The Ladies of Deadwood, South Dakota

On a recent trip out west, I spent time in Deadwood, South Dakota. Ever since watching the HBO series I have been slightly obsessed with this town and the women characters who inhabited it. So, one of my first stops was the Adam’s Museum to see what I could learn about the real women of Deadwood. Here are some of the highlights:

Calamity Jane (1852-1903)

What is Deadwood without one of it most famous, and most misunderstood characters, Calamity Jane? Turned into a frontier legend through dime novels and popular myth, Martha Canary was in actuality probably the norm for women who lived on the “frontier” during this time in American history. She experienced many of the extremes of the families who lived out in this part of the country. By the time she was 15, she and her siblings had lost both their parents to the hardships of frontier life and had lived in Missouri, Montana, Utah, and Wyoming. Life was hard for Martha, and she took whatever job she could to provide for what was left of her family: a dishwasher, cook, waitress, dance-hall girl, nurse, ox-team driver, and yes, a prostitute when necessary.

Martha Canary got the nickname Calamity Jane when she was associated with Fort Russell. She may have been a scout or nurse for the army camp, or simply a camp follower. She claims she got the name when she exhibited calmness and clear thought during an Indian raid. Others claim she gave it to herself when she insisted that if you offended her, you would bring about calamity.

Calamity Jane arrived to Deadwood in 1875 as a member of a scientific expedition to map the Black Hills. Contrary to popular belief, she rarely dressed in men’s clothing. Most of the time she wore dresses and only put on these costumes for publicity photos to make money. Over her life she acquired many husbands and children, more odd jobs –- including owning an inn, a stint as a stage-performer, and a rancher -– and a sever dependence on alcohol. She died in her early 50s and is buried in Deadwood next to Wild Bill Hillock. Though rumors abound, no one can say with any certainty why.

The "real" Martha Canary, a.k.a., Calamity Jane.
The “real” Martha Canary, a.k.a., Calamity Jane.

Alice Ivers Duffield Tubbs Huckert (1851–1930)

Poker Alice Stubbs was a three-time widow, experienced card shark, and shopaholic. Looking at her life through the lens of addiction, Alice was textbook: her life was consumed by gambling, shopping, and alcohol. By the time she arrived to Deadwood – either in the 1890s or early 1900s – she was well known in the gambling circuit. She made her living there as a dealer and a poker player. At times throughout her life, she also ran her own gambling house and brothel. Known for carrying a .38 pistol with her wherever she went, she saved the life of her second husband when he was threatened at knife point by a drunken miner and shot a soldier dead who was getting out of line at one of her brothels. Late in her career, she constantly battled the law for her brothels, bootlegging, and public drunkenness. She died in 1930 after having gall bladder surgery at the age of 78.

After a big win, Alice was known to go on extravagant shopping sprees in New York City, spending all her money on clothes and accessories.
After a big win, Alice was known to go on extravagant
shopping sprees in New York City,
spending all her money on clothes and accessories.

The Anonymous Women of Deadwood

This was a fantastic example of Hair Work. If you are not familiar with this practice, you should be, it’s insane. The practice is centuries old and involves using the hair of loved ones (dead and alive) as keepsakes. You could do one to commemorate a birth, marriage, death, or special life event. Queen Victoria was particularly found of this type of craft. Sizes range from small, locket size mementos with baby hair to these large ones that could be framed and hung on a wall. This one might have been a wedding piece, using hair from both the bride and groom. Next time you are taking a historic house tour look for these, as they were very popular during the 19th century.

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And finally, this gorgeous gown from an unknown woman dated to the 1890s. I look at anonymous dresses like this and my mind wonders as to the what the woman was like who owned this and wore it. It is a very expensive piece so we know it probably belonged to one of the richer ladies of Deadwood. (Perhaps even Poker Alice Paul herself during one of her spending-sprees.)

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But just imagine wearing a dress like this, trying to maintain this lifestyle, in a town like Deadwood during the 1890s. Here is a shot of what Main Street looked like during the 1890s.

Photo credit: Adams Museum, Deadwood, South Dakota
Photo credit: Adams Museum, Deadwood, South Dakota

Imagine this woman out for a walk or event wearing this dress, fashioning herself one of the town’s elite, among all this chaos. But that was what the west was all about, right? A place to recreate yourself as a better person and leave behind your life back East.

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