“Gold Discovered in the Black Hills” was one of the headlines people would read in newspapers of the late 19th century. Thousands flocked to the Black Hills of South Dakota following the Agreement of 1877 - Congress’ act removing the Black Hills from Native American lands and opening the area to white settlers. Eager to strike it rich or create a new life, the people traveling to the Black Hills were from all different backgrounds.
There were many ways one could get to Deadwood, the epicenter of the gold rush, or the surrounding Black Hills. In fact, the hardest decision was not whether to go to the Black Hills, but which road to take. Travelers brave enough to test their luck on the wagon trails often were in for harsh surprises, including Indian attacks, water shortages, bogged out roads and robberies. For those lucky enough to make it to the Black Hills, the rewards often outweighed the struggles. For others, the Wild West would be their final resting place.
The stagecoaches and freight wagons used to get to the Black Hills had to be sturdy; they were crossing rivers, going through mudded out roads and facing extreme heat. The Concord Stagecoach was the mode of transportation best fitted for the job. It was considered to be the finest passenger vehicle of its time.
Stagecoaches weighed more than one ton, so the animals pulling them had to be tough. Both horses and oxen pulled wagons, but oxen were the prime choice, for they were both sturdy and tough. Oxen could be expected to travel about 12 to 15 miles each day. Bullwhackers, as they were called, were the men who drove the oxen wagons. They got their name because they would use whips, also known as bullwhackers, to drive the oxen.
Travellers bought tons of provisions with them over the wagon trails. Such items included: beer, whiskey, flour, kerosene and many tools. Some prospectors died on the way to Deadwood not because of Indian attacks, but because they did not pack accordingly. Some even neglected to bring a gun, a fatal mistake.
Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage and Express Line
The Cheyenne and Black Hills Stage and Express Line was created in 1876 by F.D. Yates and Co. Cheyenne, being a main line of the Union Pacific Railway, was an obvious choice for a stage line into Deadwood and the Black Hills. However, after the historic defeat of Gen. George Custer’s 7th Calvary at Little Big Horn in 1876, attempts to complete the journey to Deadwood from Cheyenne, Wyo., failed because of the danger of attacks by tribal forces.
Danger did not stop everyone from trying, however. In September 1876, Dave Dickey was the first person to complete the infamous Cheyenne wagon trail journey. It wouldn’t be long until hundreds of travelers, some in search of gold and others in search of a new life, flocked to the trail, no longer discouraged by the ever-present threat of attack.
Native Americans weren’t the only people that awaited travelers of the Cheyenne wagon trail. Robbers were also commonplace, especially since many of the travelers of the Cheyenne stage were carrying heaps of gold. The “Monitor” as it was called, was an ironclad coach used for the transporting of gold from the Black Hills to Cheyenne. It was lined with iron plates and had a treasure box bolted to the floor inside. Guards were employed to ensure the coach was safe. “Calamity Jane” and sheriff Wyatt Earp were once guards of the “Monitor”.
Red Canyon, located in the southern Black Hills, between Edgemont and Custer, is named for its red claylike soil and quartz walls. It was one of the shortest routes to get to Custer from Cheyenne, and because of this, was traveled quite frequently. It was very hard to escape quickly from Red Canyon once you were in it. This led to people being relieved of their prized possessions, and in some cases, killed. Such was the case for the Metz family. While travelling through Red Canyon, the Metz family was killed by Indians. Afterwards, a memorial for the family was created near the entrance of Red Canyon and military troops began regular patrols of the area in an effort to prevent further deaths.
The Cheyenne Wagon Trail winded through steep mountains and long canyons. From Ft. Laramie, Wyo., and onward, one could expect the journey to the Black Hills to get rough. Travelers went through stops like Rawhide Buttes, Hat Creek and Robbers Roost Station and Cheyenne River Crossing. As popular as the Cheyenne route was, it was in operation for just 11 years. The Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad reached the Black Hills and Wyoming in 1886, eliminating the need to travel by wagon to the areas.
Chamberlain/Oacoma to the Black Hills
The Chamberlain/Oacoma wagon road was the shortest-lived route out of all the others, lasting only two years. Originally starting at Brule City, six miles south of Chamberlain, it was moved when officials determined that the town was unsuitable for a possible bridge to be constructed across the Missouri River. In 1881, Chamberlain and Oacoma were chosen as the starting point of the wagon trail, and a railroad bridge was built across the river as well. The wagon trail itself was a heavily enforced, 200-yard wide right-of-way.
Investors in the trail thought that because it was flatter than other trails, had easier crossings and plenty of wood and grass that it would be a huge success.
However, Chamberlain Trail fell short of its expectations, mostly because of unfit roads in the Badlands, looters, and poor water supplies throughout the route. Just a year after its inception, the majority of freighters had returned to using the Ft. Pierre wagon trail.
Miles City to Deadwood Trail
Located 215 miles to the west, Miles City was the closest settlement to Deadwood. Originally a mail and supply route for Ft. Keogh and Ft. Meade that also ran telegraph lines to other forts in the area, the Miles City wagon trail was established in 1878. The Miles City wagon trail would not have existed had it not been for Ft. Keough and Ft. Meade.
The Montana Gold Rush of the 1860s was nearing its end and because of this, many miners and settlers were looking to venture into the Black Hills to make it big. The route that was established by Ft. Keogh was eventually sought as the main stage line to Deadwood. The trail to Deadwood from Miles City was full of cacti, rattlesnakes, desolate plains, gulches and rivers. The Miles City wagon trail ran until 1886, when the Black Hills Gold rush was coming to an end and fewer people were travelling to the Black Hills.
