Have you ever asked yourself just how much of the popular HBO series “Deadwood” was fact and how much is made up for the sake of pure entertainment?

The award-winning show “Deadwood” was one of the most acclaimed dramas on television. It is not a production of the History Channel or a PBS series. The HBO series does weave actual events and characters with fictional script writing into its popular ongoing series. Does the series make you wonder where the truth ends and the fiction begins? Even residents of the area don’t always know the answers. However, Mary Kopco, director of the Adams Museum, and Jerry L. Bryant, the museum’s research curator and archaeologist, do have most of the answers or are willing to search for them. Both were involved in advising the HBO writers in the creation of the show.

In fairness to the creators of the series, some of the cast’s figures were created as purely fictional characters in order to make the show more interesting. Others may often be loosely based on a real character of Deadwood Gulch’s early days. Sometimes a name is merely borrowed from a real person, without even trying to closely resemble the historical figure. This would be the case of E.B. Farnum, Lucretia “Aunt Lou” Marchbanks or George Hearst.

In general; these rowdy characters do personify the types of adventurous people who came to the Hills and inhabited the camp during the few early years when the Deadwood gold camp was, in fact, a bawdy, wild, and violent town.

The Factual Historical Accounts:

Wild Bill Hickok was shot by Jack McCall in Mann & Nuttall’s Number 10 Saloon.

Seth Bullock, along with Sol Star, did establish the Star and Bullock Hardware Store in 1876.

Martha Bullock does arrive in camp after Seth Bullock’s hardware business is successful. Martha will become a pillar of Deadwood society, bringing arts and culture to the town.

A notable Chinese community did exist in Deadwood’s early days when as many as 400 Chinese lived in an area of Deadwood, often referred to as the “Badlands.” They elected their own mayor and council, as well as establishing their own police force and fire department. In Deadwood’s early days, selling opium and other drugs to the white settlers was a common practice.

George Hearst does come to Deadwood and eventually he buys the Homestake Mine.

E.B. Farnum was appointed as mayor by the first miners’ court in Deadwood. Weeks later, he won the election in by a popular vote.

Calamity Jane was every bit as foul-mouthed and drunk as she is portrayed in the series. There was a small pox outbreak in 1876 where quarantine tents (called pest houses) were established to care for the sick. Calamity Jane was instrumental in helping to care for those who were ill during this epidemic.

Lucretia  Marchbanks was known as “Aunt Lou” in the camp and also quickly gained a reputation as having the finest culinary skills in the Black Hills. Aunt Lou did work at the Grand Central Hotel as the kitchen manager.

Albert W. Merrick was in fact a newspaper editor, founding the Deadwood Pioneer in 1876. However, in August 1879, he sold the paper only to re-purchase it a year later.

A Miners’ Court was established in August 1876 to establish a provisional government in the city. At this time, Seth Bullock was elected as a commissioner and fire warden and E.B. Farnum was made mayor. Just a month later, the Miners Court held an election of offices, and Farnum actually won in the popular vote for mayor. However, Seth Bullock wasn’t ever in the running for Deadwood marshal. The job went to Con Stapleton.

Pioneer John S. McClintock told of a Gem Theater prostitute named Tricksie, who shot a man through the front of his skull for beating her up. The attending doctor was amazed that he survived the gunshot.

Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and several prostitutes did arrive with Charlie Utter’s wagon train in July 1876. Charlie Utter was a true friend to James Butler Hickok. When Hickok died at the hand of Jack McCall, Charlie was away from Deadwood, but soon made it back in time to make all the arrangements for his funeral. He did buy the burial plot and erected the marker.

Jack Langrishe did in fact come to Deadwood Gulch in 1876 along with the rest of his troupe. They temporarily conducted their productions at the Bella Union Theatre before building their own building.

The Fictional Television Accounts:

It is not likely that Seth Bullock nor Sol Star ever actually met Wild Bill Hickok, nor had they befriended him. Seth and Sol arrived in Deadwood Gulch only one day before the murder of Wild Bill. The timeline here was obviously modified so that HBO’s Hickok character could “stay in the series” a little longer.

Seth did not go after Hickok’s murderer, Jack McCall. After the trial in Langrishe’s Deadwood Theater turned out to be a farce, McCall was apprehended and taken to Yankton by U.S. marshals. There he was hanged for the murder of James Butler Hickok on March 1, 1877. With the hangman’s noose still around his neck, Jack McCall was buried in a Yankton cemetery.

