and stores. By the end of the 1880s, Deadwood had a Chinatown, which was at the northern end of present-day Main Street. The Chinese managed to establish a district and a fire department for themselves, but struggled in nearly every part of society. Often denied equality in a dominantly Caucasian community, the members of Chinatown strived for recognition as citizens of Deadwood. All too often they were subjected to the suspicion and hostility of whites.

Deadwood gradually evolved from a wild frontier town to a prosperous commercial center, due, in part, to the construction of the railroad. Although the community primarily focused on its gold mining industry, Deadwood became the place where people traveled in the Black Hills to conduct their business. Despite an 1883 flood, and another fire in 1894, Deadwood prevailed through many hardships. In March 1878, Paul Rewman established Western South Dakota's first telephone exchange in Deadwood. Dakota Territory became the states of North and South Dakota on November 2, 1889 (Dakota Territory also included areas that encompassed present day Montana and most of Wyoming). Deadwood moved forward into the twentieth century, but the image of the wild West town has lingered, due to past events and the individuals responsible for making the town into a legend. Figures like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane each left their mark. Hickok, a legendary figure even in his own lifetime, was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall, while playing poker at the No. 10 Saloon on August 2, 1876. Calamity Jane was renowned for her excellent marksmanship, preference for men's clothing, and bawdy behavior. Although Deadwood had its tough individuals, others were gentler in nature, such as Rev. Henry W. Smith. Preacher Smith was the first Methodist minister to come to the Black Hills. Smith was mysteriously murdered on Sunday, August 20, 1876, while walking to Crook City to deliver a sermon. These individuals are just a few of the many notables buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery, which was established in 1877 or 1878.

“Deadwood has been known the world round for over half a century. It is the smallest ‘metropolitan’ city in the world, with paving and public and other buildings such as are seldom found in cities less than several times its size.”
John S. McClintock
Pioneer Days in the Black Hills, 1939

As Deadwood settled into the twentieth century, the gambling and prostitution establishments were still considered legitimate businesses. The new century brought new beliefs and ideas, and the gambling and prostitution came under attack from reformers. The reformers believed that the two were partly responsible for causing social problems, such as drunkenness and poverty. These reformers also supported the temperance movement that was sweeping the country. In 1919, the U.S. government had passed the Prohibition Act banning the sale and distribution of alcohol. During the roaring twenties, gaming became illegal but continued to operate behind closed doors. With the repeal of the Prohibition Act in 1935, gambling once again flourished in Deadwood until 1947, when it was officially closed. Prostitution remained a business until the 1950s when the state's attorney shut down many of the brothels. The last one to close was Pam's Purple Door in 1980. While gambling and prostitution establishments closed, Deadwood became the only city in the United States to be named a National Historic Landmark in 1964.

During the 1980s the question of gaming resurfaced, and a petition was introduced to reinstate gaming in Deadwood. In 1986, local business owners agreed to lobby for legalized gaming to create economic development for the community. As gaming moved through the state legislature, the Deadwood City Commission established the Historic Preservation Commission in 1987 to oversee the restoration of historic sites in the community. In 1988, the gaming issue initiative was put on the state ballot. It passed with 64% of the vote and was authorized to begin on November 1, 1989. The introduction of gaming has enabled Deadwood to preserve its historic buildings and dramatically increase tourism. The lure of gaming is not the only draw to Deadwood; people are also fascinated by its unique, colorful history.

19th century

The settlement of Deadwood began in the 1870s and has been described as illegal, since it lay within the territory granted to Native Americans in the 1868 Treaty of Laramie. The treaty had guaranteed ownership of the Black Hills to the Lakota people, and disputes over the Hills are ongoing, having reached the United States Supreme Court on several occasions. However, in 1874, Colonel George Armstrong Custer led an expedition into the Hills and announced the discovery of gold on French Creek near present-day Custer, South Dakota. Custer's announcement triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush and gave rise to the lawless town of Deadwood, which quickly reached a population of around 5,000.

In early 1876, frontiersman Charlie Utter and his brother Steve led a wagon train to Deadwood containing what were deemed to be needed commodities to bolster business. The wagon train brought gamblers and prostitutes, resulting in the establishment of profitable ventures. Demand for women was high, and the business of prostitution proved to have a good market. Madam Dora DuFran would eventually become the most profitable brothel owner in Deadwood, closely followed by Madam Mollie Johnson. Businessman Tom Miller opened the Bella Union Saloon in September of that year.

Another saloon was the Gem Variety Theater, opened April 7, 1877 by Al Swearengen who also controlled the opium trade in the town. The saloon was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in 1879. It burned down again in 1899, causing Swearengen to leave the town.

The town attained notoriety for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, and Mount Moriah Cemetery remains the final resting place of Hickok and Calamity Jane, as well as slightly less notable figures such as Seth Bullock. It became known for its wild and almost lawless reputation, during which time murder was common, and punishment for murders not always fair and impartial. The prosecution of the murderer of Hickok, Jack McCall, had to be sent to retrial because of a ruling that his first trial, which resulted in an acquittal, was invalid because Deadwood was an illegal town. This moved the trial to a Dakota Territory court, where he was found guilty and then hanged.

