The Real Story Behind ‘Deadwood’

Learn all about the real people and events that inspired the acclaimed HBO series.

Deadwood Series Finale
HBO

David Milch‘s Deadwood, which premiered on HBO in 2004, is one of the best shows to ever air on the network. The gritty Western crime drama was short-lived, but the show earned rave reviews and garnered a loyal cult audience that kept its popularity alive long after it ended. Fortunately for us, HBO took notice of our calls for one last hurrah by announcing a movie that will bring closure to the story (and our hearts). That movie will hit our screens very soon.

Deadwood is a unique show, and one of its strongest qualities is the attention paid to period detail. Before creating the series, Milch rigorously researched the real 1870s Deadwood by reading old newspapers, diaries, and formal historical accounts by experts. And while some creative liberties were necessary for dramatic effect, Milch’s vision of Deadwood’s Wild West days isn’t that far removed from reality.

It all started in 1874 when General Custer led an expedition through the Dakota Territory’s Black Hills and discovered traces of gold. When news of this discovery made the rounds across the country, the American landscape changed forever. With this newly discovered means of prosperity, fortune seekers illegally relocated to the region — which technically belonged to the Native Lakota people — to get a piece of the action. The town of Deadwood, located in the southern half of the territory, was subsequently born. One year later, the settlement was given its official name.

Between 1874 and 1877, at least 20000 people had made their way to the region in a bid to acquire wealth. The town itself, meanwhile, was home to around 3000 citizens, most of whom were criminals, gamblers, prostitutes, and entrepreneurs.

During its early days, Deadwood was lawless. Some historians believe that murders occurred daily. Brothels, opium dens, and saloons were at the heart of the town’s business empire. That said, despite the rough-and-tumble nature of the place, it gained some respectability thanks to influential merchants, business figureheads, and legends. In 1876, a government was eventually instituted.

Deadwood wasn’t limited to American settlers, either. In the show, the town hosts a Chinese population, as did the real historical version. According to historian Jerry Bryant (via True West), an influx of Chinese prospectors arrived in 1880. In the show, however, the Chinese populace was living there in 1876. On top of that, the show depicts a Chinatown just off of the town’s Main Street. In reality, Chinatown was part of Main Street. Furthermore, unlike some characters featured in the HBO series, there is no record of a Mr. Wu (Keone Young) ever existing.

Of course, several legendary figures of the Old West do appear in the show. Some of these figures include Wild Bill Hickok (Keith Carradine), Al Swearengen (Ian McShane), Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), and many others. But how much do their fictional iterations resemble their real-life personas?

Hickok’s arc in the show mirrors the real man’s final days quite accurately. After retiring from law enforcement in 1871, the famous gunfighter spent the next few years living off his celebrity status and serving as a hunting guide. Afterward, he found himself running out of money and trying to make a living as a gambler. When Hickok arrived in Deadwood, he was a shadow of his former self and spent most of his time at the poker tables. Gambling proved to be old Bill’s downfall in the end, too. Shortly after arriving in town, he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall (Garret Dillahunt in the series) while his attention was focused on his playing cards. That’s where the poker term “Dead Man’s Hand” originated.

As for Swearengen, he was a ruthless saloon owner. His first business venture was a venue known as The Cricket. He then closed that establishment to open the Gem Theater, which is the one he owns and operates in the series. The saloon was the place to be for those seeking entertainment in the form of gambling, prize fights, and sex. In regards to the latter, Swearengen recruited his prostitutes by advertising legitimate jobs for dancers, waitresses, and cleaners. When they arrived, he forced them into engaging sexual activity with clients against their will. The show, however, did modify Swearengen ever so slightly. Because McShane was given the part, Milch made the character English-born. The real man was American.

Bullock was also presented pretty honestly. Born in Ontario, Canada in 1847, he was the son of a British military officer, but his lousy relationship with his old man led him to the Montana Territory. He became an elected senator in 1871, then a sheriff in 1873. Three years later, Bullock and his longtime acquaintance Sol Star (played by John Marvin Perkins in the show) traveled to Deadwood to open a hardware store.

Selling tools wasn’t to be Bullock’s true calling in Deadwood, though. After arriving in town on the day of Hickok’s murder and seeing the killer walk free, he became the town’s sheriff shortly after and helped bring law and order to a town populated by outlaws. After their store burnt to the ground in 1884, Bullock and Star built Deadwood’s first luxury hotel. The three-story structure, which they called the Bullock Hotel, is still in business to this day.

Bullock also helped establish a town health commission, set up the first emergency service departments, and founded the town’s first cemetery. The lawman later became a confidant to Theodore Roosevelt and was appointed by the president to marshal South Dakota in 1903. He died of cancer in 1919, at age 70, at the Bullock Hotel. According to local spooky lore, his ghost still roams the hallways of the hotel.

Elsewhere, as depicted in the series, Calamity Jane was a tobacco-chewing, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed tomboy. According to Old West rumors, she got her name by saving an army captain from a group of attackers. Others claimed she fabricated the story to gain respect from males. Jane is mostly remembered as a humanitarian, though. For example, she helped nurse the town’s residents who’d been stricken by smallpox. After the death of Hickok, Jane moved around and performed at roadshows until 1903, when she returned to the Black Hills and worked as a cook until she passed away that same year. Jane was buried next to Wild Bill.

These weren’t the only historical figures in to be interpreted for the series, but telling all of their stories would require an entire book. Individually, the people we have looked at lived entire lives that could fill texts in their own right. The HBO series might be a dramatization, but with the wealth of crazy history available it had at its disposal, it’s unsurprising that the people and events were portrayed reasonably true to life. Today, the town’s allure remains rooted in its connection to this Wild West history, and the show is partly to thank for that.

Kieran is a Daily Curator for the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.