Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Spring 2010


Great Plains Quarterly 30:3 (Spring 2010).


Copyright © 2010 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska.


In this short biography of Seth Bullock, the first sheriff of Deadwood, South Dakota, David A. Wolff challenges a few of the myths surrounding a former frontier icon. Bullock did not in fact "clean up" Deadwood, Wolff concludes, nor did he single-handedly prevent skirmishes with nearby Lakotas. His role in establishing Yellowstone National Park was "a greatly exaggerated part of his legend." And his reputation as a military man was mostly unwarranted; he spent most of the Spanish-American War in Georgia and never saw action.

In Wolff's retelling, Bullock emerges as an opportunistic "frontier capitalist" more than anything else, someone who took advantage of political connections to protect his economic interests in the hardware business and mining. Relying primarily on newspaper accounts (Bullock's letters, in private collections, were inaccessible to the author, making this biography less revealing than it might have been), Wolff describes Bullock's first foray into politics in Montana; his move to Deadwood, where he would serve as sheriff and later manage a mining company; his tenure as supervisor of the Black Hills Forest Reserve, when he worked with Gifford Pinchot; and his close friendship, late in life, with Theodore Roosevelt. This biography also works as a short history of Deadwood itself. Wolff details the numerous challenges facing the town in its early years, including devastating fires and flooding, banking and mining failures, and its competition for the railroad.