Deadwood Dick

I enjoy researching and writing about the Old West because there is no history quite as colorful or as interesting as that of America’s westward expansion.  Unhappily, very few of our present-day colleges or universities offer courses in American history —the story of how we Americans, as individuals and communities, developed into our present state.  Ignoring our history, or revising it, is no accident, for if it is possible to ignore or reinvent America’s history, then it is also possible to destroy or redefine our national identity and culture.  The reasons for doing this should be self-evident.  History is the story of our past.  It is not good or bad, it just is.  To me, the story is fascinating.

Academic revisionists would have us all believe that white people showed up in America one day from Europe and, because they were freakishly religious, naturally bad, or greedy, intentionally set out to destroy American Indian culture, but the fact is that European settlers tried (quite unsuccessfully) to deal with Indian tribes for nearly four-hundred years.  Eventually, the destruction of Indian culture did become a focus of Spanish and American governments: when these governments realized that the hostiles could not be pacified, and eradication was the only remaining option.  If we modern Americans lament anything at all, it should be that none of these people, Indian or European, were able to discover a pathway to peaceful coexistence. Yet, with that said, we should note that the Neanderthals are no longer with us, either.  In truth, there is no one alive today who participated in the intentional removal or extermination of the Indians, excluding of course the amazingly large percentage of the remaining Indian population that regularly drink themselves to death.

Standing Bear 001

Standing Bear, a Ponca Chieftain

The Ponca Indians are a western tribe of the Sioux language group.  There are two remaining tribes: the Nebraska Ponca, and the Oklahoma Ponca.  They were not always from the plains.  Before the arrival of whites, the Ponca lived in the area just east of the Mississippi River.  Over time, the Iroquois pushed the Ponca westward and to avoid witless banter, we must acknowledge that the Ponca were not themselves benign citizens.  The translation of the word Ponca is “cutthroat.” The term suggests something far beyond being good businessmen.

In 1868, Oglala, Miniconjou, and Brûlé bands of the Lakota Sioux, Yanktonai Dakota, and Arapaho Indians sat down with representatives of the United States government and signed a treaty.  Why any Indian would sign a treaty with the United States after 1624 is baffling, but that is what they did.  The Treaty of Fort Laramie guaranteed to the Lakota ownership of the Black Hills, and in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana, vast reservations for hunting.  To these Sioux Indians, the land was sacred.  For a time, at least, the treaty closed the Powder River country to all white settlements.  The treaty included all the Ponca lands in the so-called Great Sioux Reservation.  Ah, but the Cutthroat Indians did not get along well with the Sioux and a lawsuit forced the United States to round up all Ponca bands and remove them to Nebraska or Oklahoma, where they are today living happily ever after.

Within four years, however, whites began trickling into the Black Hills in direct violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty.  The US government did next to nothing to stop this migration.  This particular story did not end well for white settlers whenever the Sioux found them in near proximity to the Black Hills.  Within eight years of the treaty, Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer announced the discovery of gold along French Creek in the Black Hills (near present day Custer, South Dakota).  Ultimately, this story did not end well for Custer, either —but his announcement did have an intended effect: thousands of white people began moving toward the Black Hills.  The discovery of gold has an uncanny effect on people.  Within two years of Custer’s announcement, twelve hundred people were living adjacent to a gulch full of dead trees; they called their small community Deadwood.  The population soon climbed to around 5,000 souls and Deadwood, South Dakota very quickly became one of America’s deadliest cities —somewhat like sections of modern Chicago, only not quite as dangerous.

Dora DuFran 001

Dora DuFran made a good living as a madam in Deadwood, Dakota Territory

Astute businessmen moved into Deadwood.  People looking for gold became consumers of much-needed merchandise: a fortune was made in dry goods, whiskey, and women. Gambling and gunfire followed along behind.  If a prospector wasn’t cut down by an ornery shootist, then he was probably taken by a sexually transmitted disease.  The ladies in Deadwood were right popular —we today remember the names of the madams: Dora DuFran and Mollie Johnson.  Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon was right popular, too —it was where Crooked Nose Jack McCall [1] murdered James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok by shooting him in the back of the head.  Colorado Charlie Utter had Hickok buried in the Mount Moriah Cemetery.  When Hickok’s paramour Calamity Jane died in 1903, the citizens of Deadwood laid her to rest next to him.

Of course, the citizens of Deadwood were outraged when Jack murdered Hickok, so they held a trial.  The impromptu court was called to order with the prosecution, defense, and a jury made up of local miners and businessmen.  The court was called to order on 3 August in McDaniel’s Theater. McCall claimed that he shot Hickok in retribution for the murder of his brother in Abilene, Kansas.  After two hours of deliberation, McCall was found not guilty and released.  Fearing for his safety, McCall soon departed for the Wyoming Territory.  Lawmen there refused to recognize the Deadwood trial because the town itself was illegal (in violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie) and without any jurisdiction.  Accordingly, the federal court in Yankton declared that double jeopardy did not apply in this case and McCall was re-arrested and held for trial.  Three months after finding him guilty of the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, McCall joined him in the afterlife.  McCall was about 24-years of age.

1876 was an important year for two additional reasons. In that year, smallpox ravaged the town, causing the death of hundreds of citizens.  It was also the year in which justice came to visit Colonel Custer. But, over time, Deadwood’s economy settled down and the search for gold moved from panning in local streams to deep mining; the city eventually lost its rowdy character and became prosperous.

Deadwood Dick-Beadle & Adams

Beadles Half-Dime Library and Deadwood Dick

For twenty years after 1877, Edward Lytton Wheeler wrote dime novels about a fictional character he called Deadwood Dick.  Deadwood Dick was a fearless frontiersman whose exploits excited the imaginations of young boys.  Was Deadwood Dick a figment of Wheeler’s imagination —or did he pattern his character after a real person?  The fact is that the name became so widely known in its time that it was adopted by several men who resided in that town.  They have an interesting story, as well.

Richard Clarke was born in Yorkshire, England on 15 December 1845.  He migrated to the United States when he was 16 years of age and, motivated by the stories of the discovery of gold, made his way to Illinois where he joined a band of prospectors.  At the very height of the excitement over the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, Clarke made his way to the Dakota territories and was one of the first settlers in the town of Deadwood.  Widely considered a genuine hero of the Old West, folks back then saw him as a fearless frontiersman, prospector, Indian fighter, Pony Express rider, and wilderness guide.  Whether he ever claimed the name Deadwood Dick, or others did it for him, Clarke was said to have been a survivor of the Battle of the Little Big Horn.  My guess is, “Good luck with that stretch.”

One citizen of Deadwood described Richard Clarke as “short in stature, longhaired, and long-winded.”  Mr. Clarke seemed to be a man who was looking to promote himself.  Among his many exploits, he sold rusty guns with fabricated histories, sold homemade horsehair Indian scalps, and it was also possible to purchase an autographed picture of Clark —if the price was right.  Richard Clarke died in 1930.

If Richard Clarke was the real Deadwood Dick, others made that claim as well:

  • Gunman/gambler Frank Palmer [2]
  • Negro cowboy Nat Love
  • Actor Dick Brown
  • Stage Driver Dick Bullock
  • Gunman Richard Palmer
Nat Love 001

Artist’s rendition of Nat Love, a black cowboy of the late 1800s.

I have a few reservations about the claims of Nat Love. There are two sources for this information, the first written by Nat Love himself [3].  The second source is ascribed to Henry Louis Gates in his work, Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African & African-American Experience.  I question veracity of Gates’ claim because I question his academic and personal integrity. This same Dr. Gates made outlandish claims against a white police officer investigating a burglary in progressin Gates’ own neighborhood. When Gates refused to identify himself, Officer James Crowley properly took him into custody.  The incident gave Barack Obama his first opportunity to claim rampant racism within America’s law enforcement organizations.

People who write books about themselves tend to make exaggerated claims to heighten their fame.  In the case of Nat Love, it is a small matter.  It is of no historical consequence whether Mr. Love ever referred to himself as Deadwood Dick.  It does matter, however, when educators perpetuate such claims on the strength a 1907 autobiography, which also included a memory of Nat’s own birth.  If Mr. Love could recount his own birth, then he had a phenomenal memory, indeed.  The problem is not Nat Love, whom we may forgive.  The problem is dishonest Harvard professors who perpetuate embellishments to satisfy their own political agenda.


  1. Murdoch, The American West: The Invention of a Myth, 2003
  2. Matheson, The Memoirs of Wild Bill Hickok, 1996


[1] McCall is believed to have originated in Kentucky, born in the early 1850s.  He eventually drifted west and, for a time, worked as a Buffalo hunter.  By 1876, McCall was living in a gold mining camp outside Deadwood under the name Bill Sutherland.  McCall was drunk at the bar at Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon on 1 August 1876.  When one of the gamblers dropped out of the game, McCall took his place.  A few hands later, McCall was out of money.  Hickok offered him some money for breakfast and advised him not to play poker again until he could cover his losses.  McCall accepted the money but felt insulted by Hickok’s offer.  Early in the morning of 2 August, McCall walked up behind Hickok and shot him with a .45 caliber revolver.

[2] According to Palmer’s obituary on 30 May 1906, he was Deadwood Dick.  Palmer supposedly migrated to Deadwood at around the age of 17 years and made his living as a gun hand and a gambler.  His fellow gamblers gave him the name Deadwood Dick.  Irwin P. Beadle (New York) popularized Palmer in his half-dime novels.  Source: Pueblo Chieftain.

[3] Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as “Deadwood Dick,” by Himself; a True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great Cattle Ranges and on the Plains of the “Wild and Woolly” West, Based on Facts, and Personal Experiences of the Author. Los Angeles, Cal.: s.n., 1907.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in HISTORY. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Deadwood Dick

  1. Andy says:

    One of the best yet. Thoroughly enjoyed the history accompanied by subtle, witty comments. Well done.


  2. kidme37 says:

    Very enjoyable read !


    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.