Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Deadwood, The Series and the Contemporary News Accounts

The television series Deadwood ran from 2004-6 on HBO for thirty-six episodes.

A special movie which reunites much of the original cast which debuted on HBO on May 31, 2019. Set ten years after the events in the series, it will look at the fortunes of the various characters.

In this and subsequent posts, I will present old newspaper articles involving the historical characters in Deadwood.

The series Deadwood was known for several things:

  1. Richly realized characters.
  2. Brilliant acting and propulsive writing.
  3. A crazy amount of things going on at any one moment.
  4. Poetic swearing.
  5. More swearing.
  6. Swearengen.

Many of the prominent characters in Deadwood existed in real life.

Ellis Alfred "Al" Swearengen first ran an establishment called the Cricket Saloon and then opened a brothel/saloon/dance hall called the Gem Theater. He came to Deadwood with his wife, but they soon divorced. He married two more times. His name is spelled Swearingen in about half of the newspaper articles. No known photos.

Seth Bullock was a legendary lawman, who among other things, helped establish Yellowstone National Park. He began a hardware store with Sol Star, who was also featured in the series. Star later went into politics.

Seth Bullock
Sol Star

Ethan Bennet Farnum was the first mayor of Deadwood. Unlike the weaselly character in the series, he headed the school board, instituted the fire department, and served as Justice of the Peace and judge. He had a wife and three children.
E.B Farnum, middle, back row.

Martha Jane Canary, i.e., "Calamity Jane" achieved her fame in her later years as part of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. A notorious alcoholic she was usually portrayed by glamorous movie stars, including Doris Day in the film, Calamity Jane.
Calamity Jane, later years
Doris Day (r.i.p.) as Calamity Jane
James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok and his partner Charlie Utter appear in the series. Bullock arrived in Deadwood the day when Hickok was shot dead by Jack McCall.

Arapahoe Joe (left) and Charlie Utter (right) at the grave of Wild Bill.

Albert Walter Merrick published Deadwood's first paper, the Black Hills Weekly Pioneer which continues to this day.
A. W. Merrick, newsman

George Hearst, the founder of the Hearst family empire, was, in the 1870s, one of the wealthiest men in America from previous mining claims.

George Hearst

The Reverend Henry Weston Smith did die in the summer of the first year of Deadwood's existence. He did not have a brain tumor as did the character in the program. He was murdered.
Reverend Henry Weston Smith

Some characters in the series are wholly fictional including Alma Garret. Some are composites of historical personae such as Doc Cochran and Trixie, while others are loosely based on individuals with different names, including Joanie Stubbs and Cy Tolliver. Hearst did not have a psychotic geologist.


In July of 1874, General George Armstrong Custer, two years before his death, entered land deeded to the Lakota tribe and declared he had found gold. This led to a small invasion of gold-seekers. At first the U.S. Government worked to keep out the invaders, hoping to first negotiate a treaty with the Lakotas in September of 1875. The negotiations fell through and the government threw up their hands in regards to keeping out prospectors.

In late 1875, gold was discovered in the area near where Deadwood was founded. Further investigation found the gold to be in a rich supply. In January, 1876, forty claims were staked out.

In April, 1876, the city of Deadwood was founded out of the camps. Almost immediately the town swelled to 5,000 inhabitants.

On June 8, 1876, A.W. Merrick founded the Black Hills Weekly Pioneer. Also during that summer Swearengen opened his first saloon.

On June 25, 1876, the Lakota Sioux tribe defeated and killed General Custer and 268 of his soldiers.

On August 2, 1876 Seth Bullock and Sol Star arrived in town. That same day, Hickok was shot and killed.

On February 28, 1877, in the Manypenny Agreement, the Lakota Sioux officially lost the land. This was litigated until 1980 when the Supreme Court decided the Sioux had not been given just compensation. They refused a recalculated compensation, saying they wanted the land back.

On September 26, 1879 a fire broke out which destroyed 300 buildings including the Gem Saloon.

There are many excellent sites regarding Deadwood history.

Newspaper articles from Deadwood Pioneer.

The newspaper articles I've found from Deadwood in the 1870s jibe with the town as presented in the series. A sampling of Swearengen.

Black Hills Daily Pioneer, Tuesday June 25, 1878, p. 4.

Thomas Clark, a former miner in the Old Abe, last evening becoming abusive in the Gem dance hall, was thrown out by the proprietor, Al. Swearengen, and his head and face considerably bruised. Parties in the hall at the time say Clark went away and procured a pistol and told Swearengen to heel himself. A large pistol was found upon him. Swearengen gave his own recognizance for $250 to appear this morning.

Al Swearengen seemed to inevitably have the name Al spelled with a period, i.e., Al. Swearengen. Three days later, the above-mentioned case was dismissed.

Black Hills Daily Pioneer, Friday, June 28, 1878, p. 4.

Justice Barker's Little Mill.

The case of assault against Al. Swearengen was dismissed, no prosecutor appearing.

Campbell and Darling, alleged crooked beef eaters, next toed the scratch and, the former was ruled off, no evidence appearing; but Dick Simmons ("Deaf Dick,") swore that Darling had told him he had burned up the hides and would shoot him if he blowed; hence, the judge bound him in the sum of five hundred dollars to appear at the district court.

Murray, the colored shootist, waived examination and Henry Walker and Lewis Curtis going his bond for one thousand dollars, he was released to appear before the district court.

(beef eater: moocher, in this case probably stole someone's cow.) (toed the scratch: stood before the judge)

Black Hills Daily Pioneer, Saturday, July 20, 1878, p. 4.

Al. Swearengen is building a place near [military] Camp Bare Butte.
Six nymphs de terpsichore will be taken out to-day, and more will follow if the boys in blue appreciate dancing.

A man playing at one of the faro games in Morton's club house yesterday became possessed of the idea some one had cheated him, and made a fuss, whereupon the dealer placed the business end of a six shooter at his ear. That settled the difficulty instanter.

Too bad they didn't have a headline: Nymphs of Terpsichore to Bare Butte.

More newspaper articles, part two.
Part three. 

Kelly Company, makers of metal detectors and all things for modern prospecting, have written an article regarding the Black Hills Gold Rush. 


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