From NKAA, Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (main entry)

Migration to Deadwood, Dakota Territory

The 1870 U.S. Federal Census shows 80 African Americans living in the Dakota Territory, five of whom were from Kentucky. Most were former slaves employed as cooks and domestic help.

By 1880, the Dakota Territory contained 17 African Americans from Kentucky, with the largest group of six living in the town of Deadwood, located in the Black Hills.

P. Reynolds (b. 1852 in Kentucky), was a wood sawyer and contractor who had brought his wife Katie (b. 1852 in Arkansas) and their son Clarrence. The family had lived in Nebraska, where Clarrence was born in 1875.

Joseph Wells (b. 1831) was a cook. Theodore Lyons (b. 1830) was a barber. George Ree (b. 1861) was a laborer.

Julia Francis (b. 1853 in Kentucky) was a widow who was employed as a housekeeper. She had a daughter named Dollie who was born in Dakota in 1879. They shared a residence with Jackson Colwell (b. 1830), a cook from Kentucky, and his brother Edmond Colwell (b. 1857 in Missouri), a liquor dealer who also ran a saloon.

Deadwood was an illegal town on Native American land; it began to develop in 1874 after gold was discovered near French Creek. Not unlike Skagway, Alaska, Deadwood grew dramatically during the gold rush: the town population quickly increased from a few to 5,000. The town was filled with fortune-seekers, gamblers, prostitutes, and highway robbers; it was noted as the place where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered. Calamity Jane is also buried there.

Nat Love or "Deadwood Dick," a former slave from Tennessee, is the most noted African American associated with the town of Deadwood. Love was a cowboy who brought a herd of cattle to Deadwood.

When the gold fever calmed, the town became a mining town. A small pox epidemic hit in 1876. A fire in 1879 destroyed much of the town, with the population decreasing as people left to start life anew.

There were four African Americans from Kentucky living in Deadwood in 1900, none of the previous six listed as residents in the U.S. Federal Census. The Dakota Territory was divided into South Dakota and North Dakota, and both became states in 1889.

For more about Deadwood see Westward Expansion, by R. A. Billington and J. B. Hedges; Old Deadwood Days, by E. Bennett; Deadwood, by W. Parker; and The Negro Cowboys, by P. Durham and E. L. Jones.

Outside Kentucky Place Name

Item Relations

Cited in this Entry

NKAA Entry: Kentucky African American Servicemen in Skagway, Alaska
NKAA Source: Westward expansion : a history of the American frontier
NKAA Source: Old Deadwood days
NKAA Source: Deadwood : the golden years
NKAA Source: The Negro cowboys

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Cite This NKAA Entry:

“Migration to Deadwood, Dakota Territory,” Notable Kentucky African Americans Database, accessed April 21, 2024,

Last modified: 2020-10-01 16:46:04