Filthy. Crowded. Chaotic. The Deadwood of 1876-77 was in some ways even more unpleasant than the violent Gold Rush town depicted in HBO’s exemplary series. The Canton Advocate, published 400 miles to the east, published this eyewitness account of the stench and hopelessness that awaited fortune seekers headed to the Black Hills.
 

Special Correspondence from the Black Hills.

 
DEADWOOD, D.T.
May 16th, 1877  
 
EDITOR CANTON ADVOCATE: I received your paper of May 2nd, a few days since, and was reminded thereby of a promise to write you a letter, after reaching this place. I will refrain from saying anything about our trip out here, which was so tedious and disagreeable that it is hard for me to refer to without using language that would be very unbecoming. We arrived at Rapid City, Sabbath morning April 22d. Rapid City is the first sign of civilization you see, after leaving Pierre. It is situated on the south bank of Rapid Creek, at the base of the foot hills, and is, I should say, a burg of 150 inhabitants. The buildings are all log cabins, one story high, covered with earth, and with a few exceptions, earth floors. It has a beautiful location with good mountain scenery south and west; and they claim its geographical location to be the center of Pennington county. Monday morning we renewed our pilgrimage; must see the elephant – that illustrious yearling – Deadwood. Between Rapid City and Deadwood we passed through Crook City. It is situated in the mouth of Whitewood Gulch, 36 miles west of Rapid, and by the road, 12 miles north of Deadwood; it is a town of about 400 inhabitants, has a pleasant location, at least you would think so after seeing Deadwood; any place I ever saw is a paradise when compared with it.
 
Outside Deadwood's Bighorn Store in 1876.

Outside Deadwood's Bighorn Store in 1876.

Well, on the 27th day of April, A.D. 1877, we first beheld the object of our search; your first sight of Deadwood, from the centennial road, is from a point almost directly above it, and within a stone’s throw of the central part of the town. Deadwood is situated in Whitewood Gulch, just below the mouth of Deadwood Creek. Its one street runs up and down the gulch, making the same number of twists and turns the gulch does, and narrows and widens with the gulch, so that at some places it is wide enough to be almost respectable while at others it is so narrow that it will barely admit a team and wagon. But its uneven, crooked street and unpleasant exterior are not its most objectionable features. The street seems to be a general depository for all kinds of filth; and within the limits of the town, are the decaying carcasses of dead horses, mules, oxen, &c., which emits their nauseous vapors, tainting the air, in some localities, so that it requires a strong stomach to maintain its equilibrium. Cholera and smallpox, it seems, must be the consequence. There has been several cases of the latter and I was told yesterday there was several smallpox patients in town at the present time. The actual population of Deadwood will not exceed 2,000, but at present there is not less than 10,000 in and around the town; every hotel and boarding house is full to overflowing and every room and cabin is crowded so there is hardly room for one more. A person coming to Deadwood is very fortunate to get a cover to sleep under, a bed is out of the question.
 
 Go in any direction you choose within five or six miles of Deadwood you can see a constant stream of people passing to and fro in every direction, many of them with packs on their backs that would make a pack mule shudder. They have with them, on their backs, a pack containing their bed, board and wardrobe, to which is generally added a pick, shovel, gold pan, rifle and revolver. There is in and around Deadwood, at a low estimate, 8,000 men looking for work, and hundreds of them are dead broke and would gladly work for their board, but the work is not here to be done, nor will not be this summer. The mines, as far as yet discovered, in the entire hill, will not employ to exceed 1,200 men and there are between 20,000 and 30,000 people in the Hills at the present time and hundreds coming in every day. Deadwood, as well as all of the other towns of the Hills, is supported by the pilgrims that are constantly flowing in; and as soon as immigration ceases, Deadwood, in a measure, will cease with it; buildings that now rent in Deadwood for $250 per month, I predict, before next December, can be had by simply occupying them. Deadwood, in my judgement, has reached the apex of its existence; every thing now is at a white heat. I would only like to be a property owner to dispose of the property. There is nothing in or about Deadwood to keep it up; of course agriculture is out of the question in its vicinity, and there is not mineral enough found as yet in its vicinity to pay a month’s rent at its present rental. There is absolutely nothing but some placer claims along Whitewood, half of which do not pay the expense of working, and are not being worked; even if they were rich they would not be of any permanent value to Deadwood, for one season would work them all out. Deadwood Creek and its affluents are the only creeks in the Hills that are paying anything worth mentioning, except probably Negro Gulch in the western part of the Hills, at the head of Deadwood Creek. There are some quartz claims [also called lode claims] being worked and there are several stamp mills in the vicinity of Gayville, on Deadwood Creek, and they say they are taking good pay out of the stone they crush. I am informed by the best authority and old miners that there has not been a defined quartz lead found in the Hills; they are nearly all cement rock and placer deposits; how extensive this is and how rich is yet to be determined.
 
