HISTORY COMES ALIVE: Days of ’76 keeps history alive with rodeo, history reenactments

Deadwood, S.D. (July 11, 2022) – There’s a history lesson or two tucked into the Days of ’76 Rodeo in Deadwood, South Dakota.

When gold fever hit the Black Hills in 1876, it brought prospectors, gunmen, and bandits.

And the Days of ’76 rodeo showcases two of the biggest activities that happened in the area during the gold rush days.

During the rodeo, the murder of Wild Bill Hickok on August 2, 1876, is reenacted. Reenactors sit around a gaming table, playing cards, as “Jack McCall” bursts onto the scene, shooting Wild Bill as he played cards.

As McCall tries to escape, a group of cowboys on horseback stampede into the arena, guns blazing, to capture him.

The second reenactment that’s done during the rodeo is the holdup of the Deadwood to Cheyenne stagecoach. The stagecoach transported the gold out of Deadwood to Cheyenne, and its biggest holdup took place in 1878 at the Cold Springs Stage Stop, when a gang of bandits robbed the coach, killing one and injuring three others and escaping with the loot.

The vignettes are true to history, says Steve Olson, narrator of the events during each performance of the Days of ’76 Rodeo. “The history is factual, but the actors do take creative license,” he said.

The firearms used for the reenactments are all time-period correct, said Lester Nielsen, who is the official armorer of the Days of ’76 Rodeo. For both reenactments, actors carry 1851 and 1860 Colts and 1858 Remingtons. The stagecoach used is a replica Abbott-Downing coach, the same vehicle that would have been used on the stage lines. It’s pulled by a four-horse team, coming into the arena at “full bore,” Olson said.

A dozen or more cowboys are on horseback, shooting black powder blanks, that make terrific noise and create a lot of smoke, which adds to the aura of the event. “That’s part of the show,” said Lester Nielson, a volunteer who helps with the reenactments. “There’s a definitive aroma and smoke haze when we’re done.”

A self-proclaimed “gun nut,” Nielson began purchasing replica guns from the 1870s era, for the reenactors to use. “I started with two, which led to four, which led to eight, which led to twelve,” he chuckled. “Pretty soon it got to be a vicious circle.”

He’s donated the thirty-plus period guns he owned to the Days of ’76 Museum, and they are used each year for the reenactments. As the armorer for the rodeo, Nielson is charged with personally guaranteeing the pistols are loaded with blanks, and there are no live rounds. He loads and distributes the firearms to the reenactors before each rodeo. It takes about two hours to load the guns for each performance, and then they must be cleaned after the rodeo.

He’s also built many of the holsters for the reenactors, which are also in the museum.

Some of the stagecoach holdup reenactors carry four guns into the robbery, and can shoot them all empty in about thirty seconds, he said. “They’re at a full gallop, and in less than a minute, the experienced actors will have all four guns empty.”

Fans love the piece of history they get during the rodeo, Olson said.

“People don’t leave their seats during these events,” he said. “They’re not running to the concession stand or the bathroom.

“It’s a fun, noisy event. It’s colorful, active, and the crowd loves it.”

This year’s Days of ’76 rodeo will take place July 24-30. Slack, the extra competition that doesn’t fit into the performances, runs July 24-27. Performances are July 27-30 with nightly performances at 7 pm and a matinee on July 30 at 1:30 pm. Tickets range in price from $11-$41 (plus fees) and can be purchased online at and at the gate. For more information, visit the website.

Wild Bill Hickok gets up from the card game he’s playing in Saloon 10 during the reenactment of his murder. Days of 76
Courtesy photo
A stagecoach is “held up” for a reenactment during the Days of ’76 Rodeo in Deadwood. The rodeo reenacts the hold up, which took place in 1878 at the Cold Springs Stage Stop. Photo courtesy Johnny Sundby

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