Deadwood Magazine

Tale of Two Towns
Belle Fourche survived
and Minnesela died                

            He’s 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 own.

            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 Minnesela’s demise.

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’s town.

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 “dry.”

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 seat.

            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 anticipation.

            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 story:


            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 requested.

                 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 three-month period.  

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 transferred.

 There 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 books.

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.

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Deadwood Magazine ©2000