Wild Bill Hickok Plays His Last Hand.
I grew up in these Black Hills — and the history of the Old West hell raising mining camp of Deadwood is embedded into these hills as deep as the ore in the 8,500 foot Homestake Mine up in Lead, now closed full of water, and soon to be a scientific underground laboratory.
You have probably seen the Hollywood version of Deadwood on HBO. As a series, how close does it come to the true life characters that put the rawboned territorial town on the map?
Deadwood in 1876.
LEGENDS OF DEADWOOD.
Wild Bill Hickok.
Wild Bill Hickok, born James Butler Hickok in Tiny Grove, Illinois on May 27, 1837. He married Mrs. Ames Thatcher on March 5, 1876 in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Wild Bill was murdered in the original Saloon No. 10 on August 2, 1876 by Jack McCall.
Quite aside from images of the Black Hills gold rush and the Sioux Indian wars, Deadwood is famed in the public’s mind as the place where “Wild Bill” Hickok was murdered while playing poker in Saloon No.10, holding the “Deadman’s Hand” of aces, eights, and the nine of diamonds.
Civil War spy, scout and sharpshooter, Indian fighter, frontier lawman and showman with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, Hickok was part of the West’s romantic image — aided no doubt by a Harper’s New Monthly Magazine article about him in those terms in 1867
The reality was more complicated as a variety of books and Internet resources note.
Hickok joined a flood of miners, shopkeepers, prostitutes, card players, bunco artists and outlaws, invading the raw and just-formed town of Deadwood in June of 1876.
By all accounts, his intent in coming to Deadwood was to separate prospectors and miners from their gold — not at the point of a gun, but at the poker tables with a winning hand and two pistols at hand for any sore losers in the bunch.
Hickok was highly motivated — he was a newlywed with a wife to support. His bride, the former Mrs. Agnes Thatcher, was waiting for Hickok back in Cheyenne.
One of the first guns of the West, Hickok could shoot with a pistol in both hands. He carried his guns butt forward in his belt — an awkward position for others, but it worked well for him. Historians debate how good he really was as a marksman, but few cared to get shot at by Hickok — calm, deliberate and unflustered when taking aim.
Hickok had a couple of habits that served him well in the rowdy bars of the West. He’d pour his drinks with his left hand, letting his best gun hand at the ready. When gambling, Hickok wanted to sit with his back to a wall, eliminating the possibility that an enemy could simply walk up to his back and blow his head off.
Ironically, that’s exactly what happened on August 2, 1876, during a card game in the No. 10 Saloon. Hickok walked in and noticed a poker game was in progress, but the only empty seat at the table faced away from the saloon’s doorway. Hickok failed to persuade others at the table to trade seats with him, and then decided to take the open seat.
It proved to be a fatal mistake.
Focused on a game in which he’d already lost several hands, Hickok never saw a loafer named Jack McCall walk up within three feet, pull a .45 out of his coat and pull the trigger. The bullet blew through Hickok’s head and out his cheek, lodging in the wrist of a gambler on the other side of the table.
Hickok spilled his hand — pairs of black aces and eights — known forevermore as “Deadman’s Hand”.
Quickly apprehended, McCall said he’d killed Hickok because “Wild Bill” had killed his brother. A miners’ court figured that was an acceptable defense and let him go. The drunken McCall just couldn’t keep his mouth shut about the killing. He bragged one too many times that he’d killed Hickok and was arrested, tried in Yankton, South Dakota and hung on March 1, 1877
Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Canary near Princeton, Missouri in 1852. She was married a number of times — her last husband was Clinton Burke. Noted for dressing, most of the time, in men’s clothing and for wild behavior, Calamity Jane was also known by the early miners and settlers for a kind and generous nature. She died in Terry, an upper Hills mining camp, on August 1, 1903, and is buried, as was her request, “next to Wild Bill.” No authentic record exists that she had an intimate relationship with Hickok.
As many of the historical legends which creep into Americana, fiction and fact made up the story of Calamity Jane Dalton Canary Burke, known in the West simply as “Calamity Jane”.
She was the lady bullwhacker whose language was so strong that brave men feared it more than her gun, which nearly always hit its mark.
Several villages — Fort Laramie, Wyoming; Burlington, Iowa; Princeton or St. Louis, Missouri, — even LaSalle, Illinois, claim to be her birthplace, but no one knows for sure.
It is generally accepted that Calamity Jane was the daughter of a soldier named Dalton or Canary and that she was born around 1852.
At age 19, Calamity Jane appeared at old Fort Bridger, frequenting the saloons, hurly gurdy and gambling joints and scorning the ways of women. Calamity Jane joined the Jenny Expedition into the Black Hills of the western Dakota Territory in early 1876, taking the place of a homesick soldier.
