Stand Where They Stood in Deadwood- Poker, Whiskey, and Motorcycles

August 2, 2019
In the Black Hills of South Dakota…
Despite this day also being the opening day of the 79th annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a trip to the likes of Deadwood and the notion of Old West saloons took precedent.

Wild Bill Hickock Grave Deadwood South DakotaLo and behold, August 2nd, 143 years ago, is the day that Wild Bill Hickock was assassinated in a Deadwood South Dakota saloon. James Butler Hickok, a gun fighter, as well as frontiersman, bodyguard, Army scout, Kansas Free State Jayhawker, and constable had made his way to the Black Hills to make money in gold. There, amidst western outlaws, gamblers, gold miners, yet only having just arrived, he was made a peace officer. The moniker Wild Bill emanated from the glamorization of his life in dime novels which dramatized the West and fed the country’s interest in its expanding domain.
Trying to stand where they stood in Deadwood is challenging.
It’s difficult to detect, but if you look around, you can see it… above the signs selling Sturgis t-shirts, the roar of motorcycles cruising the main drag, and basic modern conveniences such as…oh, say…plumbing and streetlights.

Look at the windows of the second story buildings where some original pieces remain. The place did burn down a couple of times leaving much left only to the history books. Imagine those windowpanes wood; exchange the paved street for dirt, iron horses for quarter horses, and the rumble of engines for the general noisiness of the busy western town.Deadwood WIld Bill Hickock

It had to have been a rough time and place compared to today, far from what we know when we seek out a friendly game of cards. Dakota Territory was only six years old and statehood wouldn’t come for another thirteen. The territory capital, Yankton, was on the opposite side of the Dakotas, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn was just the week prior to Hickok’s assassination. A lot has changed, and the Black Hills are not like they used to be.
For tourists, the historical site of Hickok’s tragic end is a now a tourist-geared, Hollywood-ish enclave one floor below a current place of business. Visitors descend a flight of stairs and enter through swinging shutters into a mock poker room with Hickock memorabilia and every effort to recreate an Old West card playing atmosphere. Once there, everyone listens to a retelling of Hickok’s life and sad fate.

Deadwood Poker cards Wild Bill Hickock
There were few authentic 1870’s activities going on in Deadwood. The streets were now paved, so no slogging through manure, dodging horse drawn carriages; Sturgis was in full swing, and T-shirts were on sale, so there were no ponies tied to the hitching rails or people in nineteenth century attire and bonnets. Instead, tourists roamed, took pictures, and shopped. Playing poker and getting a whiskey at the bar in which Hickok did is as close as it gets in 2019.

Deadwood South Dakota WIld Bill Hickock
So, this researcher sat down in the back end of a low-lit establishment at the first poker table I saw. The table wasn’t the round wooden table like in the westerns, more like a Vegas table; the cards have numbers on them nowadays. No royal flush or four of a kind, but two pair: nines and jacks kept me from losing my lunch money. Ready to leave my short jaunt through history, I stopped at the bar on my way, put my foot on the brass rail, and inquired about a glass of whiskey.

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