Deadwood Magazine

Seth BullockSeth Bullock star of new television series

Seth Bullock was a logical choice for the leading character in Deadwood, a new Home Box Office television series premiering March 21.

Just 27 years old when he arrived in Deadwood Gulch, Canadian-born Bullock had already established an enviable reputation on the western frontier.

An older married sister living at Fort Custer, Montana Territory thwarted Bullock’s first attempt at western adventure. She sent the runaway adolescent back to his Ontario home.

It was a futile effort.

In 1867, at the age of 18, he was back in Helena. His achievements during the next few years belied his youth. By the time he was 25, Bullock’s credentials read like an entry in Who’s Who of the American West.

Not content to pursue just one career, the young man made a name for himself in Helena as a deputy and elected sheriff, auctioneer and businessman, politician, explorer and conservationist.

Serving on the Montana Territorial Senate in 1871-72, Bullock introduced a resolution that prompted Congress to establishYellowstone National Park. He and companions personally explored the Yellowstone country area in 1872

Daily entries in a journal of that month-long horseback expedition disclose flashes of Bullock’s characteristic dry wit:

Camped on Methodist Creek, called so because the sound of the water resembles a sermon – endless.

Numerous hot hell holes, all smelling of sulfur … Will recommend this country for religious revivals when I get back. Hell is sure close to the surface here.

Old Faithful …the only geyser that has regular office hours … goes off regularly each hour and six minutes

Bullock married his childhood sweetheart Martha Eccles in Salt Lake City in 1874 and drove his bride home to Helena in a buggy behind a new team of horses.

Two years later Bullock and Sol Star followed the gold rush to the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, transporting their successful Helena hardware business to Deadwood Gulch in an ox-drawn wagon. They arrived in the lawless mining camp just before Wild Bill was killed in a Deadwood saloon.

Piled on the wagon load of mining equipment -- axes, picks and shovels, ropes and dynamite, Dutch ovens and frying pans -- were a quantity of chamber pots, not a necessary item for gold prospecting but a welcome convenience to miners living in tents or crude cabins.

Auctioneer Bullock sold the utilitarian pots to high bidders the night he arrived in the gulch, an auspicious beginning for the Bullock-Star hardware business. Within the year the young business partners built a store and office building on Main Street. After an 1894 fire destroyed the hardware store, the Bullock Hotel was constructed on the same site.

But it was Bullock’s law enforcement experience rather than his business acumen that impressed early Deadwood residents. The August 2 murder of Wild Bill triggered a demand for law and order in the wild mining camps. Miners selected Bullock as sheriff of the lawless mining camp, a position made official the following spring in an appointment by the governor of Dakota Territory.

Tall and erect, with steely gray eyes peering from beneath bushy eyebrows, Sheriff Bullock had an imposing appearance that commanded instant respect. "He could outstare a mad cobra or a rogue elephant," his grandson said.

Defeated by a mere handful of votes in the fall election, an appointment as deputy U.S. marshal kept Bullock in the law enforcement field while he pursued other interests in mining, politics and ranching.

Bullock and Star established a ranch near the present town of Belle Fourche in 1879. They imported and raised thoroughbred trotting horses and planted an alfalfa crop, both firsts in the area.

In 1884 Bullock rode out from that ranch to his historic first meeting with Theodore Roosevelt who was then ranching in the badlands north of the Black Hills. Their close personal relationship, cemented over a prairie campfire, continued until the death of both men in 1919.

Roosevelt’s high regard for "one of my staunchest and most valued friends" was evidenced through his appointments of Bullock as the first forest supervisor of the Black Hills Reserve and as a United States Marshal.

Bullock was instrumental in securing a Federal Fish Hatchery in the Black Hills, still in operation at Spearfish, and in founding the town of Belle Fourche which soon became the largest livestock shipping point in the United States. He volunteered as a cavalry captain in the short-lived 1898 Spanish-American war.

Invited to participate in Roosevelt’s 1905 presidential inaugural, Bullock startled staid citizens by recruiting 50 young cowboys, including Tom Mix, to ride their horses in the inaugural parade. Toting six shooters the cowboys galloped down Pennsylvania Avenue, occasionally roping a spectator.

By turns, Roosevelt’s teenage sons came to the Black Hills on summer vacations with their father’s request that Captain Seth "rope, throw and brand" them.

In 1910, Seth and Martha Bullock met T. R. in London where they rubbed elbows with royalty. Asked why Roosevelt didn’t seem to care much for kings, Bullock had a tongue-in-cheek reply. "I think he prefers Aces," he said.

Despite his own terminal illness, Bullock rallied for one final public service after the death of his dear friend on January 6,1919. Enlisting the aid of the Black Hills Society of Pioneers, of which Roosevelt was a member, Bullock worked tirelessly for the next six months to erect the first United States memorial honoring the 26th U. S. president.

The memorial tower of native Black Hills stone went up quickly on Sheep Mountain overlooking Deadwood, in time for dedication ceremonies on July 4, 1919. Inscribed on a plaque on the site was the pioneer society’s resolution renaming the peak Mount Roosevelt.

Seth Bullock came to the end of his Dakota trail two months later. He died in September 1919 and was buried on the high trail to White Rocks above Mount Moriah Cemetery. The gravesite, facing toward Mount Roosevelt across the gulch, was selected for its view of Friendship Tower, a view since obscured by a half-century growth of ponderosa pines.

A man equally at home in the saddle or in the drawing rooms of London society, Seth Bullock was described by Teddy Roosevelt as "a true westerner, the finest type of frontiersman."

Portrayed by Timothy Olyphant, Seth Bullock is destined to become a familiar character to national television audiences in HBO’s Deadwood series.


Deadwood Magazine © 2004

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