Deadwood Historic Preservation misses shot at acquiring Wild Bill’s rifle

Wild Bill Hickok’s .45-70 Springfield Trapdoor rifle recently sold at auction for $475,312. Photo courtesy of Bonhams

DEADWOOD — Wild Bill Hickok’s .45-70 Springfield Trapdoor rifle that was reportedly buried by his side on Aug. 3, 1876 in Deadwood recently sold for nearly half a million dollars but was not auctioned off without interest from the Deadwood Historic Preservation Commission.

Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker said he is not at liberty to divulge how much the city’s bidding ceiling went, but he said he was very disappointed that he wasn’t able to return the historic heirloom to Deadwood, where he feels it rightfully belongs.

“This is the rifle that was buried with Wild Bill when he was interred in the old cemetery in August of 1876. When Charlie Utter and friends moved Wild Bill to Mt. Moriah in 1879, the casket was opened and there are references of Wild Bill being in the petrified state and the rifle was still with him. It was removed from the casket and ends up into a family in Spearfish, and, then, through the years, it ends up in the Earle collection, down in Texas,” Kuckenbecker said. “Wild Bill lay in rest, but his rifle was in private hands. It was the first time being auctioned that we are aware of, so we felt it was fitting to be back in Deadwood and be on display at one of our wonderful museums, along with the pistol we acquired in 2006, under the sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of Deadwood and also the killing of Wild Bill is coming up in 2026, so it just felt fitting that the rifle be at home and be on display for the anniversary.  

Kuchenbecker said the rifle’s sale price went beyond the city’s means and historic preservation officials were unsuccessful in obtaining it.  

“It sold for over $475,000,” Kuchenbecker said. “I was very disappointed and saddened that it couldn’t be brought back to Deadwood, where it belongs.”

City officials provided Kuchenbecker with a range he could bid on during an executive session of the Deadwood City Commission.

“It did exceed that range,” Kuchenbecker said.  

But Historic Preservation officials aren’t giving up just yet.

“We’d like to track down the new owner and see if he would at least have it on loan to the museums during the sesquicentennial year of Deadwood,” Kuchenbecker said.

The auction was conducted by Bonhams of California and bids were accepted live and in person, online, and by phone.

“I quit watching (online) about five hours in,” Kuchenbecker said. “It was a tremendous collection and Wild Bill was Lot Number Three … when I was bidding, it was just down to me and one other bidder.”

Kuchenbecker said the $475,000 includes around $100,000 in buyers and sellers premiums the auction company takes as consignment costs and that an individual in the live audience purchased the rifle, although he has not yet had an opportunity to find out who.

“Obviously, Wild Bill Hickok was a western legend and is buried, here in Deadwood, his final resting place,” Kuchenbecker said. “While he was only here for a very short time in 1876 – June through Aug. 2, his legacy is connected to Deadwood as his final resting spot. Deadwood has taken advantage of and promoted that from very early on in our promotions history. When you’ve got a cemetery such as Mt. Moriah with Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane buried next to each other, two famous western legends, and then, all the other pioneers and noteworthy settlers in Deadwood, such as Seth Bullock, Potato Creek Johnny, Preacher Smith, and you have a cemetery that gets 500 to 600 visitors a day, that’s why the rifle is important to Deadwood, as well. People are attracted to those legends.”

So how do folks know this rifle is the real deal?

“The provenance was very strong on this,” Kuchenbecker said.  

As listed, the rifle bears no visible serial number, is circa 1870, .45-70 caliber 29 5/8 inch barrel, and is marked 1863 on the tail of the lock, with Eaglehead and US arsenal marks. The gun includes a cleaning rod and J.B. Hickock is crudely carved on the left side of the walnut stock, a JB monogram on the right side. The condition of the rifle was considered fair to good, with contemporary modifications for sporting use, the stock is shortened, and there is a pewter fore-end cap, with large chunks missing from the fore-end and above the action.  

Information listed about the rifle on the Bonhams auction web site states indicates that after the rifle was removed from the grave, it ended up being sold to Allen Toomey of Spearfish and then passed down to Isabel Toomey Duffy.

It was later sold to Jim and Theresa Earle, from Texas, and a signed letter of documentation and transfer of ownership from Isabel Toomey Duffy and her son William Duffy, in May 24, 1993 recorded the transaction.

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