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'Dean' of Black Hills history dies

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Historian and author Watson Parker, left, signs a copy of his book "Deadwood: The Golden Years" beside fellow historian Bob Lee at the Adams Museum in 2001. Parker died Wednesday at the age of 88.

When Hollywood director David Milch began researching his HBO series "Deadwood," he turned to historian Watson Parker's books for reference.

"Deadwood: The Golden Years" was the "first book that David Milch bought," said Mary Kopco, director of the Deadwood History Foundation. "And they bought lots of Watson's books."

Watson died Tuesday night in Rapid City at the age of 88. The highly respected historian left behind a wealth of Black Hills history in notes, papers and his books, which also include "Gold in the Black Hills" and "Black Hills Ghost Towns," which he co-authored with Hugh Lambert.

Watson, who grew up on a dude ranch near Hill City, taught American history at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh for 21 years. He retired to the Black Hills, where he continued his work as an author, speaker and historian. He was inducted into the South Dakota Hall of Fame in 2011.

Kopco first met Parker in 1995. "I just fell in love with him," she said. "Watson Parker was just an amazing Black Hills historian who loved the history of the region."

Kopco worked with him many times over the years and says Parker's books are a mainstay of Black Hills area museums. When she informed a colleague of Parker's death, the colleague noted she had just used one of his books as a reference the day before.

"We are constantly turning to his work," she said.

Kopko said Watson, whom she described as "jaunty; he always had the best hats," had a true talent for making his books both highly accurate historic pieces while still extremely entertaining.

David Wolff, a professor of history at Black Hills State University in Spearfish, had the same reaction to both the man and his work.

"Every time you visited Watson, you'd come away saying, 'Damn, I wish I could say it like that,'" he said.

Wolff said Watson was highly intelligent but could relate to readers and audiences. And he was prolific. Wolf said if any one person ever walked every inch of the Black Hills — taking thorough notes along the way — it was Parker.

He was always out there, searching "any wide spot in the road," Wolff said. "He was brilliant. I always referred to him as the dean of Black Hills history. ... Watson kind of stood above all the rest."

Contact Lynn Taylor Rick at 394-8414 or

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