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"There is no doubt as to the existence of various metals throughout the hills."

-- Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, a letter to the Assistant Adjutant General of Dakota, Aug. 15, 1874

In July 1874, Custer came down into the Black Hills from Fort Abraham Lincoln with more than 1,000 men; the 7th Cavalry, an infantry battalion, engineers and civilian prospectors, along with 110 wagons filled with equipment and provisions. They brought three Gatling guns and a cannon, 300 head of cattle, and a marching band.

They were accompanied by journalists representing newspapers in New York, Chicago, Minneosta, and the Dakota Territory, the English photographer William H. Illingworth, a paleontologist, a geologist and a few cartographers. Custer asked for and received Lt. Col. Fred Grant, the 24-year-old son of the president of the United States, as his aide. A single woman--a black cook called Aunt Sally--made the trek.

Custer's favorite Indian scout, Bloody Knife--destined to take a bullet through the head at the Little Big Horn--led the way, into the sacred lands of the Sioux.

They were looking for a place to build a fort. The scientists provided a pretext for the expedition: The Black Hills were sacred to the Oglala Sioux but virtually unexplored by the descendants of Europeans. There were rumors: The Jesuit priest Pierre-Jean De Smet had seen Indians carrying gold they said came out of the Black Hills.

The Black Hills range, by virtue of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868 designated as Sioux land, was protected from white settlement. The U.S. government set it aside for the "absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians." This was a concession the government made when they sued for peace after Red Cloud's War, the second war the U.S. had lost to the Indians along the Powder River.

That made no difference.

There was gold in the rivers. Custer's expedition found flakes, but no bonanza. Still, it was enough to lure treasure hunters; the last of the major American gold rushes was on.

At first the army tried to turn them back, but soon the gold-seekers overwhelmed them. Most were white men, but there were black men and Chinese settlers, moving inland from the West Coast. In November 1875, miner John B. Pearson found gold in a narrow canyon lined with dead trees near the northern limit of the Black Hills range. For the first prospectors into the area, nearly every turn of the shovel would reveal what is called "placer gold"--loose pieces mixed in with gravel and soil in and around creekbeds.

Placer gold is gold that has broken off a hard rock deposit from some vein running through a mountain, from a lode. While the first men in could get rich panning and picking, by finding discrete nuggets here and there, the real game was in finding the motherlode from which these flakes descended.

On April 9, 1876, brothers Fred and Moses Manuel, along with their partners Hank Harney and Alex Engh, found the source of the placer gold in Deadwood Creek; it was about 10 miles from the gulch Pearson had explored. While the ore their Homestake mine produced was of fairly low grade, until it closed in 2001 it would produce 10 percent of the world's gold supply.

But the Manuels and their partners were short-sighted. After a year they sold their claim for $70,000 to a group headed by George Hearst (father of William Randolph, who provided the model for Charles Foster Kane, great-grandfather of Patty Hearst).

Meanwhile, the camp of Deadwood had been established in the gulch; by the summer of 1876 it was a kind of town with about 10,000 souls, some makeshift buildings, some tents and a few sturdier structures. Businesses sprang up to support and exploit the miners. There was whiskey and women and faro and outfits that sold $7 shovels in an era when most workers earned $10 or less in a 60-hour work week.

By 1879, Deadwood would have telephone lines; after a fire nearly destroyed the town in September of that year, it rebuilt itself in native stone and brick. Many of those buildings still stand today, protected by another decree from the U.S. government: The entire city has been designated as a National Historic Landmark District.

I have never been to Deadwood, which has been described as an amiable cross between Branson and Reno, Nev. (Limited stakes gambling has been legal in the city since 1989; three quasi-legal brothels operated on the town's Main Street until they were shut down in May 1980.) It's a seasonal tourist destination, a long way off the interstate, in a remote corner of a state a lot of people would have trouble finding on a map.

But I have spent the past seven weeks immersed in a television series about the birthing of that town, rewatching HBO's Deadwood, which ran for three seasons (36 episodes) starting in 2004, and discussing it with some smart people as part of the Lifequest of Arkansas adult learning sessions I conduct. (Last year we watched and talked about the 1989 Polish television series Dekalog. Good times.)

The series was conceived by David Milch, who studied with Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks and went on to write for the series Hill Street Blues and co-create NYPD Blue. It is an ambitious work, and it might be argued (by me) that the first season of the series is the best thing that ever aired on American television. (HBO will air a Deadwood movie, written by Milch, directed by Daniel Minahan and featuring most of the original cast, later this year.)

I have inhabited a fictional Deadwood, which shares certain markers and names with the real place, but is in fact a critique of the human experience of moving from chaos to society, of naming the animals and coming to agreement on the various lies--such as the worth of gold, treaties and government--that define us as human. Deadwood is a universal story about the bringing of order and the imposition of value; about how we crawl out of the dark and make up things, and the violence inherent in, and the unintentional consequences intrinsic to, our invention.

It could have been, as Milch originally intended it to be, set in ancient Rome.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at and read his blog at

Editorial on 03/05/2019

Print Headline: PHILIP MARTIN: Lies agreed upon


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  • Delta123
    March 7, 2019 at 2:24 p.m.

    Deadwood was great. For some unknown reason it was canceled, leaving multiples of loose ends. Great show.