As the economy changed from gold rush to steady mining, Deadwood lost its rough and rowdy character and settled down into a prosperous town. In 1876, a smallpox epidemic swept through the camp, with so many falling sick that tents had to be set up to quarantine them. Also in that year, General George Crook pursued the Sioux Indians from the Battle of Little Big Horn on an expedition that ended in Deadwood, and that came to be known as the Horsemeat March. The Homestake Mine in nearby Lead was established in 1877.

A fire on September 26, 1879 devastated the town, destroying over 300 buildings and consuming everything belonging to many inhabitants. Many of the newly impoverished left town to try their luck elsewhere, without the opportunities of rich untapped veins of ore that characterized the town's early days.

A narrow-gauge railroad, the Deadwood Central Railroad, was founded by Deadwood resident J.K.P. Miller and his associates in 1888, in order to serve their mining interests in the Black Hills. The railroad was purchased by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in 1893. A portion of the railroad between Deadwood and Lead was electrified in 1902 for operation as an interurban passenger system, which operated until 1924. The railroad was abandoned in 1930, apart from a portion from Kirk to Fantail Junction, which was converted to standard gauge. The remaining section was abandoned by the successor Burlington Northern Railroad in 1984.

Some of the other early town residents and frequent visitors included Al Swearengen, E. B. Farnum, Charlie Utter, Sol Star, Martha Bullock, A. W. Merrick, Samuel Fields, Calamity Jane, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, the Reverend Henry Weston Smith, and Wild Bill Hickok.
20th and 21st Centuries
Another major fire in September 1959 came close to destroying the town. About 4,500 square miles (12,000 km2) were burned and an evacuation order was issued. Nearly 3,600 volunteer and professional firefighters, including personnel from the Homestake Mine and Ellsworth Air Force Base, worked to contain the fire, which resulted in a major regional economic downturn.

The entire town was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. However, the town underwent additional decline and financial stresses during the next two decades. Interstate 90 bypassed it in 1964 and its brothels were shut down after a 1980 raid. A fire in December 1987 destroyed the historic Syndicate Building and a neighboring structure. The fire spurred the "Deadwood Experiment", in which gambling was tested as a means of revitalizing a city center. At the time, gambling was legal only in the state of Nevada and in Atlantic City. Deadwood was the first small community in the U.S. to seek legal gambling revenues as a way of maintaining local historic qualities. Gambling was legalized in Deadwood in 1989 and immediately brought significant new revenues and development. The pressure of development may have an effect on the historical integrity of the landmark district.


The gold rush attracted Chinese immigrants to the area. Their population peaked at 250. A few engaged in mining; most worked in service enterprises. A quarter arose on Main Street, encouraged by the lack of restrictions on foreign property ownership in Dakota Territory and a relatively high level of tolerance. The quarter's residents also included African-Americans and Americans of European extraction. The state sponsored an archeological dig in the area during the 2000s.

Time Line

1740-1760 – The Lakota-Sioux appear in the Black Hills region.
1743 – French explorers, the Verendrye brothers, claim the area for France in the name of Louis XV.
1868 – U.S. government signs the Fort Laramie Treaty with the Lakota-Sioux.
1874 – General George A. Custer leads a military expedition to the Black Hills and discovers gold.
1875 – John B. Pearson finds gold in "Deadwood Gulch."
1876 – Black Hills Gold Rush; city of Deadwood incorporated; Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane come to Deadwood.
1876, April 9 – Fred and Moses Manuel claim the Homestake Mine.
1876, August 2 – Wild Bill Hickok murdered by Jack McCall in the No. 10 Saloon.
1876, August 20 – Preacher Henry W. Smith murdered on route to Crook City, where he had planned to give a sermon.
1877, June – The Manuels sell the Homestake Mine to George Hearst (father of William Randolph Hearst).
1878 – The first telephone exchange established in Deadwood.
1879, September 29 – A fire starts at a bakery on Sherman Street and quickly spreads, destroying the business district.
1880 – Chinese immigrants come to Deadwood to work in mines or commerce.
1883, May 16 – Heavy and wet spring snowstorms cause a flood that washes away most of Deadwood.
1889, November 2 – South Dakota becomes a state.
1891 – The Fremont, Elkhorn, and Missouri Valley Railroad connects Deadwood to the outside world.
1894 – A fire starts at a boarding house and destroys the business district.
1899, August 24 – William Jennings Bryan, Nebraskan politician, delivers a speech in Deadwood.
1911, October 21 – President William Howard Taft delivers a speech from a platform on Pine Street, and dines at the Franklin Hotel.
1919 – U.S. government passes the Prohibition Act, which bans the sale and distribution of alcohol; reformers attack the gambling and prostitution establishments in Deadwood.
1920s – Gambling operates behind closed doors but prostitution establishments still thriving illegally.
1927 Summer – President Calvin Coolidge vacations in the Black Hills and participates in Deadwood's Days of '76 celebration.
1935 – Prohibition Act is repealed, gambling flourishes once again.
1947 – Gambling officially ends in Deadwood.
1950-1960s – Most prostitution establishments closed by the state's attorney.
1964 – Deadwood becomes the first community designated a National Historic Landmark.
1980 – Pam's Purple Door, last prostitution house, closes.
1987 – Historic Preservation Commission established.
1989, November 1 – Gaming resumes in Deadwood after statewide vote in 1988.
1998, January – Homestake Mine lays off a significant number of workers.
2000 – Homestake Mine announces that it will permanently close its operations at the end of 2001.
2001 – Extensive archaeological excavation of Chinese boarding house on Main Street.