Deadwood Magazine

Mail carrier and minister slain in summer of ‘76

           The hot summer months of 1876 were violent ones in the Black Hills. Enraged by encroachment of white men into their sacred Paha Sapa, marauding bands of Sioux Indians returning from their victory at the Little Big Horn were exacting murderous revenge.

Deadwood, with its large population of well-armed men, was safe from attack, but Black Hills newspapers were filled with accounts of Indian raids, killings and stock thefts at the smaller settlements of Spearfish, Custer, Crook City and Centennial.

Sensational headlines in the Black Hills Pioneer of August 5, 1876 (Stock Stolen by Red Devils, Indians All Around Us were the mildest) called attention to accounts of Indian depredations. In the same edition the Pioneer reported the head of an Indian killed near Crook City had been brought into town, displayed to the citizens, then turned over to Dr. Schultz, “who upon removing the brain, found it to weigh 44 ounces. When we remember that Webster’s brain weighed just 54 ounces we can rest assured that the Indian killed was one of no mean intellect. He was a young brave about 26 years of age.”

Monuments dedicated to two men murdered in that perilous month -- pony mail carrier Charles Nolin and Deadwood’s first minister, Preacher Smith – have been erected on Highway 85 north of Deadwood and on Junction Avenue in Sturgis.

            Rock cairn on Junction Ave in Sturgis marks the site where pony mail carrier Charles Nolin was killed by Indians on August 19, 1876.Charles “Red” Nolin was ambushed, killed and scalped while carrying mail to Deadwood on the Sidney-Deadwood trail. On the evening of August 19, Nolin reined up at Alkali Creek (present location of Black Hills National Cemetery) where a wagon train hauling hay to Deadwood had stopped for the night. Warning Nolin they had heard Indian war cries in the vicinity, the freighters urged him to spend the night and accompany the train into Deadwood the next day.  

            Nolin was anxious to complete the ride he had promised his mother back in Nebraska would be his last. Disregarding the good advice, he mounted up and headed out. True to his promise, that was Charles Nolin’s last mail ride.

The next morning the wagon train party found the mail scattered along the trail near Nolin’s mutilated body and dead horse. They dug a shallow grave with their hay forks and buried him near the site of the present day monument in Sturgis. Nolin’s remains were later moved to Bear Butte Cemetery.

            A day after Nolin’s was killed Rev. Henry Weston Smith set out on a 10-mile walk, leaving a note on his cabin door: “Gone to Crook City to preach, and if God is willing, will be back at three o’clock.”   

Walking was the usual mode of transportation for the Methodist missionary. He walked beside a wagon train from Cheyenne to the Black Hills earlier that year, preaching his first sermon in Custer City. The crowded dirt main street in Deadwood was his church, a fact later pointed out by Captain C. V. Gardner.

            In the years past I have noted in the press many statements regarding incidents connected with the man known as Preacher Smith. Most of them are pure romance.  … how he used to go into the saloons and pray are pure fiction. I never saw him in a saloon, and I am sure he never was. He preached frequently in Deadwood, generally in front of Bent and Deetken’s drug store or in front of my store.  … in those days the town had 3,000 to 4,000 people, located mostly on one street, and he had no trouble in securing an audience. He was a man about 6 feet tall, with a fine physique and I should say 40 years old. He was very quiet and unassuming in manner. I know nothing of his past life, as he never volunteered to tell me and it was not wise in those days to inquire too closely into a man’s antecedents.

           Friends concerned about Indian danger warned the missionary against attempting a solitary walk to Crook City and pleaded with him to carry a gun. “The Bible is my protection. It has never failed me yet,” he told them.

          Preacher Smith never returned from Crook City. His body was found on the trail, hands clutching his Bible and blood-stained notes for his sermon in his pocket.

          The Preacher Smith monument on Highway 85 north of Deadwood was erected in 1914 by the Black Hills Society of Pioneers.Sheriff Seth Bullock described Rev. Smith’s death in his August 21 letter to Rev. J. S. Chadwick in Louisville, Kentucky: 

           It becomes my painful duty to inform you that Rev. H. Weston Smith was killed by the Indians yesterday (Sunday) a short distance from this place. He had an appointment to preach here in the afternoon, and was on his way from Crook City when a band of Indians overtook him and shot him. His body was not mutilated in any way, and was found in the road a short time after the hellish deed had been done. His death was instantaneous as he was shot through the heart. His funeral occurred today from his home in this town. Everything was done by kind hands, that was possible under the circumstances, and a Christian burial given him. I was not personally acquainted with Mr. Smith, but knew him by reputation, as an earnest worker in his Master’s Vineyard. He has preached here on several occasions, and was the only minister in the Hills. He died in the harness and his memory will be always with those who knew him. A letter from you which I found in his home causes me to convey this sad intelligence to you.

         Also killed near Crook City on that tragic August day, Charles Mason was buried in a separate wooden coffin in the same grave as Preacher Smith. Although his death was attributed to Indians, some historians have theorized  Preacher Smith may have been killed by lawless whites.

          The missionary’s body was later moved to the new Mount Moriah cemetery where a life-size statue placed on his grave in 1891 was eventually destroyed by vandals. In 1914 the Society of Black Hills Pioneers erected a monument on the Deadwood-Spearfish road, not far from where his body was found.                           


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