Deadwood legends, history live on at Mount Moriah Cemetery
Historic cemetery serves as final resting place to city pioneers
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story is part of a larger series that will include stories on the history, violence, vice and historical preservation efforts in Deadwood, a community of approximately 1,200 residents in the Black Hills of South Dakota that boasts a history rich in famous figures, gold and western expansion from the 1800s into the 20th century. Stories on these subjects will appear in upcoming editions of the Mitchell Republic.
DEADWOOD, S.D. — Wild Bill Hickok arrived in Deadwood by way of wagon train in July of 1876. He was there to seek his fortune during the gold rush that brought so many other wide-eyed prospectors to the area, hoping to strike it rich in the Black Hills.
He never left.
The legendary western lawman and soldier was shot in the back and killed by Jack McCall less than a month later over a game of poker, with Hickok holding what would become known as the dead man’s hand — two pairs made up of black aces and black eights. He was buried in the local cemetery, having reached the age of 39.
Today, Hickok’s gravesite can be found in Mount Moriah Cemetery, a historic cemetery located on the side of a steep mountain adjacent to the city of Deadwood. The scenic, tree-lined setting provides a stunning view of the community from above and offers a peaceful place that serves as a final resting spot for many who helped bring the mining boomtown to life in the late 1800s.
And even after a century since the town’s lawless reputation faded from memory, the cemetery and its occupants still attract curious visitors to this day.
“They come here and they want to see Calamity Jane. Or they watched the HBO series Deadwood or they watched westerns on television and they want to see Wild Bill. And it’s a great overlook of historic Deadwood and Main Street from up there,” Kevin Kuchenbecker, historic preservation officer for the city of Deadwood, told the Mitchell Republic recently.
A tough place
The history of Deadwood itself is rich in tales of lawlessness, vice and violence, all centering around a group of pioneers who eventually attempted to create a civilized society from scratch. It didn’t always go smoothly, and if the violent nature of the environment didn’t kill you, like it did Hickok, there was a good chance an outbreak of smallpox or the harsh living conditions themselves could.
And while it wasn’t the first cemetery in Deadwood, it has become easily the most historic and recognized.
Established in 1878 by the Lawrence County Commission, Mount Moriah is the final resting place of western legends, murderers, madams and pillars of Deadwood’s early economic development. It succeeded the Ingleside Cemetery, which was first established as the community cemetery before it was eventually repurposed for other uses.
It was in this original cemetery that Hickok was buried before he, along with many others interred there, were eventually moved to new burial sites at Mount Moriah Cemetery. That process still continues in a sense, with burials from the original cemetery still occasionally being located when excavating for new construction.
Today, Mount Moriah Cemetery is itself a closed cemetery. It does not sell new plots, though new burials do sometimes still occur in plots that have long been owned by families for their extended kin. A new burial was held as recently as last year, Kuchenbecker said.
“It’s a closed cemetery, so no new graves are being sold. I’ve been here 17 years and I can count three burials in the cemetery since then,” Kuchenbecker said. “Some had plots for their children, too. Last year was the most recent burial.”
Mount Moriah Cemetery offers a snapshot of the diverse lives lived in and around Deadwood in its pioneer days. The grave and monument for Hickok remains the main attraction, with the graves for fellow local celebrities Calamity Jane and Potato Creek Johnny nestled right next to Hickok.
The fact that Calamity Jane and Hickok are buried so close together could be the result of early cemetery officials knowing that future generations would likely flock to the cemetery to visit the two legends.
“When Calamity Jane passes, she’s buried right next to Wild Bill. They didn’t have a romantic thing, but that was one of the myths and legends of Deadwood. Part of it was not only out of respect for a legend in her own time, but if you put two legends side by side? It’s a draw,” Kuchenbecker said.
Other individuals with perhaps less name recognition are also interred there. Seth Bullock, who was not as well known as Hickok at the time but became better known as the decades went by, is buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery. Preacher Smith, an early man of religion in the community who was reportedly killed by highwaymen, also has his final resting place at the cemetery. One brothel madam is buried there with her pet parrot.
But there are sections of the cemetery that reflect the larger communities of the early days of the town.
Deadwood had a sizable Chinese population, and while many of those gravesites were eventually moved back overseas, some still remain. There is also a Jewish section where members of the faith are buried. A veterans section is home to several graves for those who fought in the American Civil War as well as the Indian Wars.
Another section hosts the graves of several children, and a mass grave marks the burial for 11 men who perished in a lumber mill fire. Many of the graves are constructed in a Masonic style, highlighting a late-Victorian era motif that permeates the grounds.
In all, there are records for some 3,600 individuals buried at the cemetery, though there could be more due to inconsistent record keeping back in the day.
The cemetery is owned and maintained by the city of Deadwood, the entire town of which has been named a National Historic Landmark. It serves as one of the centerpiece draws for people visiting the community, most of whom have a fascination with old west history.
Upkeep and preservation on such a historic cemetery, and other parts of Deadwood, is expensive and takes the efforts of historians, archivists, mindful business owners and a host of other professionals.
How do they pay for it? By embracing limited stakes gaming, the roots of which can be dated back to that most famous of Deadwood events — the shooting of Hickok.
“The most famous poker hand in America, the dead man’s hand, aces and eights. We looked at that vice (gambling) and said let’s legalize it,” Kuchenbecker said. “And now it’s an economic engine to support historic preservation.”
The South Dakota Legislature eventually approved allowing limited stakes gaming in the community, and the proceeds from that gaming now bring in millions of dollars a year that not only supports preservation efforts at the cemetery and the community in general, but it also goes to support a robust police department to help tend to the high influx of visitors every year. It supports a large fire department to help guard against fires among the historic buildings.
Legalized gaming has made all the difference in being able to present Deadwood to the world as its community leaders do.
“In a lot of communities, $6.8 million goes a long way, but we’re a town of 1,200 people and we get 2.5 million visitors a year. We need a larger police force, a larger fire force to protect historic buildings,” Kuchenbecker said. “You want (the visitors) but it costs money.”
Michael Runge, archivist for the city of Deadwood and author of the book Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery, a retrospective on the historic site, said the cemetery is an important facet to understanding the history of the community itself. The understanding is key to knowing how best to preserve and protect that legacy.
Deadwood is rich in history, and for a historian and archivist, it is an incredible opportunity to explore the late 1800s.
“You can’t do historic preservation without understanding the history,” Runge said. “It all is equally interesting. I hate to say it, but I feel like a kid in a candy shop, because regardless of whatever you’re interested in, it’s as deep and far as you could want to go with it. There is so much of it.”
The gaming funding and research work has led to many improvements. The city has an online mapping system of the cemetery to help people with genealogy research. Officials recreated a ceremonial Chinese burner at the cemetery after it had been neglected and damaged by vandals. Recent work included work on a series of stone walls at the cemetery.
Kuchenbecker said the city continues to invest in that preservation and history and will continue to do so to support the overall community and the curious visitors who want to catch a glimpse into the lives — and deaths — of legends like Hickok.
“You’re still walking in the footsteps of the people you just went up to the cemetery and said ‘wow’ as you looked at Bill Hickok’s grave,” Kuchenbecker said. “He walked the same streets that we’re walking.”