Gold Rush and Wild West History
Homesteading, settlement, and the railroad were established in the eastern portion of South Dakota well before western South Dakota. The establishment of Sioux Falls and Yankton opened the floodgates to settlers. Western South Dakota was a wilderness of Indian Country for many years. Colonel George Armstrong Custer led an expedition to the Black Hills in 1874. Once the announcement was made that gold was discovered in the Hills, the Black Hills Gold Rush began. This is when South Dakota’s reputation as being the “Wild West” began.
The Gold Rush gave rise to the development of many communities in the Black Hills, such as Deadwood and Lead. Famous people that gave South Dakota the “Wild West” reputation include Wild Bill Hickok, Doc Holiday, Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, and Wyatt Earp.
Deadwood attained a reputation for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok by Jack McCall. The initial trial of McCall was deemed invalid because Deadwood was an illegal town; the case was moved to Dakota Territory court where they found McCall guilty. Deadwood was soon known for its lawless reputation – at this time murder was common – however, punishment was not always fair.
Lead was also founded after the discovery of gold. Lead was founded as a company town by Homestake Mining Company. The Homestake Mine, which is the largest, deepest, and most productive gold mine in the Western Hemisphere, is near Lead.
The economy soon changed from gold rush to steady mining. Communities like Deadwood lost their rough, lawless reputation and began to be prosperous towns. By 1889 settlements, railroads, agriculture, and industry were well established in western South Dakota.