She kept her identity a secret until one day she plunged into a stream for a swim and revealed, much to the surprise of her fellow pilgrims, that she was indeed a woman.
Calamity Jane was allowed to stay with the outfit — there was nothing else to do with her — but was demoted from the ranks by driving a bull team.
Calamity Jane had been a good soldier, but she was an even better bullwhipping gold-brick, and her curses surprised those of the most hardened and toughest bullwhackers in a rough and tough era of the American frontier.
Calamity Jane came to Deadwood during the spring of 1876. The Gulch region became her permanent home for the rest of her life, although she ventured elsewhere many times.
She whooped it up with the prospectors and the gamblers on nearly a nightly basis in the saloons and gambling halls of Deadwood. She always got what she wanted, a sack of groceries for a sick miner or a ticket home for a wayward saloon girl — all at the point of a gun.
Her poker winnings often went to help the down and outers, who were always found around the camp.
Calamity Jane was said to be in love with Wild Bill Hickok. Maybe she was, but the romance was apparently one-sided. Wild Bill never strayed and never forgot the lovely Agnes, his bride of only a few weeks, whom he had left in Cheyenne before traveling to Deadwood to seek his fortune in the gold rush.
When Wild Bill was killed, Calamity Jane was said to have either captured single-handedly, or at least helped to capture the murderer, Jack McCall.
Old-timers who knew this lady wildcat often said they doubted that she had much to do with the capture of McCall. They believed if she had, and if she were carrying a torch for Wild Bill, that she would have not have permitted his assassin to live long enough to stand trial.
When smallpox broke out in the Deadwood gold mine camp, Calamity Jane devoted herself to caring for the sick men. She brought most of the patients through. Many a pock-marked old man of the Black Hills in later years called her “an angel”.
From Deadwood, when the camp began to settle into respectability, Calamity Jane wandered around the country to places such as Leadville, Alaska, California, and Montana, but she always came back to her Deadwood home.
Calamity Jane went east to play in vaudeville. It was said she couldn’t keep sober long enough and her language was too rough for the tenderfoot audience of eastern cities.
The cowboys of Belle Fourche, the center of the cattle camps, knew her as a howling drunkard. They often saw her staggering down the street, ride their wild horses, nurse the sick, and cook the best meals they ever had in these parts.
She was married . . . every now and then . . . and kept the name of her of one of her first husbands — Burke. She also had a daughter about who little is known.
At the turn of the century she came back to Deadwood for the last time from one of her many far-flung excursions.
Every person who knew her at this period told a different story about her. She was good and kind; she took care of the less fortunate ravaged by hard living — in a boarding house in Terry. A combination of pneumonia and alcoholism carried her off on August 1, 1903.
Her funeral was the largest ever held in Deadwood. One writer declared at the time that “10,000 persons, with not one mourner among them” attended the funeral. She was buried at Mt. Moriah Cemetery beside Wild Bill, forever close to him in death but never in life.
The legend of Calamity Jane continues to grow today in the summer breeze and winter snows rolling over her quiet grave on the tree covered hilltop.
“Colorado” Charlie Utter was known locally as a good friend to Wild Bill Hickok.
Indeed, Utter saw to it that his good “pard’ was properly buried. A notice was posted around town, alerting citizens that funeral services would be held “at Charlie Utter’s camp on Thursday afternoon, August 3, 1876, at three o’clock p.m. All are respectfully invited to attend.” Utter even wrote Hickok’s epitaph for a grave marker.
It seemed like the least he could do, seeing as how Utter brought Hickok to the Black Hills. Utter organized a wagon train in Georgetown, Colorado, which swung through Cheyenne, Wyoming, on the way to the gold strike. That’s where Hickok joined the wagon train.
A Colorado newspaper described Utter as a “courageous little man” wearing fringed leggings and coat and sporting old and silver decorated revolvers.
Utter was also fastidious, insisting on a daily bath. In those days, weekly, monthly, quarterly, or even annual baths were more familiar to the denizens of Deadwood, who’d gather to view Utter’s bathing with bemusement and wonder.
Utter reportedly chastised his friend, Hickok for curling, uninvited in Utter’s blankets. Fortunately for Utter, Hickok did not take offense (he was somewhat drunk) as Utter dragged Hickok out of the tent and stripped him of the warm blanket — all the while turning the air blue with a stream of curses. Hickok merely shrugged it off and found somewhere else to finish his nap.
