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Book Review: Seth Bullock: Black Hills Lawman by David A. Wolff

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By their nature, historic figures tend to be locked on particular periods in their lives. If they also happen to become a key character on television or in film, it is fairly certain they will be forever stereotyped by that portrayal. For many, Seth Bullock has become the handsome, somewhat idealistic and good-hearted sheriff from the HBO series Deadwood. Yet like all human beings, historic figures are always far more or much less than our image of them. With his concise biography, Seth Bullock: Black Hills Lawman, David A. Wolff shows that there was a great deal more to Bullock than commonly believed.

Indicative of how narrow the perspective of historic figures can be, Bullock served as sheriff for less than 10 months. The rest of his life was spent in pursuit of other activities that Wolff methodically casts into three stages.

Although the first period includes Bullock's time as sheriff, Wolff terms it a period as "pioneer and politician." Bullock was a sheriff and legislator in Montana before embarking for the northern Black Hills of what would become South Dakota during the area's gold rush in the summer of 1876. Yet indicative of his future activity, Bullock was not a wide-eyed gold prospector but, with his partner Solomon Star, headed to Deadwood, then little more than a mining camp, to open a hardware store with a fireproof storage facility. It was a business venture that would last nearly 25 years.

Just 11 days after arriving, Bullock was elected to the nascent community's first attempt at self-government and was appointed sheriff when county governments were created the following year. By that time, the town had a population of probably less than 5,000 but about 60 saloons. Although Bullock focused on bigger issues than disorderly miners, he was ousted in an election later that year. Bullock remained active in and a booster of the community, such as promoting the creation of a fire department. Promotion, even speculation, would mark the next phase of Bullock's life, a stage which, ironically, would find destructive fires affecting both its beginning and end. And while his role as sheriff might define him to the public years later, he did not become an Old West legend like other Deadwood personalities such as Wild Bill Hickok. That's because, Wolff writes, "Bullock's story did not contain the requisite amount of bloodshed."

Bullock spent much of the 1880s and 1890s pursuing business interests while at the same time seeking to help their survival by promoting economic development and trying to gain railroad access for the Black Hills. His investments were varied and included mining, ranching and even breeding horses for harness racing. At one point in 1886, he was president of no less than 13 newly formed mining companies. According to Wolff, Bullock tended more towards being an idea man, often leaving the day-to-day work to others. Between that and the somewhat speculative nature of many of the efforts in which he was involved and invested, Bullock's personal economic well-being was quite sensitive to the vagaries of the local and national economy. Even though this phase of Bullock's life doesn't have and can't be described with the excitement or imagery of the rowdy mining town of lore, Wolff details not only the variety oif Bullock's ideas and investments but the boom and bust cycles he faced.

As the nineteenth century drew to a close, Bullock's level of investment and boosterism declined. His spirits were re-enaged by the Spanish-American War, an event that would contribute to public service becoming the final predominant theme of his life. Bullock headed up a cavalry troop made up of volunteers from the Black Hills. While the troop never left the U.S., Bullock gained some attention in the national media as Deadwood's Old West sheriff. Equally important, the service strengthened Bullock's ties with Teddy Roosevelt, who he had met in the early 1890s. Back in the Black Hills after the war, in 1901 Bullock was appointed superintendent of the Black Hills Forest Reserve.

In his introduction to the book, Wolff, a professor of history at Black Hills State University, suggests Bullock "was the most important person in the Black Hills in his lifetime." If so, perhaps the widest impact stems from being forest supervisor and pushing for and implementing multiple use of the forest. This approach would help bring a balance between economic development and preservation of the resources that were the foundation of that development. There is less detail in this portion of the book, which may well stem from the fact that the source material likely is not lively, contemporaneous frontier newspaper accounts and public records but official documents of a government bureaucracy. Bullock would ultimately return to law enforcement, though, serving as South Dakota's U.S. Marshall from 1906 to 1914.

When Bullock died in Deadwood in 1919, both the town and the region were far different from the Old West image that town carries to this day. That change reinforces the subtitle in the sense that Bullock was one of the guiding forces in converting the lawlessness of the mining camps into the type of order necessary to create viable communities. In so doing, Wolff makes it clear that viewing Bullock only through the prism of a frontier town sheriff is to do him and history a disservice.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.