Belle Fourche survived and
usually identified in Black Hills history books as a successful
businessman in the 1876 mining camp that became the city of Deadwood, or
as the first sheriff of that Dakota Territory town. But Belle Fourche,
on the prairie northwest of Deadwood, also claims Seth Bullock as its
Had it not been for his Machiavellian
maneuvers, Belle Fourche probably would not exist today. The Butte
County seat would have remained at Minnesela, three miles to the east,
where just one deteriorating building is all that is left of a once
thriving little community.
Greed, temperance-minded women, a fast horse, and
Bullock’s behind-the-scenes orchestration all contributed to
The first home in the vicinity was a sturdy log cabin
erected by “Buckskin Johnny” Spaulding and his brother-in-law, T. J.
Davis, in 1876-77. Other homesteaders moved into the area during the
next five years and in early 1882 a town was staked out on the east bank
of the Redwater river, a half-mile below Spaulding’s cabin.
Minnesela (“red waters” in Sioux) soon became a
prospering settlement with a flour mill, bank, hotel and church, school,
livery barn and blacksmith shops, several stores and, for a short time,
two newspapers. The only town on the prairies north of the Black Hills,
it was a strategic location for a trade center. Minneselans had high
expectations of a bright future -- until they lost out to Seth
Bullock and his partner Sol Star, mayor of Deadwood,
established their ranch at the confluence of the Redwater and Belle
Fourche rivers in 1879. The SB ranch became well known throughout the
west for the production of thoroughbred trotting horses and for the
first crop of alfalfa planted in the territory in the spring of 1881.
In 1884 the Marquis de Mores established a stage line
connecting Deadwood with the Northern Pacific railroad at Medora in the
Badlands of Dakota Territory some 200 miles to the north. A barn was
built on Bullock’s land as one of the stage stations on the
Medora-Deadwood line. A saloon set up in a shack at the De Mores station
offered a welcome oasis for stagecoach travelers and cowboys.
The venture wasn’t profitable for the Marquis. After a few runs
the stage line shut down. The saloon remained open, a thorn in the side
to the good women of Minnesela who were determined to keep their town
Petitioned by Minnesela citizens, the Dakota
Territorial Legislature carved out a new subdivision from Lawrence
County to create the new county of Butte, with Minnesela as the county
The hot dry summer of 1886 and the disastrous winter blizzards
that followed were calamitous for the entire area; farmers and stockmen
suffered heavy losses. By the spring of 1887 Minnesela’s hopes for
growth were pinned on the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley railroad
that was laying tracks into the Black Hills and had established a
railhead at the new town of Whitewood.
In 1890 the railroad began to lay tracks north from
Whitewood. Presuming their town was the only logical spot for a depot
and freight yards, Minneselans were elated. Convinced the railroad would
pay well for track and depot sites, they enlarged their townsite in
Believing Bullock would be the logical person to negotiate with
the railroad on Minnesela’s behalf, members of the newly organized
board of trade (forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce) asked their
rancher neighbor to prod railroad officials. Bullock said he’d see
what he could do.
In those days railroad officials customarily formed a subsidiary
townsite company to sell lots. Minnesela wanted the railroad, but also
wanted some of the profits generated by the sale of town lots.
At a meeting with railroad officials, Minneselans
discovered the railroad expected land to be donated. Railway officers
revealed they favored a depot site on an 80-acre tract south of town
that was still open for filing.
Douglas Sayre, who raised fast blooded horses,
quietly slipped out of the meeting, saddled his best mount and raced for
the land office in Rapid City.
When the meeting concluded, railway
right-of-way man T. G. Carter went to Whitewood, commandeered an engine
and also set off for Rapid City. As he entered the land office he met
Sayre coming out. The 80-acre tract had been filed on.
The future of Minnesela and Belle Fourche
hinged on those 80 acres.
Offered $500 for the tract, Sayre laughed and said the price was
$5,000 and going up. Then Sayre’s price for what he called the
“Golden 80” went up to $l0,000. He had no takers.
Always a shrewd businessman, Bullock wasn’t one to ignore
opportunity knocking. He offered the railroad right of way across his
land to Middle Creek, the most suitable spot for stock pens. In his book
about his grandfather Bullock, Kenneth Kellar related the rest of the
The railroad stopped
construction and threatened to tear up their tracks and tunnel into
Deadwood. Enter then Mephistopheles in the form of Seth Bullock and his
satanic partner Sol Star who prevailed upon the railroad to bypass
Minnesela and proceed to the old site of the De Mores station on the
Bullock-Star ranch on the Belle Fourche. The bear trap snapped shut on
the railroaders who were congratulating themselves for revenge on
Minnesela by proceeding with their track building operations toward
Belle Fourche when Star sent word that he would not approve any deal his
partner Bullock had made unless the railroad also built into Deadwood.
Take it or leave it. They took it.
Track-laying crews bypassed Minnesela and headed straight for the
Old De Mores station. On August 14, 1890, the last rail was laid and the
new town was born. “Call it Belle Fourche, will you?” Bullock
Minneselans bitterly accused one another of bungling,
selfishness and stupidity, but were particularly enraged at what they
felt was Bullock’s betrayal. Old timers recalled shaking hands with
Bullock, when asking him to negotiate on their behalf, and said that was
the last time any of them touched Bullock’s hand or said a pleasant
word about him.
The first train headed east out of Belle Fourche on September 16;
within the next month 1,315 carloads of cattle were shipped out. The
Pioneer Townsite company, formed by the railroad the next spring, began
selling lots, dividing profits with the Bullock-Star partnership.
The exodus from Minnesela began. Some buildings were sold; others
were moved to Belle
Fourche, where free lots were offered to any business moving a building
in from Minnesela. The
Butte County Bank was one of the first to relocate and others followed.
New buildings went up quickly on the rutted dirt main
street (now Fifth Avenue or Saloon Street). Among the new businesses
were Star and Bullock’s hardware and furniture store, a hotel, several
saloons, restaurants, clothing and grocery stores. A printing press was
set up in the lobby of the unfinished Belle Fourche Hotel and the first
edition of the Belle Fourche Bee was
distributed on May 27, 1891. A widely advertised lot auction brought in
three rail cars of prospective buyers.
Seth Bullock’s town was a boisterous place during the shipping
season, filled with the sounds of whooping cowboys and bawling range
cattle that sometimes were lined up for miles, waiting to be loaded on
railroad cars. In 1895 nearly 8,000 carloads were shipped during a
The ambitious new town rallied forces to get the
county seat moved from Minnesela, but the 1892 election favored the
status quo. Bullock raised $2,000 and erected a two-story building to be
given to Butte County for a courthouse if the county seat was
was a wild celebration when Belle Fourche won the county seat in the
1894 election. Although the change would not become official until
January 1, exuberant cowboys rode to Minnesela and stole the county
Retaliation was swift. Sheriff Wamsley rode into
Belle Fourche at the head of an armed posse. The records were
surrendered – for the time being.
Retaining county records for a short two months made little
difference to the survival of a town that once had such high hopes of
becoming the metropolis of the northern Black Hills.
Minnesela’s short life spanned just a dozen years,
from 1882 to 1894. Signs erected by the Butte County Historical Society
are the only indication that the farmland three miles east of Belle
Fourche was once a thriving community.
Even Buckskin Johnny’s cabin was eventually moved
to Belle Fourche and restored as a historical museum.
Herd of longhorn cattle once thundered down this Belle Fourche
street that was lined with saloons. Fifth Avenue is still
knownas Saloon Street to old timers.