Mount Moriah Cemetery
Deadwood's Historic Boot Hill
By Cathy Buburuz


Since its establishment in the late 1870s, Mount Moriah Cemetery (owned and maintained by the city of Deadwood, South Dakota), has served as the final resting place for more than 3,400 souls, among them many colorful characters who played significant roles in the historical development of the Wild, Wild West. Buried in the rocky hillsides, surrounded by whispering winds, spruce, pine, and wildflowers, are such notables as James Butler Hickok (Alias "Wild Bill"), Martha Jane Canary ("Calamity Jane"), and John Perrett ("Potato Creek Johnny").

Throughout his lifetime, James Butler Hickok served the Old West in a wide range of occupations which demanded a fast gun and no aversion to bloodshed. He served as both a marshal and army scout and, like many others, he traveled to Deadwood's gold camp in search of adventure and fortune.

On August 2, 1876, while gambling in Deadwood's Saloon No. 10, he was shot in the back of the head and killed instantly by a local named Jack McCall. At the moment of his demise, Wild Bill held aces and eights, a poker hand from then on known as "The Dead Man's Hand".

A hastily convened miners' court found McCall innocent, but he was later tried by a regular court, found guilty of the murder and hanged. His reason for killing Wild Bill is unknown. Wild Bill's friends buried him in nearby Ingleside cemetery, but two years later he was reburied at the present site at Mount Moriah where thousands of tourists come to pay tribute (and a one dollar admission fee) to view the historical site. The hundreds of thousands of dollars collected at the base of Mount Moriah are used for the upkeep of the cemetery and, according to a local tour guide, no one except the locals visited the cemetery until the town council made the decision to charge admission. Seems tourists don't believe an "attraction" is worthy unless a fee is associated with it. Strange, but true.

Not unlike Wild Bill, Martha "Calamity Jane" Canary landed noteworthy mention in the history books for a number of reasons. In her short 53 years (1850 to 1903) Calamity Jane lived a unique and varied life. She worked on a bull train, performed in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, and was a prostitute of little or no repute (probably because of her masculine, far from glamorous appearance). She toted guns and often disguised herself as a man to obtain work.

One story most historians claim to be strictly a figment of Calamity Jane's imagination was her claim to have been Wild Bill's love interest. Her acts of charity and her willingness to nurse the sick attest to the warm, feminine side of this rough and tough female of the Old West. In 1903 Calamity Jane died in the mining camp of Terry from a variety of ailments including acute alcoholism. One can only wonder what Wild Bill would have to say of Calamity's dying wish, which was granted - that she be laid to rest next to him.

Actresses Angelica Huston, Debby Reynolds and Doris Day have portrayed Jane in the movies. In my opinion, Angelica Hustonâ’s portrayal was most realistic and enjoyable.

Potato Creek Johnny, a name synonymous with Black Hills prospecting, was without a doubt one of Deadwood's most loved characters. The small, bearded figure of John Perrett was a familiar sight along the streams of the Tinton area where he may or may not have found one of the largest gold nuggets every panned in the Black Hills (some believed he may have melted down several pieces of gold to earn the title "finder of the largest nugget").

Loved by children for his kind nature and child-like stature (he was under four feet tall in his boots), Potato Creek Johnny took part in numerous parades and community activities, until his death on February 21, 1943.

Also buried in those thar hills is Henry Weston Smith, also known as Preacher Smith, Deadwood's first ordained minister who was murdered (presumably by Indians) while enroute from Deadwood to a nearby mining camp. The community, enraged by his death, placed a bounty on Indians for a time.

Deadwood's richest man of the day, Harris Franklin, settled in Deadwood at the age of 29. His wealth, estimated at five million dollars, came from investments in the liquor business and the mining industry. His stately mansion, now aged, was built below Mount Moriah on Van Buren Street. He was also known as the largest investor in his namesake, the Franklin Hotel, where a great many tourists come to try their luck in its casino and gambling hall. Such notables as John Wayne, Teddy Roosevelt, Tom Brokaw, and Kevin Costner have stayed in Franklin's historic hotel rooms over the years. Due in no small part to his vast fortune, Franklin's headstone is one of the most impressive markers on Mount Moriah.

Equally impressive is the stone that marks the resting place of Seth Bullock, Deadwood's first sheriff. He was a friend of Theodore Roosevelt, a member of the Black Hills Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, a mining promoter and mine owner (the Homestake Gold Mine in the Black Hills is the oldest operating underground mine in the United States and is mentioned in this article because of the tours it offers for a reasonable price).

A life-long promoter of Deadwood, Bullock and the Black Hills Pioneers constructed the monument to Theodore Roosevelt on Mt. Roosevelt. Bullock requested that he be buried above Mount Moriah on a plot of ground facing Mt. Roosevelt. Visitors to this site require good hiking boots, as this grave is about 750 feet above the main cemetery. In fact, be prepared for a strenuous but enjoyable trek should you visit this unique resting place as it has many sections to explore.

At one time a large number of Chinese were buried in a section in the upper left hand portion of Mount Moriah. For religious reasons, the bodies were later exhumed and returned to China for reburial. Today only a few graves exist in this section.

The Jewish section, complete with tombstones inscribed in Hebrew, is located in the upper portion. Many of the prominent citizens who founded Mount Moriah were masons, and one of the most attractive sections is located in the heart of the cemetery.

Children's graves are found throughout the trails that wind through the hills, and there are also three Potter's Fields, final resting places for a number of early-day indigents, prostitutes included. Most of these graves are unmarked.

Some might think that a trip to the cemetery is an odd way to spend a vacation, but if you're ready for a switch from pulling slot handles at Kevin Costner's Midnight Star, or have had your fill of blackjack at the Gold Dust Casino or The Silverado, Mount Moriah offers a fascinating change of pace. And, many believe that a trip to the grave site of that most famous poker player of them all (despite his violent death) will bring good luck at the card tables.

Note: Many of the facts contained in this article were excerpted in part from the many pamphlets and brochures available from Deadwood's Chamber of Commerce.


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