Historical Black Hills characters, both factual and fictional, have taken center stage in the successful HBO series “Deadwood.”
One of the more interesting characters is based on a man who came to the Black Hills for a purpose greater than the pursuit of gold. Henry Weston Smith assumed a significant place in the history of the Black Hills by virtue of his brief stay in the area.
“Preacher” Smith was born on January 10, 1827, at Ellington, Connecticut. He first married in 1847, but his wife and an infant son died a year later. Smith became a Methodist preacher at the age of 23. Nine years later he married Lydia Ann Joslin in Connecticut and they had four children. Smith moved to Massachusetts and served with that state's 52nd Infantry during the Civil War. Following the war, Smith became a doctor.
In 1876, Smith followed a higher calling to minister to the participants in the gold rush in the Black Hills, as he had not been formally appointed to do so by the church.
Smith has the distinction of being the first preacher of any denomination in the Black Hills camps. He walked beside a wagon train from Cheyenne to the Black Hills in the spring of 1876. George V. Ayres, who was to become a prominent merchant in the area, recorded that "Reverend Smith held the first church service in the Hills" at Custer City on May 7. Ayres wrote in his diary that the congregation was composed of 30 men (including himself) and five women.
Smith preached in Custer again on the following Sunday and then received permission from Captain C.V. Gardner to walk alongside his wagon train to the booming gold mining camp in Deadwood Gulch. "We were nearly three days making the trip to Deadwood," Gardner later recalled. A Methodist himself, Gardner refused the $5 Smith offered him for the privilege of walking with the party.
The crowded dirt Main Street in Deadwood was his church, a fact later pointed out by Captain Gardner:
In the years past I have noted in the press many statements regarding incidents connected with the man known as Preacher Smith. Most of them are pure romance. … how he used to go into the saloons and pray are pure fiction. I never saw him in a saloon, and I am sure he never was. He preached frequently in Deadwood, generally in front of Bent and Deetken’s drug store or in front of my store. … in those days the town had 3,000 to 4,000 people, located mostly on one street, and he had no trouble in securing an audience. He was a man about 6 feet tall, with a fine physique and I should say 40 years old. He was very quiet and unassuming in manner. I know nothing of his past life, as he never volunteered to tell me and it was not wise in those days to inquire too closely into a man’s antecedents.To make ends meet, Smith was reported to have prospected and worked at odd jobs during the week and preached on Main Street on Sundays. John S. McClintock, an early-day pioneer of Deadwood, also wrote about Preacher Smith in his memoirs. He remembered first hearing Smith preaching near the corner of Main and Gold Streets. Bypassers looked upon the preacher as a "curiosity," McClintock recalled, but listened to him halfheartedly out of respect for his calling.
After his Sunday morning service on August 20, 1876, Smith tacked a simple note on his cabin door:
“Gone to Crook City to preach, and if God is willing, will be back at three o’clock.”
Preacher Smith was apparently murdered as he walked to Crook City. Friends concerned about the danger of attacks by Indians or thieves had warned Smith against walking alone and asked him to carry a gun.
He reportedly replied, “The Bible is my protection. It has never failed me yet.”
A local resident found Smith’s body on the road to Crook City, but he had not been robbed. The exact site where Smith was killed has been long debated. Smith's body was taken to Deadwood for burial. In the absence of another minister, C.E. Hawley, a member of Smith’s flock, was chosen to conduct the funeral service, and Smith was buried in a hillside cemetery. Later the casket was moved to Mount Moriah Cemetery.
Seth Bullock described Smith’s death in a letter to Reverend J. S. Chadwick on August 21, 1876:
It becomes my painful duty to inform you that Rev. H. Weston Smith was killed by the Indians yesterday (Sunday) a short distance from this place. He had an appointment to preach here in the afternoon, and was on his way from Crook City when a band of Indians overtook him and shot him. His body was not mutilated in any way, and was found in the road a short time after the hellish deed had been done. His death was instantaneous as he was shot through the heart. His funeral occurred today from his home in this town. Everything was done by kind hands, that was possible under the circumstances, and a Christian burial given him. I was not personally acquainted with Mr. Smith, but knew him by reputation, as an earnest worker in his Master’s Vineyard. He has preached here on several occasions, and was the only minister in the Hills. He died in the harness and his memory will be always with those who knew him. A letter from you which I found in his home causes me to convey this sad intelligence to you.Although Smith’s death was widely attributed to Indians, some believe he may have been killed by common road thieves. An unnamed group in Deadwood was also reported to have feared Smith would convert the sinners of Deadwood to religion and more godly lives. This morality would deprive the saloons, gambling dens and brothels of considerable income. The same group was earlier rumored to have planned the murder of Wild Bill Hickok, as they feared he would become marshal and clean up the town. Speculation and rumors ruled the day.
In 1914 the Society of Black Hills Pioneers erected a monument on the Deadwood-Spearfish road, near where Smith’s body was found.
|Monument to Preacher Smith
The relocation of Highway 85 north of Deadwood during construction of a four-lane road in 1994 forced the relocation of the Preacher Smith Monument. A copper box that had been buried under the monument in 1914 was uncovered. A number of interesting historic items were inside including newspapers of the day. The items, along with materials of more recent vintage, were resealed in the box and reburied under a new monument to Smith alongside the rebuilt Highway 85. The new monument was rededicated on August 20, 1995, 119 years to the day of Smith's death.
The highlight of the ceremony was a reading of the sermon Preacher Smith had planned to deliver at Crook City. Local resident, historian, and lawyer Reed Richards read the sermon that Smith had written for the residents of Crook City on the day of his murder. The divinely inspired words of the sermon from Smith were finally heard in the Black Hills.
Information and Sources:
History of the Methodist Church in South Dakota
“Pioneer Days in the Black Hills” by John S. McClintock,
“The Black Hills After Custer” by Bob Lee