Tuesday, March 22, 2011

ramble: the Wildest West, or 19th-century Deadwood in photographs

Deadwood's main street in 1876
The short-lived HBO show Deadwood is one of my favourite TV series. It's a western in the very best tradition of westerns: there are no black or white hats (just grey ones), bad things happen, good things rarely do, and people struggle to survive a harsh world (hey, that sounds just like real life!*).

In fact, the show's town and its rough-and-lovely characters are based on the real thing.

And, being a real thing in the post-camera era, there are photos--really amazing, fascinating photos.

Deadwood, South Dakota, was settled illegally in the 1870s, contrary to the American government's treaty with the Lakota people of the Black Hills. The town's population soared after the 1874 announcement that gold had been found in the hills.

Seth Bullock, sheriff and co-owner of the Deadwood hardware store
The Black Hills Gold Rush created a truly Wild West town, overflowing with all manner of shady characters, shady deals, shady operations, and far less glamour than we like to attribute to such outside-the-law's-reach situations.

The Gem Theater in 1878 (owner Al Swearengen sits in the buggy at the left)
Deadwood was a rough, tough place.

Sol Star, co-owner of the Deadwood hardwood store, and later, town mayor
Smallpox epidemics, organized and not-so-organized violence, mistreatment of women, racial minorities, and all other disadvantaged people, miserably hard labour, and devastating fires were all common facets of life in Deadwood.

The Deadwood stagecoach in 1889
Its inhabitants carved out their lives in the ways they deemed best, often at the expense of their neighbours.

Wild Bill Hickok, famed gunfighter, shot and killed in Deadwood in 1876
Eventually, Deadwood settled into a mining town, with a railroad and a somewhat steady pace. (The HBO series is set in rowdy 1876-77, before the situation had stabilized).

Parade in Deadwood in 1888, celebrating the completion of a section of the railroad
Today, it's an American National Historic Landmark. Its dusty origins remain vivid, though, with the help of photographs like these.

Calamity Jane, frontierswoman and resident of Deadwood from 1876-81
* And in Deadwood, as in our day, everyone swears all the time. (See this discussion of the deliberately anachronistic cussin'!)

Monument to Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, 1891
Images:
- All from Wikimedia [link]

Sources:
- Wikipedia [link (town) and link (TV show)]
Deadwood: Stories of the Black Hills, by showrunner David Milch (Bloomsbury, 2006). [Amazon link] A truly fabulous book with gorgeous photos and plenty of tales of both TV show and town.

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