A Note from Cottonwood Corners

From the earliest settlement of America by those coming from Europe, the religious denominations, through their missionaries and pastors, were represented all across the country as they moved west from the Atlantic Ocean.  The missionaries and fur trappers were the first “outsiders” to move into the Dakota Territory.

Later, the cattleman, prospector, homesteader, and merchant came to establish communities on the vast open range.  To them, this was their Eldorado!

By late 1874 and the early part of 1875, the lure of gold in the Black Hills resulted in anxious prospectors planning to move west as soon as weather and conditions permitted.  They were concentrated especially at Sioux City, Iowa, where the editor of the Sioux City Times turned his paper into a screaming advertisement for the Black Hills gold fields.

Throughout the summer of 1875, hundreds of miners were able to filter through the ring of soldiers trying to keep them out of the Sacred Black Hills.  In August of 1875, six hundred miners were ousted, only to return again.  As the game of hide-and-seek went on, military leaders realized no amount of force could keep the miners out.

Finally, in October of 1875 the Black Hills were thrown open to all comers who dared risk attack.  The rush was on and the 15,000 who came that fall concentrated on the French Creek area where Custer would later be established.

In April of 1876, Deadwood was founded which catered to the tastes of 7,000 miners.  It was a rip-roaring community of frontier lawlessness populated by road agents, gunmen, murderers, gamblers and others who many would not want as neighbors.  The stagecoaches were robbed almost daily and the local paper dismissed the actions with:  “We have again to repeat the hackneyed phrase, ‘the stage has been robbed!’”

Henry W. Smith came to this community of vice and debauchery in 1876.  He was the first Christian missionary to enter the Black Hills after the discovery of gold.  He was a regularly ordained minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, who of his own accord came to the Black Hills to minister to the spiritual wants and needs of the citizens.  This was in the early, turbulent period previous to the opening of that area to white settlement and the extension of civil government in that part of South Dakota.

This determined, courageous, and heroic preacher began his labors at Custer City in a log house, with a sawdust floor, where he preached in the forenoon and evening of Sunday, May 7, 1876.  He held services in the same place the following Sunday.

On May 22nd he left Custer City and three days later preached in camp on Box Elder, arriving in Deadwood May 27th.  The first authentic record of services held in Deadwood is to the effect that he preached on the corner of Main and Gold streets on Sunday, July 9, 1876.  It is possible that he held services previous to that time in the same manner, of which we have no record.

To the everlasting credit of the early pioneers and adventurers that filled the streets of Deadwood in those days, they displayed the most profound respect for Pastor Smith and his message.  In all of his public messages, he was never disturbed or molested.  In one of the most vile and lawless mining towns in America where little regard was given to Christian living, he won the respect of everyone.

Sunday morning, August 20, 1876, as was his custom, his message prodded the miners gathered in Deadwood’s Main Street to live a better life.  He rejoiced because a small amount of gold dust had been dropped into the hat during the collection.  He then returned to his lonely cabin, where he tacked a note on the door, “Gone to Crook City to preach, and if God is willing, will be back by 3 o’clock.”

It was a 20-mile round trip to the flourishing mining camp of Crook City.  He had been warned about the possible dangers in the area.  He was urged to carry a gun, but he refused.  “The Bible is my protection.  It has never failed me,” he responded.  With Bible in hand, and sermon notes in his pocket, he started walking toward Crook City.

About three miles from Deadwood he was ambushed and killed.  He lay sprawled on his back in the road, clutching his Bible with both hands on his chest.  In his pocket were the bloodstained notes for his undelivered sermon.  He had chosen Romans 1: 5 as the text for his sermon:  “By whom we have received grace and apostleship, for obedience to the faith among all nations, for His name.”

A rancher discovered the body of the slain preacher and a group of men went out from Deadwood to bring the body back on a hay wagon.  A carpenter fashioned a wooden casket of the best wood and material available.  All of Deadwood Gulch flocked to the funeral.  The miners exuberantly sang one of the greatest hymns of faith which was sung during a crisis, “Nearer, My God, to Thee.”

On that fateful Sunday when Calamity Jane was told that “Preacher Smith,” Deadwood’s first “sky pilot” had been killed, she lamented:

“Ain’t it too bad that they killed the only man who could tell us how to live.  And we sure need the telling.”


NOTE:  Ministers and missionaries on the western frontier were often called “sky pilot.”  Words related to “sky pilot” today are “minister,” “parson,” “pastor,” preacher,” and “reverend.”


Author Clarence Shoemaker, originally published in the Gregory Times-Advocate on September 14, 2022