Once upon a time the Wild West Deadwood days included dusty streets filled with outlaws, cowboys, gold miners, gunslingers, businessmen, and prostitutes (also known as working girls, soiled doves, or painted ladies). When the law had no say, prostitution was commonplace, and men spent their days gold-panning or striving to run their business they brought forth to Deadwood during the year of a gold rush.
This was a time where men, prostitutes, livestock and the elements coexisted. The days of disorder in Deadwood are of the past, however; the rugged history of the lawless era still looms in Deadwood.
In Deadwood’s early days, the town illegally sat on Native American land issued by the government. The discovery of gold during General George Armstrong Custer’s 1874 expedition in the Black Hills changed everything. Evidence of gold discovery created rumors that wealth laid within every creek in the Black Hills.
All walks of life flocked to Deadwood. The area was populated by people invading the territory under illegal measures to pursue their fortunes. Between 1874 and 1877 the area flourished and up to 20,000 prospectors flooded the area. With such a high increase of population in such a short amount of time, government officials could do little to stop the rapid increase in population and eventually, their efforts stopped.
Life in the history of Deadwood wasn’t easy; men, livestock and the elements coexisted together in decrepit tents and buildings. The streets were full of mud, manure, rats, and garbage. Needless to say, it was not a lifestyle for the faint of heart. Miners were determined to gold pan in the unpredictable Dakota Territory climate, spending their free time drinking, playing poker, frequenting The Gem (a Deadwood saloon owned and operated by the merciless Al Swearengen where prize fights took place and stage acts performed, usually by prostitutes) or visiting the brothels. It is clear there was money flowing in Deadwood. The Gem prospered at an average of $5,000 per night and sometimes up to $10,000 per night. This was an enormous amount of money for the time period, not to mention these are numbers for this specific saloon alone and not including the others in Deadwood.
The women of Deadwood had an unfortunate and sad life as 90% were “painted ladies”. Many were lured to Deadwood in hopes of respectable employment, but instead, were trapped into being working girls. Eventually they found themselves stuck and enslaved to the brothels. Many of these women experienced violence, disease, and depression, and eventually turned to alcohol, drugs, and suicide.
Fires, floods, and crime plagues the history of Deadwood. However; the lawless times and rugged lifestyles slowly started to take a turn as respectful and reputable merchants, business men, and law enforcement officials from other areas settled into Deadwood. Soon, the streets calmed and order was put into place. The gold rush dwindled and gold seekers moved on to find their fortune in other areas. Some with a pioneering spirit decided to stay in the area and pursue their businesses. Families developed and schools appeared. Rather than being a rugged Wild West town, Deadwood became another town on the frontier filled with hopes and dreams. Today, Deadwood consists of about 1,380 people, a rather drastic cut from the 20,000+ that flocked to the area over 100 years ago, but a healthy community who embraces their history in the Wild West era. To experience the history of Deadwood, explore the Adams Museum, there you will find a plethora of historical treasures that highlight Deadwood’s past.