The marriage of Seth Bullock to his brother’s widow is pure fiction. Martha Eccles was Seth’s childhood sweetheart. The two were married in Utah in 1874, two years before he came to the Black Hills. In reality, he sent his wife, along with their infant daughter, Margaret, to live with her parents in Minnesota until he could get his businesses established.  After she joined him in the camp, they had another daughter named Florence and a son named Stanley. The fictitious son, William Bullock did not exist; however, Seth and Martha did care for a nephew for several years, but this was not until 1881.

Seth Bullock was not ever considered by the miner’s court to be Deadwood’s first marshal. Actually a man named Isaac Brown was elected by the Miner’s Court after the trial of Jack McCall on Aug. 5, 1876. Soon after this, when Marshal Isaac Brown, along with the Preacher Smith, and two other men named Charles Mason and Charles Holland were traveling between Crook City and Deadwood Gulch, they were ambushed and killed on Aug. 20, 1876. Leaving an open position, the miner’s court soon met again, this time electing Con Stapleton as the new sheriff.

Later, Seth Bullock was appointed by Governor Pennington as the first Lawrence County sheriff, in March 1877. However, when the vote for Lawrence County Sheriff was put to the residents in November,1877, Seth then lost to John Manning.

Star and Bullock did not buy the lot for their store at Wall & Main Street from Al Swearengen. The lot was purchased from two men by the names of Sam Schwartzwald and Henry Beaman in April of 1877.

Sol Star and Seth Bullock were involved in a short-lived mining endeavor that never appeared on the HBO Series. Records indicate that in 1887, the Portland Mine was owned by Bullock and Star and a man named Peter Wiser. Just a year later in March, records show that the claim was sold.

Alma Garrett obviously didn’t have an affair with Seth Bullock, as she did not exist. That he ever had an affair with anyone, given his upstanding history, is highly unlikely.

There is some evidence does exist that would suggest there were problems with the Cornish miners during the Homestake’s early history. Local newspaper’s accounts seem suggest that the problems were among the Cornish miners themselves, rather than between the Cornish men and the mine owners, or with George Hearst, specifically.

The Cornish were sought after by the mine owners, as they were considered to be the best hard rock miners in the world, having had a long history of mining in their own country. Though the mine owners might have preferred them, they were often discriminated against by other immigrants who were resentful of their clannishness and semi-privileged industrial situation.

It is true that George Hearst sent investigators to check out the claims prior to his arrival, particularly a man named L.D. Kellogg, an experienced practical miner. Any evidence that Kellogg or any other hired investigator utilized heavy-handed tactics with the town folk does not exist. Following a brief and thorough investigation, L. D. Kellogg optioned the Homestake and Golden Star Claims for $70,000 form the Manuel brothers. Hearst never owned the Grand Central Hotel. However, he would however, build a new hotel in Lead in 1879.

George Hearst, did one day become the head the Hearst Publishing empire. He did send agents to Deadwood to inspect the two claims, but there is no evidence that he hired a nasty agent named Francis Wolcott. Hearst was known to have been a very demanding person with regard to his business interests, there is no evidence that he was the ruthless character portrayed on the HBO series. 19th century literature described him as a man of scrupulous integrity, a faithful friend, and without pretense or presumption of any kind.

The Homestake Mine was discovered by brothers Moses and Fred Manuel, and Hank Harney, rather than the character of Brom Garrett, who never really existed in Deadwood’s history. This makes it impossible for Alma Garrett to own the mine or Mr. Elsworth’s running it. None of the last three people ever existed in Deadwood’s history.

Wyatt Earp appears in the third season of the series, in fact, he actually appeared in Deadwood in the spring of 1877, just about the same time that Al Swearengen opened the Gem Theater and Seth Bullock was appointed as the Lawrence County sheriff. Though Morgan Earp did come along with brother Wyatt when the two arrive in the spring 1877, there is no indication that he shot anyone while in the area.

There is also nothing in historical records that indicate that he was the “screwball” portrayed on the HBO Series. Morgan Earp was married at the time he arrived in the mining camp and the couple’s home was in Butte, Mont.