After Hickok’s murder, Utter reportedly turned his entrepreneurial spirit to letter freight delivery, mining, and gambling. The Lead newspaper, Black Hills Time, June 24, 1879 reported:
“Charlie Utter, nuisance, keeping a dance house. To Mr. Utter the Court delivered a very severe lecture, condemning all such practices in unmeasured terms. But in considering that Mr. Utter had closed the place (Judge Moody) sentenced to one hour’s confinement and a fifty dollar fine and costs.”
Utter departed Deadwood after a fire swept through and destroyed much of the town on September 26, 1879. He was later rumored to be practicing medicine in Panama.
Seth Bullock is a notable Westerner, not only here in the Black Hills, but in Montana and Wyoming as well.
Before coming to Deadwood, Bullock was a member of the 1871 and ’72 sessions of the Territorial Senate of Montana, during which he introduced a resolution calling upon the U.S. Congress to set aside Yellowstone as the nation’s and world’s first national park. The Montana Legislature and Congress approved the measure and Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872.
Bullock entered into partnership with Sol Star in the hardware business in Helena, Montana, and the two ventured to Deadwood in 1876 and opened a highly successful hardware store in the booming gold camp. The hardware store was remodeled and turned into the historic Bullock Hotel, with luxury accommodations today.
When a smallpox epidemic threatened the raw town, Bullock was elected treasurer of the Board of Health and Street Commissioners — the first unofficial government.
The murder of Wild Bill Hickok sparked a loud demand for law and order and Bullock was quickly tapped to serve as the town’s first sheriff. With the aid of tough deputies, Bullock quickly tamed the wild streets, bars, and gambling halls, with minimal fuss or there were new graves on Mt. Moriah.
More peaceful pursuits followed and Bullock was soon appointed as the first U.S. Marshall of the Dakota Territory. He found time to ranch on the Belle Fourche River and was the first in the territory to plant alfalfa. His leadership led to the building a federal fish hatchery for the Black Hills, in Spearfish. Bullock founded the town of Belle Fourche (Beautiful Forks in French), which later became a huge livestock shipping point.
He was a lifelong friend of Theodore Roosevelt; in 1890s Bullock was appointed by Teddy as the first Forest Supervisor of the Black Hills Forest Reserve, predecessor to today’s Black Hills National Forest. A lookout tower is still named after him near Deadwood.
Roosevelt invited Bullock and his wife to London to show off the splendid looking sheriff and Roosevelt’s typical ideal American.
Roosevelt’s death in 1919 shattered Bullock. Despite his own frail condition, Bullock quickly built the Roosevelt Monument on Mt. Roosevelt across the Gulch from Mt. Moriah. Months later, Bullock died of cancer at the age of 70 and was buried at his request on the hill-side of Mt. Moriah, the highest grave on the mountain.
Potato Creek Johnny.
“Potato Creek Johnny”, or Johnny Perett, was one of the Old West’s most respected and peaceable men.
Full grown, the Welshman stood an impish 4 foot three inches. He searched the West for adventure and dabbled in many pursuits before settling down to prospecting.
Potato Creek Johnny staked his claim at Potato Creek, which fed into Beaver Creek which fed into Iron Creek which fed into Spearfish Creek, on the western side of beautiful Spearfish Canyon. That’s where he staked out his claim until his death in 1943.
While alive, Johnny found what is believed to be the largest gold nugget prospected in the Black Hills. The nugget weighed 7.75 ounces. He sold the nugget to W.E. Adams, and a replica is on display at Deadwood’s Adams Museum — the real nugget is safely tucked away in storage.
Johnny became a local and national hero, loved for his warm personality and magical way with children. He was a favorite of all those who visited his diggings or met him on the streets of Deadwood. He wore his hair long and peered through spectacles perched on his short nose.
After dying of old age at the age of 77 after a short illness, his body was buried at Mt. Moriah Cemetery, near Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. When his funeral procession rolled past the Adams Museum, the carillion chimes tolled 77 times.
DEADWOOD CASINO HOTELS
Cadillac Jack’s Gaming Resort
Best Western Hickok House
Comfort Inn & Casino
Deadwood Gulch Resort
Historic Franklin Hotel
First Gold Hotel and Gaming
Four Aces & Hampton Inn
Gold Country Inn Casino
Gold Dust Gaming and Entertainment Complex & Holiday Inn
Gulches of Fun Casino at Comfort Inn
Holiday Inn Express Suites
Lucky 8 Gaming Super 8 Lodge
Mineral Palace Hotel and Gaming
Deadwood Dick’s Saloon and Gaming Hall
Martin Mason Casino
McKenna’s Gold Complex and Gift Shop
Old Style Saloon #10
Silverado Gaming Establishment and Restaurant
Tin Lizzie Gaming
Wild West Casino
— By Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine