Wild Bill Hickok, Deadwood and the Wild West

After a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast we packed our bags and loaded them onto the coach because it was time to move on from Rapid City and start going west.  Today we were going to travel through some of the old wild-west towns that previously I had only seen in movies or on the TV, towns with famous names like Mule Creek, Buffalo, Custer and Sundance.  Also along the route was the unfortunately named town of Gayville but I don’t remember that featuring prominently in any John Wayne films.

As there was a fair way to travel today, the coach left early and we rejoined Interstate 90 and this time travelled northwest towards mountains and snow.  Soon we were back in the Black Hills and after a short time the coach left the Interstate and turned onto a road that ran down the side of a dry creek bed full of fallen trees washed here by flash floods towards the appropriately named town of Deadwood who amongst its famous previous citizens were Annie Oakley (I couldn’t help humming the tune to ‘The Deadwood Stage is coming on into town’) and Wild Bill Hickok.

It was the gold rush of 1874 which gave rise to the notoriously anarchic town of Deadwood, which quickly reached a population of around five thousand citizens.  With so many people needing entertainment two enterprising brothers brought a wagon train to the town in 1876 containing what were deemed to be commodities essential to the community to supply the saloons that were frequented by gamblers and whores and which proved to be a very profitable venture.  Demand was high, and the business of prostitution proved to be an especially good investment.  The hotel Madams became the richest people in town and an abundance of boisterous saloons were soon established.  The town attained famous and lasting notoriety for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, and it became known for its wild and almost lawless reputation, during which time murder was common, and punishment for homicide not always fair or impartial.

A fire on September 26 1879 completely devastated the town, destroying over three hundred buildings and consuming everything belonging to its many inhabitants and without the opportunities of rich untapped veins of ore that had characterised the town’s early days, many of the newly impoverished left town to try their luck elsewhere and the place never quite recovered.

In the centre of the town today there is a conservation area with both original and reconstructed old west buildings including the Nuttal & Mann’s saloon where old Wild Bill was shot whilst enjoying a glass of whiskey and a game of poker on August 2nd 1876.  Legend has it that Hickok could not find his favourite empty seat in the corner, where he always sat in order to protect himself against sneak attacks from behind, and instead sat with his back to one door and facing another.  This was unlucky for him because this night  he was shot in the back of the head by a man called Jack McCall.  When he was shot he was holding a pair of aces and a pair of eights and ‘aces and eights’ has been known ever since as a dead mans hand!

Gambling lives on in Deadwood and in the middle of the town we visited the Midnight Star Casino which was a upmarket sort of place that is owned by Kevin Costner who bought it while he was making the film ‘Dances with Wolves’ which was filmed in the Badlands National Park.

After we were through in Deadwood we continued our drive west and soon passed the state line into Wyoming and after about fifty kilometres we passed the town of Sundance which is famous for the fact that in 1887 a man called Harry Longabaugh was convicted of horse theft in the town and was sentenced to eighteen months in the Sundance prison.  Because of this time in jail Harry became known thereafter as the Sundance Kid and later Robert Redford.

There was a lot of snow now and after another two hundred kilometres we passed the town of Buffalo where close by is the famous Hole-in-the-Wall which is a remote hideout located in the Big Horn Mountains.  The site was used in the late 1800s by the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang, a group of cattle rustlers and other outlaws which included among its members Kid Curry, Black Jack Ketchum and Butch Cassidy.  The area was ideal for outlaws as it was remote and secluded, easily defended because of its narrow passes and impossible for lawmen to approach without the outlaws being alerted.  From the late 1860s and for about fifty years the pass was used frequently by numerous outlaw gangs and at its height it featured several cabins that gangs used to lay up during the harsh Wyoming winters, and it had a livery stable, a corral, livestock and ample supplies to see them through until Spring.

We passed teasingly close to the site of the battle of the Little Big Horn but like Sundance and Hole-in-the Wall we didn’t stop off and the coach kept relentlessly going west and it was about now that I thought it would be nice to be driving myself so I could stop off now and again whenever I choose to and not only when the schedule said so.

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