It is very doubtful that E. B. Farnum was Al Swearengen’s “lackey,” as all evidence suggests he was a successful businessman in his own right. He did not own the Grand Central Hotel in Deadwood, but rather, owned a retail store and was a real estate and mining entrepreneur.

Though the HBO series shows nothing of his wife, he was married and had three children. E.B did not stand for Eustace Baily, he was actually Ethan Bennett Farnum.

Though the HBO series shows Hickok’s funeral as having been sparsely attended, quite the opposite was in fact true. Almost the entire gold camp attended the somber event.

Jack Langrishe certainly did operate a theatre in Deadwood but he was not gay, as depicted in the series. He ran the theater productions with his wife, Jenette. His first productions, before he built his own theater building, were held at the Bella Union, not in an abandoned brothel.

Lucretia “Aunt Lou” Marchbanks definitely never worked for George Hearst, though it was possible that he may have met her as she did work for a time for the DeSmet Mine, which he would later own.

Jack McCall’s first trial that acquitted him of murder was not held in the Gem as shown, but instead at the Deadwood Theatre, sometimes referred to as McDaniel’s Theatre (for its builder,) or the Langrishe Theatre, for Jack Langrishe, the performer’s troupe manager.

As for the Metz Massacre, the Metz family were ambushed and killed in 1876. The only survivor was actually a man, not a child, making TV’s Sophia Metz and the entire story surrounding her pure television fiction.

The HBO series never shows that Albert W. Merick was married, and in fact he was. Merrick had three children. Unfortunately for the Merricks, they lost their 8-year-old son on Oct. 8, 1880, when he died of inflammation of the bowels. They also lost an infant daughter in 1884.

The Reverend Henry Weston Smith, (“Preacher Smith”) who was nearly 50 years old, did not die of a brain tumor. He was in fact, was murdered while on the way from Deadwood to another mining camp, Crook City. It was said to be most likely done by marauding Indians, although some citizens thought differently.

Another preacher by the name of Father Mackin, who replaced Smith, did die of “softening of the brain” several months after having a spasmodic “fit” in front of the Overland Hotel.

The HBO series idea that Al Swerengen was from England, and that he was raised in an orphanage are totally incorrect. The “sob story” he told to Trixie was pure television fiction. Al was actually raised by his two parents and seven siblings in Iowa.

The bulk of the action in the series first season takes place in Al’s Gem Saloon. Al actually owned and operated a smaller operation called the Cricket Saloon in 1876. The Gem Theater didn’t actually open until April 1877. Although we would never know it from the TV series, he was actually married to a woman named Nettie. In 1878, she left him on the grounds of mistreatment and the pair were later divorced.

Charlie Utter was completely unlike the unkempt and often awkward character in the HBO TV series. The real Charlie was a flamboyant “dandy” known for his charisma and the pride he took in his appearance. He often dressed in hand-tailored suits from San Francisco and meticulously kept his long blonde hair and mustache well-groomed using fancy combs and brushes.

What was considered extremely unusual for the times, he also was absolutely adamant about bathing every day. He was a shrewd and successful businessman. Although never seen in the HBO series, his brother Steve accompanied him when he came to Deadwood Gulch in 1876.

Last, but not least … there was the foul language they used in the “Deadwood” series! If one spends any time near any oil drilling operation or just about any construction site, the language you hear is going to be stronger than that which would be heard at a church social. There is no doubt that young testosterone-laden men, who out-number women by a ratio of 100 to one, would in the company of mostly other men, talk differently in this particular time and setting.

Did they swear back in those days as much as they did in the HBO episodes? The historical experts say “Probably not.”

But the series’ creators made the call and even if you have to turn the sound off to watch the show, you’ll have to admit that the look is stunning, authentic and portrayed as a part of our Western history in a way that Roy Rogers or John Wayne never did.


(5) comments


I know this is not directly about the series but it is about Deadwood history. I am a Mark Twain buff and in several places I have encountered claims that Twain visited Deadwood. I am suspicious. Does anyone know if, when, and why Twain may have visited and can cite a credible source for the claim?> Much obliged.




Great show! Definatly miss it. Language was part of the history.


Thanks for the info about the real thing vs the fiction.Very well done.


I was a police office, deadwood, I also looked into the history of deadwood,I watched HBO, and did not agreed with the langurge. I talked with the older people, who was living in Hot Springs, SD.

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