Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott digs into old newspapers to see if the Wild West’s legendary character “Deadwood Dick” was a real person or just a myth.
Early in my family history and genealogy work I made, what was for me, a remarkable discovery. I found that I had a significant branch of second cousins in Cornwall in the United Kingdom.
I had not known about my Cornish relatives and they were equally unaware of me. It wasn’t long before I had the opportunity to meet this grand branch of my family and it was an extraordinary occasion! We spent several wonderful days together and those treasured family memories will now be with me forever. Given all the family photographs, stories, catching up on lifetimes, pub visits, heirlooms, and tromping around parish churches and graveyards, my head was filled with family history. I guess it should come as no surprise that I placed one item in a remote drawer of my “mental filing cabinet,” to be explored at a later date.
Not long ago this tidbit came roaring back into my consciousness and I decided I needed to investigate. The name I had filed away was “Deadwood Dick”; when I was in Cornwall many people had asked me if I was familiar with this famous Cornish-American immigrant. To begin my investigation, I opened up GenealogyBank.com and started searching for historical records containing his name. As usual, I was not disappointed!
I logged in and searched on “Deadwood Dick.” To my surprise I was greeted with more than 3,800 articles in the Newspaper Archive section of my results. I then clicked on the subcategory Obituaries. Quickly I noted that Deadwood had been reported as dead a number of times, including 1906, 1911 and 1920, along with a couple of other dates! As a genealogist I smiled when I read these different death accounts, and also found varying family histories attributed to good old Deadwood. They ranged from Deadwood being: the nephew of the governor of Illinois; a shop owner in Belle Fourche; and a postmaster in Deadwood, the latter two places both in the Dakota Territory.
So I read on. What I discovered about this Cornish-American immigrant was quite a story! You see Deadwood was the inspiration for dime novels, or what were also known as the yellow-backed series of action books, featuring the exploits and adventures of Deadwood Dick.
But was the legendary Deadwood Dick a real person?
An old article from the Daily People newspaper proclaimed: “Deadwood Dick a Myth.” As they say in the game shows: “Buzz…wrong answer!” This newspaper article was certainly not going to establish that Deadwood was a real person.
Daily People (New York, New York), 26 April 1903, page 6
Soon I found a delightful old news article published by the Jackson Citizen Patriot lamenting “Dime Novels of Our Youthful Days.” Seems no matter what the time in history, we always miss things from our youth—and in this case it was the exciting stories of Deadwood Dick.
Jackson Citizen Patriot (Jackson, Michigan), 16 August 1922, page 2
Then I discovered, from an old newspaper article published by the Sun, that Deadwood Dick was the subject of a successful stage play. But still the question remained: was he a real person? I kept on with my investigation.
Sun (Baltimore, Maryland), 26 November 1907, page 9
I was really enjoying taking a trip into America’s past, through newspapers, trying to discern who and/or what Deadwood Dick really was. Then I found a newspaper article that answered my question: Deadwood was indeed a real person!
I found his story in an article published by the Kansas City Star, entitled: “‘Deadwood Dick’ Cashes in His Chips in Life’s Game.”
Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Missouri), 16 February 1920, page 20
This account confirmed that a man named Richard Bullock was the original and very real Deadwood Dick. He spent time as a guard on the gold bullion stagecoaches that carried gold ore from the mines of South Dakota to Omaha, Nebraska. The article said that Richard emigrated from “England,” the common misnomer in those times for any portion of the United Kingdom.
My additional research has confirmed that Richard Bullock, a.k.a. Deadwood Dick, was born about 20 August 1847 near Saint Columb Major in Cornwall. He was a member of the Methodist Choir before he emigrated from Cornwall in his early 20s to find his future in America.
From choirboy to a man of mythological proportions and the stuff of early action novels!
All I can say is I am sure happy I pulled that memory out of the old filing cabinet and looked for Deadwood Dick stories in GenealogyBank’s newspapers. You just never know what you will find!