July’s Featured Prospector: Nat Love, the original ‘Deadwood Dick’

July’s Featured Prospector: Nat Love, the original ‘Deadwood Dick’

Tall Tales are an American tradition, a way to entertain and to remember the past. There’s Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. There’s Johnny Appleseed. And there is Deadwood Dick, the fictional star of Old West dime novels.

Tall Tales are an American tradition, a way to entertain and to remember the past. There’s Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. There’s Johnny Appleseed. And there is Deadwood Dick, the fictional star of Old West dime novels.
Portrait of Nat Love, the first Deadwood Dick, “In My Fighting Clothes” circa 1870-’90. Adams Museum Collection. Copy from the Denver Public Library.

Created by Edward Lytton Wheeler, Deadwood Dick was a mythical hero fashioned in the likeness of Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Calamity Jane. Wheeler would put Deadwood Dick in real locations and have real people, like Calamity Jane, appear in his stories. Many people believed Deadwood Dick was a real person. 

The name of Deadwood Dick became so widely known in its time it was taken on by several real-life men who lived in Deadwood. But the first, we believe, was Nat Love, one of the greatest cowboys of the Old West. 

In collaboration with Deadwood History, Inc. and Denver Public Library Special Collections, Z-147, this month we’re featuring Nat Love, the first Deadwood Dick from the Adams Museum Collection. 

Much of what we know about Nat Love comes from his own autobiography (“The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Better Known in the Cattle Country as ‘Deadwood Dick’ By Himself”). Some historians question the veracity of Love’s stories, calling it a flamboyant and hyperbolic account of Love’s life in the tradition of other Old West Tall Tales. 

Love seemed to anticipate that response, writing in his book’s preface: “I assure my readers that every event chronicled in this history is based on facts, and my personal experiences, of more than fifty years of an unusually adventurous life.” 

He continues, “I have tried to record events simply as they are, without attempting to varnish over the bad spots or draw on my imagination to fill out a chapter at the cost of the truth.”

Whether they believe his stories or not, sources do agree that Love was a skilled cowboy who became a famous figure in his own time. Love was born into slavery in Tennessee but freed as a boy after the Civil War ended. He moved west at a young age and found work as a ranch hand, where he demonstrated considerable talent with horses, roping, and cattle. 

After driving a herd of cattle to Deadwood, he claimed to have entered a rodeo on the Fourth of July in 1876, enticed by the $200 prize money. According to Encyclopedia.com, Love won the competition by roping, tying, bridling, saddling and mounting a stallion in 9 minutes, which was 4 minutes faster than the second-place finisher. 

He also won two shooting contests while in Deadwood, one with a rifle and one with a pistol. It was at this rodeo that he claims friends and fans gave him the nickname "Deadwood Dick." Eventually he married a woman named Alice, and they had one child. 

When his way of life began to fade, Love left the trail and took a job as a Pullman railroad passenger car porter. His last job was as a security guard in Los Angeles, California. He died in 1921 in Los Angeles. The name lives on still, in historic reenactments, tall tales, and even in a physical location at Deadwood Dick’s Suites, Saloon and Antique Mall in Deadwood.

His story is also an important reminder that Black cowboys were an integral part of western life, pushing back on the often white-washed history of western life. More than 5,000 Black cowboys took part in the legendary cattle drives of the 1870s to 1880s, which were long and arduous, and helped shape the American frontier. Love’s autobiography adds another face to those stories. 

He wrote passionately against slavery, saying “Is there a man living today who would be willing to do the work performed by the slaves of that time for the same returns, his care and keep? No, my friends, we did it because we were forced to do it by the dominant race. … Of all the curses of this fair land, the greatest curse of all was the slave auction block of the south, where human flesh was bought and sold.” The freedom of the American West was more than a symbol to Nat Love.

Amidst the Fourth of July festivities, we reflect on the parallels between the pursuit of independence in our nation's history and the resilience of the prospectors who contributed to the vibrant tapestry of Deadwood's past. We can’t think of a better person to embody that independence and resilience than Nat Love, with his exuberant storytelling, hard-earned freedom, and unquenchable thirst for adventure.

First Gold Gaming is aptly named due to the proximity of where gold was initially struck in Deadwood. If you’d like to come see us and the town that made Nat Love the original Deadwood Dick, we’d love to be your host. Maybe you can hit it big like he did with one of our Lucky 7s Cash Giveaways, or enjoy a delicious meal at our Horseshoe Restaurant. 

For more information and to make a reservation, call 800-274-1876 or visit our website

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