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No place in the country tells the story of the Wild West quite like Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. Here, you’ll find people from all walks of life– outlaws and madams, lawmen and wealthy businessmen– buried side by side. Established in 1877 or 1878, it started off as the town’s “boot hill” cemetery. Boot hills are cemeteries where outlaws who died “with their boots on” (of “unnatural” causes, usually from being shot) are buried. Deadwood’s Ingleside Cemetery was needed for houses as the town expanded, so bodies were exhumed and reburied at Mount Moriah, which became the graveyard for the town. It’s more than just a normal Victorian graveyard. With so many famous figures buried here, it is one of Deadwood’s most popular attractions. Plus, the view of downtown Deadwood is pretty awesome. The cemetery is on a hill above town, and the setting is beautiful.
To this day, Wild Bill Hickok remains one of the most famous Wild West folk heroes. That probably has something to do with his storied life, but I’m willing to gamble that his ill-fated end plays a role in his celebrity, too. He was born in Illinois in 1837, and made his way west at the tender age of 18. He survived a bear mauling, was tried for murder, and served as a vigilante Jayhawker (a robber associated with the Kansas Free-Stater cause who rustled livestock and stole property on both sides of the state line)… all before the age of 24. During the Civil War, he was a Union spy.
After that, Hickok tried his hand at being a police detective, a gambler, and a frontier scout. He dueled and gambled his way through the West, and even performed in his friend Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show as a bit player. A journalist named Colonel George Ward Nichols made Hickok into the icon we know today. He wrote an article about Wild Bill in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine that formed the basis for the legend.
Hickok was involved in countless shootouts, both as a sheriff or marshall and as an outlaw. He shot at least six men in his lifetime. It’s no surprise, then, that a shootout did him in. On August 1, 1876, Hickok was indulging in one of his favorite pastimes (poker). A man named Jack McCall was also there, drunk and losing heavily. Hickok encouraged him to cut his losses and offered McCall money for room and food. McCall, though offended, took the cash.
The next night, Hickok was back at the poker table, but this time, he was sitting in a seat with his back to the door, which was unusual for him. McCall entered and shot Hickok in the back of the head at point-blank range. Hickok died instantly. To this day, the hand that Hickok was holding (black aces and black eights) is called a “Dead Man’s Hand.” Almost the whole town attended his funeral. McCall eventually hanged for the murder.
Buried next to Wild Bill is another famous figure, Calamity Jane. Her father was a habitual gambler and moved the family all over the West. Once her father died, it was up to Jane to raise her siblings. She worked at various forts across Kansas and Nebraska as a dish washer, waitress, oxen driver, dance hall girl, and eventually as a scout. Jane quickly gained notoriety across the wild settlements of the frontier.
She claimed a captain she saved during an Indian raid gave her the nickname “Calamity Jane.” Others claim it was because “to offend her was to court calamity.” Either way, it was catchy and it stuck. She arrived in Deadwood and made her mark on the town. If Jane was one thing, she was a flawed character, known for drinking and her (likely one-sided) infatuation with Wild Bill as much as for her good deeds. She once saved a wagon train from Indian attack, and another time, helped nurse the townspeople during a smallpox breakout.
At the end of her life, Jane made money-making appearances and sold a pamphlet she wrote about her life, which was likely pretty fictional. A famous claim is that she chased McCall out of the saloon with a meat cleaver after he shot Hickok. She died in her 50s in 1903. She is buried next to Wild Bill, which some say was her dying wish, since she considered him the love of her life. Others suspect it was a prank friends of Bill’s played on him posthumously, since Bill likely never returned Jane’s affections. Either way, the two legends rest side by side in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery.
The third famous grave in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery is that of famous Canadian-American lawman Seth Bullock. He left his abusive home in Ontario for Montana at the age of 16 in 1865. Bullock established a reputation in Helena, Montana, as a just but no-nonsense sheriff and politician. He also opened a hardware store with his friend Sol Star. The two realized that there was a need for tools in the gold rush town of Deadwood nearby, so they opened a location there. The day after Bullock arrived in town was the day Hickok was murdered. The town realized there was a need for a sheriff, and elected Bullock based on his background. He cleaned up Deadwood without any deaths.
After that, he spent years farming, investing in mines, building hotels and stores, and working as a lawman across South Dakota. He met Theodore Roosevelt near present-day Belle Fourche and the two became lifelong friends. After Roosevelt’s death in January of 1919, Bullock built a memorial to him called Friendship Tower. Bullock died later that year. Bullock’s grave is 700 or so yards away from the rest of the graves in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery, facing the memorial he made for his friend.
Other parts of Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery
The graveyard has a great visitor center with a short film, so stop in there first. Then, after visiting the graves of Deadwood’s most famous figures, take some time to see the rest of the graves. Civil War and Indian War veterans have their own sections. Mount Moriah also has a Jewish section, since Deadwood had a large Jewish population; this is where you’ll find the grave of Bullock’s business partner Sol Star. There’s a children’s section from the many disease outbreaks, a potter’s field (paupers’ graveyard), and a mass grave from a lumber mill that burned down.
Also make sure to see the last two Chinese graves in town, those of Hui ta Fei-Men and a child of Fee Lee Wong. There was a Chinese population in Deadwood, but many of the bodies of these immigrants were disinterred and reburied back in China. All in all, Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery is one of the best places to truly encounter the brief but impactful Wild West era of American history.