Deadwood Magazine

The Girls of the Gulch
JANUARY/FEBRUARY 1997 

In China the woman is servant to the man. In Deadwood the man with the gold becomes the tool of the Chinese girl.

Years after the l876 gold rush, one of Chinatown's old men made that philosophic observation, one that might have been prefaced by "Confucius say."

Commonly referred to as "she heathens" and "little moon-eyed pinch foots," Oriental prostitutes were patronized by both white and Chinese in the male-dominated 1876 Black Hills mining camp.

Unpolished miners were fascinated by the strange, exotic beauty of Asiatic women who practiced the world's oldest profession in the crowded Chinatown that began near 605 Main Street and wound northward through the narrow gulch. Taught by their culture to be subservient and pleasing to males, Chinese girls were gracious and charming, with moral codes quite different from Christian attitudes toward prostitution.

Along both sides of Deadwood's lower Main Street, Chinatown's cribs operated openly, often in conjunction with laundries, where the female partner sitting in the doorway "smiles sweetly upon the passerby."

According to the South Dakota History Quarterly:

Miners wishing to partake of their services merely entered one of the booths and pulled the curtain. No attempt at secrecy was made as such operations were condoned in the l870s and l880s.

A Deadwood newspaper reporter described his trip through bustling, busy Chinatown of those years:

The first to meet your gaze is, perchance, a gorgeous creation of pink silk profusely adorned with white lace, airing itself in some doorway, usually accompanied by some little poodle or pug, who impudently stares and sniffs at pedestrians. Further on some females may be squatting beside a doorway in very loose attire, seemingly what should be a morning toilet, albeit this is evening, with modesty not always in evidence....

You may think you have caught a glimpse of something that looked suspiciously like a night garment, and you modestly look elsewhere, finally arguing yourself into the belief that it must have been an optical illusion, and it needs several repetitions before you can take in the evidence of your own eyes.

All this applies to the condition of Chinatown after dark only; for when the sun casts his penetrating beams over White Rocks, and looks into Lower Main Street, he finds it utterly deserted and quiet with the quietness of sleep or death and, indeed, it does not seem to need the fostering influence of sunlight to thrive, as plants do; but rather, like bats and owls, to flourish best without it.

A distinctive aroma permeated the air of Chinatown, where opium dens abounded, patronized by Orientals and Occidentals alike. Many a soiled dove scurried down the alley, seeking to recapture lost dreams through the smoke of the little pipe.

One of Deadwood's most sensational murders, which may have been connected to the opium trade, immortalized a Chinese daughter of joy.

Typical Oriental secretiveness obscured details of the life and brutal death of the

"China Doll" or "Yellow Doll," whose gory story has become legendary in the pages of Deadwood's violent history.

She apparently arrived in the Gulch with the l876 gold rush and was an entertainer in a Badlands saloon, where other dance hall girls jealously called her the "slant-eyed come on." An air of mystery surrounded this beautiful young woman who wore elegant, elaborately embroidered robes, expensive jewelry and lived in luxurious seclusion.

Within the year, the Yellow Doll was dead, crudely hacked to pieces with a hatchet in her sumptuous quarters above the saloon. News accounts said expensive jewelry found with her body ruled out robbery as a motive. Chinatown residents would not, or could not, shed any light on the crime, despite extensive questioning, and the murder remains unsolved to this day.

Leading Chinese citizens gave the young woman an elaborate funeral with the typical noisy procession through town to the cemetery, but kept her burial site secret.

Pete Dexter's meticulously researched novel, Deadwood, suggested that Solomon Star, Sheriff Seth Bullock's business partner and leading citizen of the town, might have been enamored by the lovely prostitute, but after all, Dexter's book is fictional. Isn't it?

Where she came from, her real name, and the identity of her assassin or assassins are questions that still intrigue Deadwood historians.

As in China, written accounts of Chinese women in Deadwood and the Black Hills are non-existent, but the exquisite Yellow Doll might have looked something like Estelline Bennett's description of Mrs. Wing Tsue, described in Old Deadwood Days.

...the loveliest bit of exquisite china I ever saw. She was painted and mascaraed in a way no nice American woman could understand in those days, but on her the effect was charming. Her black hair was built in a high pyramid, with gorgeous pins and combs. Her brilliant silk jacket and trousers were heavy with embroidery, and her tiny useless little feet were encased in embroidered satin shoes with wooden soles.

Although details of her life and violent death are unknown, the China Doll hasn't been forgotten in today's Deadwood. Girls in elaborate Chinese costumes ride up Main Street in a rickshaw during the annual Days of '76 parade. The China Doll restaurant, formerly located on Sherman Street, then in the Bullock Hotel on Main Street, is no longer in operation, but for many years was one of Deadwood's most popular dining spots.

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Copyright 1997  Deadwood Magazine

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