By Linda Wommack
3/6/2017 • Wild West Magazine
Historic trails and horse-drawn vehicles take center stage.
At the heart of South Dakota’s beautiful Black Hills is Deadwood, rich in history and home to two fine museums housing historic collections and artifacts. While the long-established Adams Museum rates among the best in the West, the Days of ’76 Museum recently opened a big new building to better relate the region’s history.
The bitter post–Civil War conflict between Dakota Territory settlers and Indians centered on the Black Hills. The Sioux (Lakotas), who had driven away other tribes in the 18th century, considered the Black Hills (Pahá Sápa) sacred ground. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie granted the Sioux “absolute and undisturbed use and occupation” of the hills. A half dozen years later the U.S. government sent Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer into the Black Hills to choose a location for a new fort. When the expedition turned up gold, word got out and thousands of would-be prospectors rushed into the hills, treaty be damned. The Army initially tried to keep out the settlers, but it was a losing proposition, and the resulting tension over the Black Hills helped spark the calamitous June 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn.
The roots of the Days of ’76 Museum stretch back to 1924 when Deadwood held a celebration to honor the prospectors, miners, mule skinners and madams who rushed, legally or not, into the Black Hills in 1876 to seek their fortune in the gold-laden gulches of Dakota Territory. Since then the Days of ’76 commemoration has grown into a spirited annual event highlighted by a parade and a PRCA rodeo.
Over the years the event garnered a collection of donated horse-drawn wagons and stagecoaches, carriages, frontier clothing and other Old West memorabilia, and to house these items, event coordinators started an informal museum in a pole barn. In 1990 local historian Don Clowser added to what was likely the largest repository of horse-drawn vehicles in the state by contributing his own excellent collection of pioneer and Indian artifacts and firearms. It soon became clear the museum needed a better space. In 2004 the board, supported by a $3 million gift from Deadwood officials, pledged to build a $5.25 million, 32-000-squarefoot state-of-the-art exhibit hall at Deadwood’s southern gateway.
On May 25, 2013, the two-story museum held its grand opening. The first floor features an open lobby with an Old West street decor. Displayed prominently are the celebrated horse-drawn vehicles, including an original Deadwood stage, and other modes of early transportation. A nearby diorama features photos and a time line of Deadwood’s colorful past. Another central exhibit features a large photo of museum co-founder Doc Coburn alongside one of his buckskin jackets and other personal possessions.
Throughout the museum visitors will find such distinctive frontier artifacts as gambling devices and Chinese opium pipes. The rodeo collection is sure to rope in anyone interested in South Dakota’s official state sport. Its rich history is captured in photographs, poster art, historic documents and items such as saddles, ropes and trophies. Two main exhibits devoted to American Indians showcase clothing, deerskin boots, beaded moccasins, jewelry, ceremonial pipes, weapons and musical instruments.
The Days of ’76 Museum also sponsors efforts by Deadwood’s Historic Preservation Commission to document the area’s historic trails system. From 1876 until the arrival of the railroad in 1890, Deadwood was a transportation hub for routes from Fort Pierre, Medora and Bismarck in Dakota Territory, Miles City in Montana Territory, Cheyenne in Wyoming Territory and Sidney, Neb. The only way to get goods or services into or out of Deadwood in the early days was by freight team, stagecoach, wagon, horseback or on foot. The museum is dedicated to relating the stories of these routes and the vehicles that traveled them. In 2008 it cosponsored with the Verendrye Museum in Fort Pierre a reenactment along the Fort Pierre–Deadwood Trail and has since sponsored reenactments along the Miles City–Deadwood Trail and the Medora–Deadwood Trail. With the museum’s support, the preservation commission is developing a proposal for consideration by the National Park Service to adopt the Deadwood Trails project into the National Trails System.
With more trail reenactments on the horizon, the Days of ’76 Museum will continue to spearhead trail research and showcase trail history. The museum is at 18 Seventy-Six Drive in Deadwood. For more information call 605 578-1657 or visit www.daysof76museum.