Incredibly, people around the world will gather this week to celebrate South Dakota’s statehood – approximately five months in advance of the occasion’s 130th anniversary.
At least that’s one way to look at HBO’s May 31 airing of “Deadwood: The Movie.” Characters from the classic television series set in the South Dakota town of the same name will be reunited after a lapse of 10 years with the statehood celebration as the backdrop.
Of course, Yankton had an unforgettable presence in the original series as a far-off place where decisions were made and laws imposed as the capital of the Dakota Territory. For those who have watched “Deadwood,” the name used for Yankton residents is unforgettable — and, unfortunately, unrepeatable here.
It will be interesting to see whether Yankton is mentioned at all in the long-awaited film.
“Deadwood” was a compelling tale of ambitions anchored by the competing forces of brutality and law and order made truly unique by the inspired — and often profane — language of series creator David Milch.
A major plot point of the first season was the assassination of “Wild Bill” Hickok in Deadwood’s Nuttal & Man’s Saloon No. 10. That tale also has close ties to Yankton because the murderer, Jack McCall, was ultimately tried and hanged for his crime in Yankton.
In an interesting bit of timing, Hickok has also enjoyed a resurgence of interest this year.
In February, best-selling author Tom Clavin released a fascinating new biography called “Wild Bill: The True Story of the American Frontier’s First Gunfighter.” The seasoned historical writer attempts to separate fact from fiction in relation to one of the Old West’s biggest legends.
Hickok’s life is in some ways reflected in the themes of “Deadwood.”
By the time he was 30, Hickok was a living legend thanks to the stories — some true and some fabricated — published about his daring life as a Civil War scout, lawman and expert shootist. When he was killed at the age of 39, he was married to Agnes Lake, gambling regularly, losing his eyesight and struggling to find his place on a frontier that was becoming increasingly settled by European pioneers. Civilization and age were tough adversaries for this ambassador of the Old West.
In an email interview with Clavin, he told me he saw Hickok as a tragic figure. (An interesting side note is that Hickok’s ancestors farmed 107 acres owned by William Shakespeare, making the term “Shakespearean tragedy” even more apt.)
“It was a delightful coincidence to find the link between the Hickok family and William Shakespeare because I see Wild Bill as someone who was elevated to a great height and then fell back to earth, like several of Shakespeare’s characters, as well as ones from Greek tragedies,” Clavin said. “For all his good qualities, Hickok would not have figured out a way to live happily ever after. He knew he was doomed, and marrying Agnes was his last fling with something close to happiness.
“At the risk of sounding a bit unhinged, one could see McCall as only an instrument of fate, existing for no other reason than to show up in Deadwood in the summer of 1876 to assassinate one of the most famous people in American history,” he continued. “It does not appear he contributed anything else to society or history, an Old West version of Sirhan Sirhan. My only theory for McCall acting as he did on August 2, 1876, was resenting Hickok’s charity. But I don’t think the reason was important — it was like he was there to commit a preordained act.”
It wasn’t until 2017 that a grave marker was erected for McCall in Yankton’s municipal cemetery. In part, it was due to not wanting to draw attention to a murderer who happened to face the consequences of his crime in Yankton. But for those who have a desire to experience our past, the stone is a sober and respectful reminder. It’s not in the exact spot where his body was interred in the Catholic cemetery next door, but it is quite close.
The marker quotes Hebrews 10:17: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”
The biblical excerpt is appropriate but ironic considering that McCall’s “sins and lawless acts” are far from forgotten more than 140 years after they were committed.
It’s interesting to see how Yankton’s history as the capital of the Dakota Territory — as the place where law and order slowly but surely began to spread across this part of the frontier — still reverberates in the public consciousness through popular culture like “Deadwood.”
How it will or will not impact our future is difficult to say.
I will be excitedly watching “Deadwood: The Movie” this week. However, I’ll probably view it with a little more attention than most to how South Dakota’s politics are portrayed and whether Yankton is mentioned at all since, by 1889, its time as the territorial capital and making Deadwood “a trough for Yankton’s snouts” — as Al Swearengen so eloquently put it in the television series — was a fading memory.
In any case, I’m sure the film will be a captivating tale of humankind’s ambitions, imperfections and creativity when it comes to profanities — and where better to set such iconic themes than in the early days of South Dakota?