Located in the Black Hills, Deadwood offers all kinds of outdoor recreation.

Deadwood’s History and Legacy

Deadwood’s story reads like a gripping Western drama — larger-than-life characters, intense action and frequent plot twists.

 

The roots of this iconic town go back to the late 19th century, when prospectors struck gold in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Today, Deadwood proudly embraces its gold-rush origins as an integral part of its identity.

1876: Deadwood, South Dakota is Established

Before its transformation into Deadwood, the southwest region of South Dakota originally belonged to the Lakota people. The area was illegally seized following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills during an expedition led by George Armstrong Custer in 1874, leading to the establishment of Deadwood. A surge of prospectors flocked to the area with aspirations of striking gold. In the fall of 1875, early miners discovered a bountiful vein of gold in the north of the Black Hills area, causing a frenzy of gold miners to migrate to Deadwood Gulch.

Early entrepreneurs and miners laid out the lawless town of Deadwood in 1876. Within a year, the town multiplied in population, reaching 25,000 by some accounts. Life in early Deadwood was unruly, dangerous and often unfair. Burglary, arson and even murder were common occurrences in this authentic Wild West town. Establishments like gambling houses, brothels and saloons were commonplace among the early businesses. You can get an interactive feel for how things used to be at spots like the Days of '76 Museum.

Days of 76 Mueseum/Deadwood
Days of '76 Museum
Days of 76 Parade Deadwood
Days of '76 Parade

Late 19th Century: Deadwood’s Decline and Rise

As the gold mines eventually dried up and the economic prosperity of Deadwood waned, the town began to decline late in the 19th century. However, the spirit of Deadwood endured and the town found new avenues for survival. The allure of the Wild West and the emergence of historical tourism kept Deadwood on the map.

With the turn of the 20th century, the people of Deadwood started making strides to preserve their town’s rich history. The formation of the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission in 1989 aimed to protect and maintain the town's unique architectural and cultural heritage. This commitment to preservation, coupled with the legalization of gambling in 1989, has allowed Deadwood to thrive through the years and attract visitors to this day.

Modern Day Deadwood

Today, Deadwood’s untamed past echoes on. The town's Main Street is packed with historic buildings that capture its storied past. Visitors can explore museums, casinos and historic landmarks that tell the tale of the once-lawless mining town.

Deadwood’s legacy is intertwined with its tumultuous history. From its lawless beginnings to its present-day appeal, Deadwood is as untamed as ever. It continues to be a living testament to the spirit of exploration, fortune-seeking and the enduring allure of the Wild West.

Explore Things to Do in Deadwood

Wild Bill Hickok, Historic Deadwood
Wild Bill Hickok
A shootout in Deadwood, SD.
Main Street Shootouts

Tales From Deadly Deadwood 

Betrayal and murder characterized Deadwood as a lawless place, where the harsh realities of the Wild West often tore apart the thin veil of order.

Dead Man’s Hand: Who Was Wild Bill Hickok?

Wild Bill Hickok was many things — a gunslinger, gambler and, most of all, a folk hero. But his life in Deadwood took a fateful turn when he was shot from behind while playing poker at a saloon in 1876. The cards in his hand at the time, now infamous as the "Dead Man's Hand," comprised of two pairs — black aces and eights. Jack McCall, the perpetrator, was unexpectedly acquitted by a miner's court lacking jurisdiction the next day. Though McCall initially evaded capture, he was later found, tried and hanged by the legal authorities of the Dakota Territory. You can get a real feel for all of this by witnessing the Deadwood Alive Gunslingers perform their reenactments May through September as part of the Main Street Shootouts.

Calamity Jane Grave Mount Moriah Cemetery Deadwood
Calamity Jane's Grave, Mount Moriah Cemetery
Calamity Jane reenactor in historic Deadwood
Calamity Jane, Deadwood Reenactments

Legendary Frontierswoman: Who Was Calamity Jane?

Calamity Jane was a legendary American frontierswoman and folk figure who settled in Deadwood in 1876. Renowned for her fearless and adventurous spirit, she became a symbol of the rugged, untamed landscape of the 19th-century American frontier. Calamity Jane was known for her sharpshooting skills, riding prowess and unapologetically bold personality. She lived a life filled with various exploits, often crossing paths with other notable figures of the time, including Wild Bill Hickok. Despite her rough exterior, there was a compassionate side to Calamity Jane, as she nursed the sick during outbreaks of disease and cared for wounded soldiers. Her legacy endures through the numerous tales and dime novels that have immortalized her as a legendary part of Deadwood’s history. 

A room at The Brothel Deadwood museum.
The Brothel Deadwood
Adams Museum Deadwood Legends
Adams Museum

The Gem Variety Theater Burns

Al Swearengen, a notorious figure in Deadwood, left an indelible mark on the town's history. Known for his ruthless and violent demeanor, Swearengen operated the Gem Variety Theater, one of Deadwood's earliest entertainment venues, opening its doors in 1877. The Gem’s backrooms hosted various illegal activities such as gambling and prostitution. The theater famously burned down three separate times. The third incident ended with a peculiar twist — when firefighters arrived, the hydrant wrenches necessary to extinguish the fire had been stolen. (Yes, Swearengen had made plenty of enemies by that time.) Swearengen packed his bags and departed for Colorado after losing his theater to flames for the third time. Either his tumultuous past caught up with him, or he made new enemies, as his dead body was later discovered near a streetcar track. The legend of Al Swearengen endures as an integral part of Deadwood's legacy. Today, visitors can explore the historical site at Mineral Palace Hotel & Gaming Complex, where the Gem once stood, and enjoy the Gem Steakhouse and Saloon's homage to Deadwood's characters through its menu. You can also learn more about Deadwood’s seedier history at museums like The Brothel Deadwood.

Deadwood’s Wild West era has long since passed, but echoes of the legendary figures of days past live on. Visitors can learn more about Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, Al Swearengen and other Wild West legends at Adams Museum.

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Historic Deadwood reenactments
Play Video

History is Alive in Deadwood, South Dakota

Nowhere in the world do history and fun combine like in Historic Deadwood. Hear from Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, and others before walking your own path in the footsteps of legends. 

So Much More to Explore in Historic Deadwood

Another Great 8 adventure is waiting just around the bend in South Dakota. Get inspired and say #HiFromSD to share your vacation experiences!

Plan Your Adventure in Historic Deadwood

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