The Black Hills
Sometimes it’s easy to spend a very short time in a place and pick up a strong impression. It’s also easy to spend a very short time in several places and pick up the impression that they are similar. So it is with Keystone, Custer, Deadwood and Hill City, all towns in the Black Hills of South Dakota. All are built around their Wild West narrative: saloon doors, fringe jackets, fancy women and gambling. Crowds of tourists are drawn to the gaming resorts and casinos and saloons. These days, instead of horses we have motorcycles, everywhere and always. The town of Sturgis is nearby and the yearly August rally pulls in half a million motorcycle riders. This is a town of seven thousand residents.
I was in Sturgis on an “off” week and still, there were hundreds of bikes, and just as many leather vests.
Harney Peak, the high point of South Dakota, is in this area. I wonder if the name should be “Harley Peak.”
Approaching Deadwood, driving the road that snakes through towering rock face on either side, the sign welcomes us…
Where the Wild West Lives
The streets are named Hickok, Calamity, Lee, Sherman. It doesn’t take much to figure out the theme. A section in the eastern part of town has streets named Madison, Taylor, Jackson, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Harrison, Lincoln and Van Buren.
A big part of what made the Wild West wild was the personalities, folks who built this country in various and colorful ways. Legends abound. To wit…
James Butler Hickok
Deadwood is associated with some pretty engaging characters. For starts, there’s this guy, bka “Wild Bill Hickok.” He was a well-known, widely feared, well-respected gambler and gunslinger, one of the best in shootouts.
Shot Wild Bill in the back of the head while Bill was playing poker. Mr Hickok was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights, “aces and eights,” now known as the “Dead Man’s Hand.”
Agnes Thatcher Lake
Agnes was married three times: #1 Bill Lake, circus clown. #2 James Butler Hickok, eleven years younger. #3 George Carson, thirteen years younger. She married Wild Bill only six months before he was shot dead. But Ms Lake was a pip in her own right, not just for her list of husbands. She walked the tight-rope, trained lions and was one of the most popular circus attractions in the west. Also, possibly, the Wild West’s first cougar.
Martha Jane Canary
“Calamity Jane” is how we know her. A looker when she was younger, but not so much in her adulthood, Jane was a tobacco-spitting, beer and whiskey-guzzling, foul-mouthed illiterate liar who preferred to wear men’s clothing. Most of her gunslinging and heroic escapades were probably fabrications, but who cares!
Ellis Albert Swearengen
“Al” opened up the first “night club” in Deadwood. He lured, bullied and beat despairing women into becoming his prostitutes/employees/slaves. He allied himself with local politicians to stay clear of any efforts to clean up the rough and tumble town.
Alice Ivers Duffield Tubbs Huckert
“Poker Alice” was born in England but found herself widowed and broke in the Black Hills. So she started smoking cigars and took up poker. She rarely lost. She would say, “Praise the Lord and place your bets. I’ll take your money with no regrets.”
Brave man. In the days when Deadwood was proud of its lawless, murdering nature, Bullock became its first sheriff, bringing some semblance of law and order to the home of the ruffians.
Ethan Bennett Farnum
E B was Deadwood’s first mayor, school board president and Justice of the Peace. He sent the first telegram from Deadwood, helped establish the first school, performed the first marriage, opened and ran one of the first general stores, levied taxes on businesses, established the first fire department and helped contain an outbreak of small pox by establishing a quarantine house. Busy man.
“Lame Johnny,” as they called him, walked with a limp. No one knew why exactly, but it made it easier to identify and apprehend him. Johnny was notorious for his activities as a horse thief, prospector, bookkeeper, cattle rustler and stage coach robber. They hanged Lame Johnny right along where Highway 79 is now. We drive right past the turnoff to Lame Johnny Road and right past Lame Johnny’s ghost.