Deadwood is a town in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It is rivaled only by Tombstone, Arizona as America’s most storied town from the wild frontier days.

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Dead man’s hand

In 1876 “Wild Bill” Hickok, a legendary gunfighter, was shot in the back of his head while he was playing poker. Legend has it that Hickok was unable to find a seat in the parlor where his back would be against a wall, thus preventing any sneak attacks from behind. As a result he sat with his back to the door and was later killed by Jack McCall. Legend has it that Wild Bill’s hand when he was murdered was a pair of aces and eights, a hand that has become known as the Dead man’s hand due to Hickok’s unfortunate luck. The fifth card is a matter of debate, with some people claiming that it had not been dealt or that it was possibly a five or nine of diamonds.

In 1874, famed Army commander George Custer led an expedition into the area and announced that he and his men had discovered gold nearby, in what is today Custer, South Dakota. Two years later brothers Charlie and Steve Utter led a wagon train into Deadwood containing essential business supplies – prostitutes and cards – which led to a boost in industries such as booze, gambling parlors, and brothels. During this time notorious gunfighter “Wild Bill” Hickok helped the Utter brothers by scouting out any troubles the train might encounter. That same year “Wild Bill” was shot in the head while playing poker at the Saloon No. 10. His killer, “the coward Jack McCall”, was captured, tried by a group of miners, freed, re-captured, re-tried by a court, and hanged. Legal proceedings have, thankfully, grown somewhat more standardized in the years since that famous crime.

Historical marker, Deadwood

Another legendary event was the Horsemeat March of 1876, in which General Cook led an expedition pursuing a band of Sioux natives fleeing the site of Custer’s last stand, the Battle of Little Big Horn. General Cook and his men set off in pursuit with reduced rations in order to give a quicker chase, but they did not predict that the Sioux would burn the grass behind them. As a result, both the horses and the men had no food and the men eventually were forced to shoot their own horses for food.

Two major fires struck the town in the late 19th century. In 1879, nearly the entire town burned to the ground, including the popular brothel known as the Gem Theater. The owner, Al Swearengen, rebuilt the Gem bigger and more extravagantly than its predecessor. The town lost many of its residents, itinerant miners whose only possessions were destroyed in the fire, but Deadwood eventually recovered. Swearengen’s command of vice led him into conflict with Sheriff Seth Bullock, a stern Western lawman and another of the town’s earliest residents. The town began to flourish again, but was devastated once more by fire in 1894. Sheriff Bullock and some of the other residents stayed and rebuilt even stronger than before, but this time, Swearengen left town. He was last seen as a penniless drunk, killed while trying to catch a train to Colorado.

The town’s storied history was the inspiration for the HBO hit TV series Deadwood, which centered around Bullock, Swearengen, and the struggles of Deadwood to rise from a lawless miners’ camp to a community and a civilization. The show incorporates many of the town’s early residents and events including the depiction of a man who survived for half-an-hour after being shot in the head by a prostitute.

In 1989, Deadwood legalized gambling, making it the third place in the United States to legalize gambling after Atlantic City and the state of Nevada, albeit at more limited stakes than its predecessors.

Keep in mind that despite its high aspirations, Deadwood is still a very small town (fewer than 2,000 people) in a sparsely populated area.

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