If you’ve ever seen the HBO series Deadwood, your first thoughts are probably about Ian McShane’s character, Al Swearengen, or perhaps the overabundance of extremely salty language… delivered in the midst of flowery prose, of course. Seriously, though – we looked for clips from the show to use, and not a bit of it was safe for work enough to embed here.
And then you start thinking about other characters, and eventually you’ll get to Timothy Olyphant’s character, Seth Bullock. Despite being the show’s protagonist, Bullock isn’t typically the guy you immediately jump to. That may be due to the fact that, since the show was axed (way too) early, creator David Milch never got a chance to put on display all of the ways in which the real-life Seth Bullock was an incredible historical badass.
If you’re at all familiar with the show, you probably also know that it’s based on real people, doing real things, in a real town. Yes, there was an Al Swearengen. Yes, there was a Gem saloon. (There still is, in fact.) And yes, there was a real, live Seth Bullock… and as we alluded to before, the show only gave us a small part of just what an iconic figure he really was in the history of American law enforcement.
Born in Canada and the son of a soldier and politician, Bullock found his way to Montana as a teenager. He became involved in politics himself at a young age, and in fact played a key role in getting Yellowstone established as America’s first national park. Somehow, despite that, he’s still only vaguely remembered, and that’s mostly thanks to the show. But there are some other reasons people should better remember Deadwood’s ass-kicking sheriff.
He may have run the Earps out of Deadwood
Take that header with a grain of salt, because the details around this one are vague at best, and the show itself actually did sort of deal with the run-in between Bullock and the Earps (Wyatt and Morgan, specifically). Wyatt Earp is, obviously, probably the most famous lawman in American history. Yet the story goes that he and Morgan ventured up to Deadwood in search of their fortune, like so many before them. Deadwood was a prospector’s town, after all. “Gold in them thar hills,” and all that.
But there are also stories about how Wyatt was looking to muscle his way into the local law enforcement, which obviously would have rubbed Bullock the wrong way. This particular angle was written about by Bullock’s son, so obviously it’s coming from a biased perspective, but as David Milch pointed out in interviews, it checks out that the presence of the Earps in Deadwood (and the reasons they told Bullock they were there) wasn’t entirely on the up-and-up. Anyway, according to that account of how things transpired, Bullock quickly let the Earps know that they weren’t needed. Specifically, Bullock and Wyatt “didn’t see eye to eye on an issue,” and the rumor being that’s what drove the Earps out of Deadwood (Morgan actually left before Wyatt). Guys, do you know what this means? If this account is true, it means we have an actual situation where this town wasn’t big enough for the both of them.
While getting the better of Wyatt Earp certainly earns him badass status, what’s even more impressive is the fact that…
Teddy Roosevelt thought he was awesome
Look, we all know this: Teddy Roosevelt is awesome. So if he thought you were awesome… just extrapolate that, right?
Now, like so much of Bullock’s life, there’s some confusion about when exactly he and the future president first met. Roosevelt had moved to the Dakotas in the 1880s, though Roosevelt would write in a letter that he first met Bullock in 1892. However, other reports place the two men crossing paths for the first time in 1884, when they were both in pursuit of the same horse thief. Roosevelt was, at that time, serving as a deputy in Medora, North Dakota, located about 200 miles (and some change) north of Deadwood. According to that particular tale, it was over their shared interest in justice that they bonded over “coffee and beans,” and their friendship lasted through the rest of Roosevelt’s life.
The two further bonded at the time of the Spanish-American War, when Roosevelt was in the midst of getting his Rough Riders to Cuba. Bullock, who is reported to have idolized Roosevelt, quickly volunteered and gained the rank of captain of Troop A, part of Grigsby’s Cowboy Regiment. While Bullock was technically a Rough Rider, he never did get to fight in the Spanish-American War, as Roosevelt and his boys made quick work of the situation in Cuba. Troop A, meanwhile, never made it out of training; the war was over too fast.
But the mutual admiration between the two men continued, and in 1905, after he’d become President of the United States following William McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt appointed Bullock as a US Marshal for the District of South Dakota. He would go on to hold that position for nine years, with both Taft and Woodrow Wilson re-appointing him when each man took over the presidency.
Bullock and a group of real, authentic cowboys had previously made the ride from South Dakota to Washington DC, in order to participate in Roosevelt’s Inauguration Parade. When Roosevelt died in 1919, Bullock had a monument erected to him on what would later be named Mt. Roosevelt. Dedicated on July 4 of that year, it was the first memorial to Roosevelt constructed anywhere in the United States.
Bullock actually died a short time after Roosevelt, but you may still be able to encounter him. That’s because…
He may also be haunting his own hotel
Alright, so you probably won’t be able to encounter Seth Bullock, unless you happen to believe in ghosts. But whether or not you do believe in ghosts, you might be interested in staying at the Bullock Hotel in Deadwood, which was built and operated by the man himself and continues to operate to this day. At the time of construction, it was considered one of the most luxurious hotels of its kind, and it also happens to be where Bullock succumbed to cancer. In room 211, specifically.
And now, because everyone loves a good haunted house story, of course the word is that Bullock’s spirit still haunts the place. Not just the room he died in, of course – did you really think a larger-than-life cowboy of Bullock’s stature (Roosevelt once described him as “the finest type of frontiersman,” after all) would be limited to a single room in death? Supposedly, Bullock’s spirit roams the second and third floors of the hotel.
It’s not just a small, local legend to drum up business, either. The haunting has drawn attention from television shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Ghost Adventures.
So, if you go stay the night in Bullock Hotel, are you likely to bump into Deadwood’s famed sheriff? …eh, probably not. Unless Tim Olyphant happens to be in town, anyway.
At the end of the day, Seth Bullock is a fascinating figure from history. Now, obviously things weren’t all sunshine and rainbows, and he wasn’t a guy who walked on water. Although, considering his reputation as a storyteller, he may have tried to convince you he could do exactly that. But this small sampling of the things Bullock did after the events of Deadwood should give you an idea of just how little the show got to tell us about the man. If the series had continued past its truncated third season, could we have gotten a storyline about Bullock and Teddy Roosevelt teaming up to track a gang of horse thieves? It certainly would have been possible.
Despite reports to the contrary, chances still feel fairly slim we’ll ever get to see the continued adventures of Seth Bullock, Al Swearengen, and the rest of the assorted rough-around-the-edges frontiersmen and women of Deadwood. After all, the series has been off the air for more than a decade, and its actors are awfully busy these days. There’s also the fact that Olyphant himself has stated rather emphatically that he doesn’t believe the long-rumored Deadwood movie will ever happen.
But considering a script is reportedly finished, and HBO recently received a tax credit to begin filming… there’s always hope. And if they do finally get the cameras rolling, we can only hope they dig into just what an Old West legend Seth Bullock actually was.
(Recently, fans of TopTenz let us know on YouTube that they’d be in favor of the occasional non-list article, with a narrower focus, enabling us to take a deeper dive. This is a continuation of that series.)