If there is to be a town of any permanency in this part of the Hills, it will be Gayville. Gayville is situated on Deadwood Creek about 3 miles from Deadwood; it is a town of about 500 inhabitants and is surrounded by the richest ground in the Hills, both placer and quartz; it also has a decided advantage over Deadwood as far as location for building a town is concerned.
 
It would surprise you to see the importance assumed by many who stayed here last winter – many compelled to; they remind me of Bret Harte’s “First Man,” and many of them, I should judge, are characters of the same stamp; with what an air of patronizing superiority they cast their visual organs down upon a poor “tender foot,” with a look of mingled pity and contempt, which says, “you have only been here a few weeks; I have been here for months.” An old “forty-niner” of California does not feel half the pride in telling “I went to California in 49,” &c., as some of these fellows do in telling “I came to the Hills last spring when a man had to take his life in his hand and wrestled the country out of the hands of the bloody Sioux; and helped develop it.” … I do not say that every man that stayed in the Hills last winter is of that stamp, not by any means, but there are a large per cent of those shallow pated devils who imagine themselves immortal heroes to whom the names of all the illustrious of American history will only serve as a standing place from which to get glimpses of them, so far above that the eye can scarcely reach them. Poor fellows, I pity them.
 
Around the foot hills and extending along the creeks, leaving the hills four miles there is some splendid fertile valleys and for agricultural purposes, I should say, are hard to excel, but they are cursed by the same great enemy that has caused so much suffering through the northwest – the grasshopper. I understand they are hatching out in myriads around the foot hills.
 
Deadwood in 1876: "Its one street runs up and down the gulch, making the same number of twists and turns the gulch does, and narrows and widens with the gulch, so that at some places it is wide enough to be almost respectable while at others it is so narrow that it will barely admit a team and wagon."

Deadwood in 1876: "Its one street runs up and down the gulch, making the same number of twists and turns the gulch does, and narrows and widens with the gulch, so that at some places it is wide enough to be almost respectable while at others it is so narrow that it will barely admit a team and wagon."

 
I would not advise any one to come out here unless they fetch money enough with them to take them back again, for in all probabilities they would go back inside of a week. If you come out for the purpose of getting work, you had better stay at home, as there are hundreds here already, waiting for every job; I could hire a thousand hands to-morrow for ten dollars per month and their “chuck,” and they would do their own cooking and furnish their own beds and shelter. Board in Deadwood ranges from $10 to $28 per week [$215 to $600 in 2014]; flour was retailing yesterday for $28 per hundred [about $6 a pound in 2014], it is probably $30 to-day; hay is $200 per ton in Deadwood; corn meal, unbolted, is worth $14 per cwt.; potatoes, 15 cents per pound; butter, 50 cents per pound; eggs, 50 cents per dozen [more than $10 in 2014]; beef, 30 cents per pound; pork, from 25 to 30 cents per pound; sugar, 3 pounds for $1.00; beans, 15 cents per pound; horses are worth from $5 to $150.
 
Geo. and Frank Keller [reported in the Advocate to have left Canton in February] are opening up a ranch about 2 miles north of Deadwood; they have two or three acres cleared and plowed and planted. I believe they will do well. The rest of the boys from Canton, I am told, are on Rapid Creek engaging in mining and are feeling hopeful; what success they are meeting am unable to say; have not seen any of them yet.
 
One peculiar feature of the Hills are the daily showers. It has rained every day since I have been in the Hills, and I am told by persons who were here last summer that … very few days [pass] without more or less rain.
 
Well, I guess I have encroached upon your time enough for this time and will bring my scribbling to a close.
 
I remain yours truly,
 
GEO. A. JOHNSTON.
 
RELATED: Also on the front page of the Advocate that day, under “ODDS AND ENDS,” was this one-sentence report:
 
—Deadwood is witnessing a slight stampede up the Creek, where it is reported rich diggings have been struck.

Older Post

Sept. 26, 1909: 'Quickest adoption on record'

Newer Post

July 1, 1897: Straw hat, strawberry and watermelon