DEADWOOD | On Thursday morning, as a gentle breeze combed the pine boughs towering above the silent gravesites of countless miners, muleskinners, merchants and madams in this fabled town’s Mt. Moriah Cemetery, 160-year-old “Jackson,” one of Deadwood’s original pioneers, was laid to rest.
Jackson’s story is one of history and mystery — a man in his mid-20s who joined a flood of fortune-seekers in Deadwood’s earliest muddy and bloody years, when some historians say the fledgling gold camp yielded a death-a-day, most from unnatural causes.
While the cause of Jackson’s demise may never be known, much has been learned since his skeletal remains were unearthed by a construction crew working on a retaining wall project near the intersection of Taylor and Jackson streets in the spring of 2012. The man had been buried in Ingleside Cemetery sometime between Deadwood’s earliest origins in 1876 and the latter part of 1878, according to city historic preservation officials.
State archaeologists and city personnel, assisted by a local archaeologist, sifted through the site, collecting bone fragments and the remnants of a cranium. They found 99 percent of his skeleton, save for one tooth and a few small finger and toe bones.
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Probing the past
The gruesome discovery set off a flurry of investigative activities worthy of a TV crime show, with the city’s Historic Preservation Office enlisting the assistance of scientists and researchers using modern forensic techniques from Georgia to Texas and Colorado to California.
Tests by Dr. Angie Ambers, a DNA analyst and forensic geneticist with the Institute of Applied Genetics in Fort Worth, Texas, found that the man, who probably died in his late teens or early 20s, likely had light red hair, light brown eyes and came from Western Europe.
“Dead men do tell tales,” Ambers told a small crowd assembled for the re-interment Thursday. “In this case, this young pioneer told us part of his story through his DNA and his skeletal remains. DNA is in a sense stardust, from a time that has passed."
She said no one can ever know the full story, except that the man's journey ended in Deadwood.
“The long forgotten dead are longing for home,” she added.
A molecular analysis of the silver and gold extracted from the teeth, conducted by the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in an attempt to trace their origins, was inconclusive, according to Deadwood Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker.
Examination of the teeth and jaw bones of “Jackson,” conducted by forensic dentist Thomas David of Atlanta, postulated that he likely came from a family of some means and that he apparently chewed tobacco on the right side of his mouth. The man had nine fillings, six with silver tint amalgam and three that were gold, a rarity in the late 1800s, city archivist Mike Runge explained.
The results of the testing and analysis were provided to Karen T. Taylor, a forensic artist in Fort Worth, who will provide Deadwood with a two-dimensional drawing of the individual based on the studies, Runge said. That two-year project should be completed in the next two months, he said.
“With the DNA testing, looking at Y chromosomes, and a variety of other factors, we’ve been able to gain a sense of this individual,” Kuchenbecker said. “At this point, Jackson has probably traveled as much as anyone in this office. As a preservationist and an historian, it’s been somewhat surprising that we can take a skeleton of a man who died about 140 years ago and learn so much about him.”
End of the trail
On Thursday morning, Jackson found his final resting place in Deadwood’s own Boot Hill, just below the gravesite of Seth Bullock, the town’s first marshal. Wild West re-enactors looking the part in black frock coats, cowboy boots and period dress, carried Jackson to his new home in a small redwood box built by local craftsman Keith Umenthum. A small marble marker denoted an “Unknown Pioneer” discovered in 2012 at the site of the city’s first cemetery.
Katie Lamie, an archeologist with the South Dakota Archeological Research Center, said she first met the deceased in March 2012, while she was monitoring the retaining wall project near the site of Wild Bill Hickok’s original grave. She said Jackson had been “missed” several times before when previous construction projects had come just inches from his remains.
“None of the 100 or so other burials recovered from Deadwood’s first cemetery between the years of 1878 and 2007, have been the subject of such archeological and scientific scrutiny,” Lamie noted. “Through the final episode of his life, this individual was apparently revered by a close group of friends or family."
She noted that at burial he was well dressed in a coat and possibly a vest and shirt.
“These individuals paid for his coffin burial,” she explained. “Most notably, they fired a three-round salute at his first funeral, consisting of the three spent .50-.70 center-fire cartridge cases that we later found in his coat pockets. We stand here today in place of these also departed friends and family.”
According to the priest who officiated at Thursday’s services, Jackson was placed in an honored spot reserved for a young man who traveled West to find his personal El Dorado and who typified the pursuits of thousands of faceless pioneers, some of whom got rich while others died.
“This is actual history, not the Hollywood version,” said the Rev. Michael Johnson of Deadwood’s St. John’s Episcopal Church, the oldest church in the Black Hills. The priest, who wore vestments appropriate to an Episcopal priest of 1879, and recited from a 1789 book of common prayers, said the young man he helped bury was symbolic of the spirit of the American West.
“Jackson represents all of those long-forgotten people, a past that’s still speaking to us,” he said. “They came West to make it rich, but for some, that was the end of their story.”