Ft. Pierre to Deadwood Trail
The city of Ft. Pierre began to grow much like the other towns near the Black Hills after gold was discovered in 1874. The easiest way for eastern gold seekers and settlers to get to Deadwood and other Black Hills towns was to take a steamboat up the Missouri River and then travel by wagon on the Ft. Pierre trail. The route to Deadwood from Ft. Pierre was 200 miles of open terrain that crossed through Native American land. Advertisements for the trail would boast that the stagecoaches could make the journey in 36 hours, but in reality it was closer to 50.
Winding through such places like Frenchman and Plum Creek, the trail met up with the Sidney-Deadwood trail near the base of the Black Hills. From there, the trail went northwest through Sturgis and Crook City, near present-day Whitewood. At Crook City the wagons would have to be lowered by ropes and chains down a steep cliff near Whitewood Creek. After that, the wagons would make the 2-mile trip southwest into Deadwood.
Considered the most popular wagon trail to the Black Hills, 85 percent of all traffic destined for the Black Hills came through Ft. Pierre. The Ft. Pierre stage route saw the beginning of its decline when the Chicago and North Western Railroad ended its line in Pierre, across the Missouri River. All of the freight being carried could now be transported by rail versus steamboat. When the railroad reached Deadwood from Nebraska in 1886, it bypassed Ft. Pierre and by 1908, the trail was abandoned.
Sidney to Deadwood Trail
Several Nebraska towns vied to be the site of a stage line travelling north to the Black Hills during the 1870s. Sidney, Neb., offered a lot of potential as the main point of departure for miners and settlers heading north. Situated along the Union Pacific Railroad, Sidney already had a trail leading north that was used by military troops and freight wagons. Because of this, the trail was heavily protected so the possibility of an attack was slim.
In 1875, the Sidney-Deadwood trail was born. The trail traveled a mostly easy course, aside from the treacherous North Platte River. However, this problem was soon solved when, in 1876, Clark’s Bridge was completed, allowing wagon traffic easy passage across.
The Sidney Trail had several paths one could follow. One would wind through the Niobrara Valley, Buffalo Gap, and the Badlands. Another one would go through Hay Meadows, Red Cloud Agency and French Creek. Yet another would take travelers to Ten Buttes and Beaver Creek. There were even more trails settlers could take to get to the Black Hills, one even connected to the Ft. Pierre trail. However, no matter what trail was taken, the Sidney-Deadwood trail would wind up near Custer, Rapid City or Deadwood.
The Sidney Trail competed with the Cheyenne Black Hills Stage and Express Line as a gold supplying trail. Like the Cheyenne Stage Line, the Sidney Trail saw its end when railroads to the Black Hills were built in the 1880s.
Bismarck-Deadwood Stage Trail
Bismarck, Dakota Territory, was connected with the eastern United States in 1873 when the Northern Pacific Railroad was built near the town. Because of this, many prospectors and settlers started their journey south to the Black Hills via the Bismarck-Deadwood trail, which was created by the Minnesota State Company and the Northwest Express and Transportation Company in 1875. The route to the Black Hills was 242 miles and had 17 station stops. It followed the Missouri River valley and then went southwesterly to the Little Heart River. The trail then continued on through rolling prairies and places such as Dogs Teeth Butte, Cedar Canyon and Sulfur Creek. Bismarck-Deadwood trail then crossed the Belle Fourche River and Bear Butte. From there it went through Ft. Meade, Sturgis and Crook City until finally ending in Deadwood.
The route was considered fairly safe with only a few attempted robberies. The trail was heavily travelled. A Denver newspaper proclaimed in 1878 “The Bismarck route from the Northern Pacific Railway is the best patronized road running into the Black Hills.” The town of Bismarck flourished with incoming people making their way to the Black Hills. However, when the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad reached Pierre, much of Bismarck’s freight was diverted there and the Bismarck Stage Line never recovered, being abandoned in 1881.
Medora to Deadwood Stage Line
The Marquis de Mores, who was a noble French entrepreneur, founded Medora, Dakota Territory (present day North Dakota), in 1883. He is also credited with creating the Medora-Deadwood Stage Line in 1884. Marquis de Mores built the necessary stations and supplied the coaches for the Medora-Deadwood line. His idea was to carry thousands of passengers from Medora to Deadwood, a 215-mile journey. The trail ran through Davis Creek, present day Buffalo, Belle Fourche and Spearfish. The fare to ride on the stage line was $21.50 and took about 36 hours to complete.
Teddy Roosevelt, 26th president of the United States, lived in North Dakota during the days of the Black Hills Gold Rush. He once travelled the Medora Stage Line and stopped at the station called the Ranch Roadhouse about 10 miles north of Belle Fourche.
A mail contract, which was needed in order to make the stage successful, did not occur and less than a year after its inception, the Medora-Deadwood Stage Line was no more.
Little is still known about the Deadwood trails travelled during the Black Hills Gold Rush. The roads have long since been abandoned, with nature running its course and hiding what little remains. Parts of the trails are located on land owned by area ranchers and are not publicly accessible. Museums have only the information given to them by a few dedicated researchers. Because of these few dedicated people, the Deadwood trails are finally beginning to gain the historic recognition they deserve and will one day be a part of the National Historic Trails List.
Irma H. Klock, Hyman Palais and Will Robinson were some the first people to do a full history of the Deadwood trails after their closing and were able to interview some Deadwood stage drivers who were still alive in the mid-1900s. Irma’s book All Trails Lead to Deadwood remains available.
Lonis Wendt is credited with discovering most of the information used in this article. He has spent countless hours researching the trails to Deadwood and has even travelled some of the trails himself. Lonis eagerly shares his findings with history buffs around South Dakota and has been awarded the Governor’s Award for History. He lives in Viborg, S.D. and continues his research of Deadwood.