Investigating Deadwood's Century-Old Human Remains

Feb 11, 2014

Photo of Deadwood's first cemetery - where unidentified human remains have been found.
Credit Courtesy Deadwood City Archives

The town of Deadwood has developed a reputation in many areas over the years. It’s the place you go to find gambling in the Black Hills. It’s the place to go to find historical reenactments of the Old West. Many say it’s also the place to go to find the spirits of the dead. But it hasn’t been known as the place to go to find a skeleton in your backyard…until now. 

Today we visit the stomping grounds of Wild Bill Hickok and finds the remains of a former resident who – at the moment - has no name. 

“We’re gonna’ go drive up to where Deadwood’s first cemetery was located,” explains Deadwood City Archivist Mike Runge. “We’ll take a look at that…I can explain where the remains were found and we’ll take a look at that.”

The remains that Mike Runge is referring to were found below a retaining wall behind a residential home two years ago…at the site of Deadwood’s first cemetery. It’s located just down the hill from Mount Mariah Cemetery.

“This is the location of the 2012 burial,”says Runge. “See, originally, the retaining wall was much closer to the house and was actually listing up against the house and it was about ready to topple over. So…construction workers came in and rebuilt the wall. They actually moved it back a little ways. But in the process of doing that there was a crab apple tree in close proximity if not almost on top of where this individual would have been buried.”

This wasn’t the first time remains had been found in Deadwood during construction on or repairs to a home. Several different burials were discovered in the 1940s as well as one in the 1950s and another in 2006. As a result, the state archeologist was on hand to ensure that the remains were excavated in a proper fashion when they were discovered in 2012.

Once that was done, the remains were sent to forensic anthropologist Diane France, director of the Human Identification Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado.

“I thought that based on the morphology…or the shape and size and so on of the remains….that it was consistent with a male of European ancestry…or Caucasian,” France explains. “I think that the age at death is late teens to early 20s, and I think that he stood between about five-five and five-eleven inches tall.”

Beyond that, says France, there’s little more that she can offer.

“A lot of what I do isn’t really consistent with what you see on CSI or Bones,” says France. “Some programs like that were they have a lot of literary license and they can just kind of take a little bit of evidence and run with it.” 

Instead, Diane France has to state “just the facts”. Those facts include no evidence of a cause of death – such as a bullet wound or bone fracture. Because of this, says France, investigators may never know how the young man died.

On the positive side, substantial dental work performed on the individual – unusual for the time - may assist in identifying him, his ancestry and where he came from.

And a mold of the skull has been sent to a forensic artist in Texas in an attempt to reveal what the man’s face may have looked like.

Mike Runge adds that written records of those buried at the town’s first cemetery may also shed light on who this person was and how he ended up six feet under in Deadwood, South Dakota.

Diane L. France, Ph.D., D-ABFA