South Dakota

Lawrence County South Dakota

History of Deadwood

Contributed by Marie Miller

Lawrence County derives its name from its first county treasurer, Colonel John Lawrence. (1839-1889). It is located on the western border of South Dakota. It is bordered by Butte County on the north, Meade County on the east, Pennington County on the south and the State of Wyoming on the west. The cities of Deadwood, Lead, Spearfish, Whitewood and the township of St. Onge are located within Lawrence County. The County Seat is located in historic Deadwood.

At the session of the Dakota Legislature of 1874-1875, acts were passed which established the limits and jurisdiction the counties of Lawrence and Custer. It was not until February 22, 1877, however, that a treaty with the Sioux Indians was ratified which ceded the Black Hills to the United States, finally allowing formal organization of Lawrence, Pennington and Custer counties.

Lawrence County was officially organized in April, 1877. The boundaries extended from the two branches of the Cheyenne River on the east; to Wyoming on the west; to the Belle Fourche River to the north; to Pennington County on the south. However, the organization of Butte County in 1883 and Meade County in 1889 reduced the county to less than half of its original size, making it the smallest in area of the Black Hills counties. Nonetheless, it was considered to be the most important, containing one-half the population and wealth of the Black Hills. The assessed valuation for Lawrence County for 1903 was nearly 11 million dollars.

The town of Deadwood South Dakota started illegally as it was part of the Native American Territory. In 1868 the treaty of Laramie had guaranteed the Black Hills to the Lakota people. Colonel George Armstrong Custer led an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 and announced the discovery of Gold near French Creek, near present day Custer. Custer's announcement triggered the Black Hills Gold Rush and gave rise to the lawless town of Deadwood. The town quickly reached about 5,000 people in population.

In early 1876 a frontiersman Charlie Utter and his brother Steve led a wagon train to Deadwood containing what were deemed to be needed commodities to bolster business, these commodities included gamblers and prostitutes which proved to be a profitable business venture. Madam Dora DuFran would eventually become the most profitable brothel owner in Deadwood 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 controlled the opium business. After the saloon was destroyed by a fire and rebuilt in 1879, it once again burned down in 1899 causing Swearengen to leave town.

The town was noted for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok and remains the final resting place of Hickok and Calamity Jane as well as some less famous figures suck as Seth Bullock Deadwood had a reputation for being wild and lawless, during that time murder was common and punishment was in always fair and just. The prosecution for the murderer Jack McCall for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok had to be sent to retrial because of a ruling that his first trial, which resulted in acquittal was invalid because Deadwood was an illegal town. He was retried in a Lakota court and found guilty and hanged.

As the economy changed from the gold rush to steady mining, Deadwood lost its rough and rowdy character and became more civilized and prosperous. There was a smallpox epidemic in 1876, with so many falling sick that tents had to be used to quarantine them. That same year General George Crook pursed the Sioux Indians from the Battle of Little Big Horn on an expedition that ended in Deadwood, that came to be known as the Horsemeat March.

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

The Deadwood Central Railroad was founded by a Deadwood resident J. K. P. Miller and his associates in 1888. The purpose being that of to serve the 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. Apart for the portion from Kirk to Fantail Junction, which was converted to standard gauge, the railroad was abandoned in 1930. The remaining section was abandoned by the successor Burlington in 1984.

Some of the early town residents and frequent visitors included the following: Al Swearengen, and his employees Dan Doherty and Johnny Burns, E. B. Farnum, Alma Garret, Charlie Utter, Sol Star, Martha Bullock, A. W. Merrick, Samuel Fields, Harris Franklin, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, the Reverend Henry Weston Smith, Wild Bill Hickok, First Federal Judge Bennett, General Dawson and Madame Canutson (a woman bull-whacker)


Dakota 1885
Compiled by O. H. Holt

Deadwood, the metropolis of the Black Hills, is situated in the western part of Lawrence county, in the deep gulches of the Whitewood and Deadwood creeks, at an elevation of nearly 4,700 feet above the sea level. The city owes its remarkable growth and development to the rich gold mines in the immediate vicinity. Prospectors first invaded the neighborhood in the fall of 1875, and the first cabin was probably erected at that time. The grand rush began in the following spring, and the energetic miners rapidly reared numerous log cabins along the streams, but without much attempt at regularity in laying out streets. The site now occupied by the busy city was at that time wild and rugged in the extreme, and the early settlers disputed with the wild beasts for possession of the ground.

The town was laid out in the spring of 1876, and by summer much material progress had been made in evolving something like regularity and order out of that chaotic condition which seems inseparable from the first settlement of a mining town. A mail line was established, in the spring of 1876, between Cheyenne and Sidney, on the Union Pacific Railway and the Hills, and a postoffice was planted at Deadwood the following year. This office is now one of the most important in the Territory, eleven mail routes centering at this point. Before the opening of the Chicago & North-Western Railway to Pierre, the Northern mails came via Bismarck. A stage line, finely equipped, has recently been established by the Marquis de Mores, from Medora, on the line of the Northern Pacific, to Deadwood. The town had become a populous and busy city, when the great fire of 1879 almost totally destroyed it in a few hours. The loss was estimated at $1,500,000. This appalling calamity, however, failed to discourage the energetic citizens, and almost before the last spark had been extinguished, a new city, much more substantially built than the first, began to arise. In the spring of 1888, the records show that the amount of capital invested in various kinds of business aggregated upward of $1,200,000. The disastrous flood in May of this year swept away about 150 buildings, occasioning a loss estimated at $250,000 in the city of Deadwood alone, and probably the damage to property in other parts of the county involved as much more.

This second disaster was a severe blow to Deadwood, but the accustomed determination of its people was speedily manifested in the rapid restoration of the destroyed districts.

The city at present contains two substantial banking institutions, three churches, a flourishing public school system, a dozen hotels, several extensive manufacturing industries, four transportation companies, two newspapers, and many prosperous business houses which carry large and varied lines of merchandise.

It is remarkable that so large and prosperous a city could be built up and maintained while denied the important and almost essential advantage of railroad facilities. The approaches from the valleys, in any direction, present many obstacles to the construction of these important highways of traffic and travel; yet there is no doubt that the enterprise and untiring energy cf Deadwood capitalists will, ere long, solve this problem satisfactorily.



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