Weird History

The Real History Of 'Deadwood' 

Quinn Armstrong
15.6k views 13 items

WARNING: This list contains spoilers for all three seasons of Deadwood.

Any time a highly respected historical drama comes along, whether on the big or small screen, be prepared for dozens of articles about all the things it got wrong. Uncovering those inconsistencies may be illuminating, but the relationship between history and its fictionalized depiction is a codependent one. Even with poetic license doing some heavy lifting, fiction often hews closer than expected to historical fact - or at least uses true events as a sturdy jumping-off point.

That's certainly the case with Deadwood, one of the best shows in HBO's history. While there are divergences between the show and its historical basis, the period detail is often remarkably accurate. Even some of the show's most unbelievable moments are based on solid history. For example, Wild Bill Hickok's demise at the hands of Jack McCall, and McCall's flight and eventual imprisonment, happened more or less the way the series depicts.

Series creator David Milch intended to show how law and order come to a lawless place, and how human beings act when they are, as sociologists say, "in a state of nature." What better way to find out than to look at the actual historical record? It's all there: the vicious Al Swearengen, the more law-abiding Seth Bullock, the self-mythologized legends Wild Bill and Calamity Jane, the relentless George Hearst and his Homestake Mine. Just as the show can teach us about order and society, the real-life town has plenty to teach us about history and the value of the truth.

The Settlement Should Have Never Existed
The Settlement Should Ha... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list The Real History Of 'Deadwood'
Photo: National Archives at College Park/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

One of the reasons for Deadwood's unique popularity as a mining town in the 1870s was that it had been untouched by previous gold rushes. The area was inside Sioux territory, where outsiders couldn't legally settle. After General Custer passed through, however, he returned to the East Coast and proclaimed there were vast quantities of gold in the Black Hills. Miners descended by the thousands and began slowly patching together what would become the infamous settlement.

Because of the town's location, the US government couldn't get involved, and it took a long time for any sort of order to be established. So the rough-and-tumble lawlessness of the TV show was the result of more than just Swearengen's machinations - it was because there never should have been a settlement there in the first place.

The Black Hills Gold Rush Attracted Thousands Of Miners
The Black Hills Gold Rus... is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list The Real History Of 'Deadwood'
Photo: L.C. McClure/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

When the miners came to the settlement, they came in droves. At its height, the town was quite a bit larger than its television facsimile. In 1876, there were around 3,000 residents and almost 200 businesses in the town. Add to that an enormous transient population of miners who came through for short expeditions. As the miners began to flood the town, more permanent structures went up, including brick-and-mortar buildings. This was accompanied by a push toward law and order, embodied by the arrival of the real-life sheriff Seth Bullock.

This process accelerated dramatically when a fire swept through the town in 1879, beginning at a bakery on Sherman Street and eventually wiping out much of the business district. Fearing another fire, the citizens of Deadwood rebuilt their homes out of brick, rather than wood. The local government also passed laws requiring that building materials not include lumber. 

The Boom Generated $1 Billion In Gold, But The Economy Couldn’t Stay Strong
The Boom Generated $1 Bi... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list The Real History Of 'Deadwood'
Photo:  Gorilla Jones/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

The problem with booms is they eventually end - and the bigger the boom, the sharper the decline. The Black Hills represented one of the richest gold finds in American history, generating over $1 billion in revenue over the course of its mining operations.

The allure of gold brought many settlers to the area in the 1870s, including a sizable Chinese settler community. By 1918, the gold lodes were exhausted, and the town's economy collapsed. Most residents left, and by 1935, the city's once-vibrant Chinese community was completely gone.

For much of the 20th century, the once-booming municipality seemed to be at its end. People departed, shuttered business weren't replaced, and in 1987, a fire wiped out half of downtown. Just when it looked like the settlement might become a ghost town, gambling was legalized within the city limits. Through a combination of gambling profits and tourism, Deadwood began to thrive once again.

Al Swearengen Was Real - And Even More Vicious Than He Is On The Show
Al Swearengen Was Real -... is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list The Real History Of 'Deadwood'
Photo:  HBO

Ian McShane's Al Swearengen is one of the all-time great TV villains. Ruthless and profane but not without his gentle moments, he's the ultimate survivor in a show full of survivors. Swearengen was a real person, and based on the records available, much of what the show depicts seems to be accurate. Swearengen did own the Gem Theater saloon, he did employ sex workers, and he was as cutthroat as the show depicts. The fictional version, while ruthless, is not always unfair; there's even a bit of tenderness in him.

That's not the case with the real-life Swearengen, who seems to have been a one-dimensional monster, utterly unconcerned with anyone but himself. This is especially reflected in the way he treated his working girls, many of whom lost their lives at a young age from assault, addiction, or disease. Many of the girls even took their own lives.