Arkansas Joe and The Shady Ladies of Missouri Avenue
(Information for this section is from an unpublished manuscript by Ken Stewart, author of “Arkansas Joe and The Shady Ladies of Missouri Avenue.” Stewart is a local historian who retired as a historian from the SD State Archives in 2020.)
Since Pierre was established as a town in the fall of 1880, it has been proud of its important role as a community and capital city. It serves and has historically served a large trade area. It has provided goods and services to distant towns, ranches, farms and Indian reservations. Pierre is truly a City of Commerce.
Yet, forgotten by most citizens is the role that Pierre played in the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1876. For the period 1876-1886, Pierre and its neighbor Fort Pierre were paramount in the delivery of goods and people to the bulging camps and towns and mines in the fabled Black Hills.
When the Black Hills gold rush started in 1876, the big problem was supplying mines with all manner of goods, tools, blasting powder, food, liquor, clothing, boots and shoes, furniture, and eventually wagons and carts, locomotives in pieces, rail, boilers – everything imaginable for a new civilization needed to get to Deadwood, Rapid City, and other places.
First, goods and hundreds of miners came to Deadwood from Cheyenne WY, Sydney NE, Bismarck ND and Montana to join in the fray. But all of these places were far removed from the gold fields
In Central South Dakota, steamboats delivered all of the goods to Fort Pierre, that old established fur trading post and community dating back to 1823.
It was soon determined that the Fort Pierre to Deadwood route was the shortest, most direct route to the gold field. Soon big freighting outfits with several hundred mules, horses, and oxen, plus dozens of wagons, rolled out of Fort Pierre toward Deadwood, followed by would-be adventurers numbering in the hundreds. It is said that in the period 1876 to 1886 traffic consisting of wagon trains, people on horseback and afoot or even by bicycle never out of sight of one another. A constant stream of people were heading west to the land of dreams.
The U.S. Congress commissioned a study of possible routes across the Great Sioux Reservation from the Missouri River to Deadwood. There was a northwesterly route from what is now Chamberlain through Lyman County and the Badlands country. A possible route from old Fort George, a fur trading post southeast of Fort Pierre in Lyman County was another route. The most direct route was from Fort Pierre to Deadwood though Chantier Creek and then westerly to the hills.
Congress ‘persuaded’ the Indians to allow these freight routes. The winner was the Fort Pierre to Deadwood route. Over the next ten years, an average of three million pounds of freight would annually cross the Great Sioux reservation to the Black Hills, plus thousands of would-be gold seekers and those who would benefit from the gold seekers.
The town of Fort Pierre was illegally situated on the west banks of the Missouri River on an Indian Reservation. The military allowed it to operate simply due to its ability to supply the freight wagons and teams.
The buildings of Fort Pierre in 1876-1880 were mostly crude frame or log one-story structures. Many still had dirt floors and dirt roofs. Most of the business occupied lower Main Street, an area east of the present-day Silver Spur Bar & Restaurant. It was not an orderly place.
By the summer of 1880, Fort Pierre had 300 people. There were thirteen business houses and 44 residential houses. Virtually all of the structures were crude log and wood frame one-story edifices, many with sod roofs and dirt floors. Huge warehouses were built along the river for freight arriving by steamboats. Thousands of pounds of freight in wooden crates and barrels also lined the riverbank.
Everything imaginable came up river on steamboats: whiskey, wagons, shovels, steam locomotive engines (in many pieces), furniture, food, glassware, pianos, mine cars, guns, etc. All were offloaded in Fort Pierre; every warehouse was filled to capacity. And yet thousands of crates and barrels lined the riverbank open to the elements. The freight wagon trains couldn’t keep up with the traffic.
Everything changed in the fall of 1880. Pierre (which consisted of three buildings in the spring of 1880) had eighteen houses by July. From 1876-1880 Pierre consisted of three river men: Napoleon Ducheneaux, Joe Kirley, and Henry (Hank) Lafferty. The three men had small skiffs and made their living transporting men across the Missouri River from the Pierre side to Fort Pierre, where they could catch a freight wagon or walk to Deadwood.
On November 3, 1880, the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad reached Pierre. Suddenly Pierre became the drop off point for the tons of freight from the east. Thousands of pounds of every type of freight and hundreds of passengers bound for the hills came by rail to the end of the line. They crossed the river on the new and safe ferry boat (the Jim Leighton) and headed west. Shipment by train was much quicker and cheaper than boat. See Photo Below.
Consequently, Fort Pierre soon lost its leadership role as the freight center. Steamboat traffic business decreased due to the arrival of the railroad in Pierre. The flood of 1881 devastated the businesses and houses in Fort Pierre. A depression hit Fort Pierre and it never recovered its prominence as a shipping town.
Pierre had a number of citizens who served the community beyond the normal role. Many have been honored, but many are truly unsung heroes and heroines. There are no monuments to them – just memories.
Lower Pierre had many one and two-story unpainted frame buildings, with grandiose names, but little refinement. The interiors were usually an open saloon and gambling room on the first floor. Upstairs (if such existed) was perhaps a balcony with boxes for the more flush patrons. There were also private ‘rooms’ where customers and a doxey or two could adjourn for more ‘intimate entertainment’. The customers were required to spend generously on fifty cent rock-gut whiskey, or if more flush, quality goods. The ‘girls’ helped the gents lighten the pockets of coin. See Photo Below.
In the area behind the present-day Isburg Funeral Chapel (339 South Pierre Street) was Pierre’s version of Chinatown. Here Bee Wo, We Chin and Hop Chin had laundries in 1884. They did much business with the dollies of Missouri Avenue. They probably were also engaged in supplying opium to those so inclined. The local editor in l884 pointed out the locations of dives, saloons, bawdy houses and opium dens – all on or near Missouri Avenue.
By 1884, there were more than 50 prostitutes operating the in the houses of Missouri Avenue. There were at least a dozen ‘madams’. Many assorted characters were listed in the 1884 City Directory as actresses, with the usual male hangers-on. See Photo Below.
There were several so-called variety theatres featuring singers, dancers, and comedians providing risqué entertainment and debauchery to well-fortified boozers. When not performing on stage, it was a reasonable assumption that other performances were taking place in the upstairs boxes on the balcony of the variety theaters in the ‘Ladies’ boudoirs.’
In the photos section, we will show you the street address and locations of these saloons and bordellos of Missouri Avenue, courtesy of the Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. See Photos Below.
The people who pretty much controlled the vice in 1880s Pierre were Ed Tierney, who operated a two-story establishment with the euphoric name of the Pierre Opera House and George Glover, who ran the Palace Saloon at the corner of Pierre Street and Missouri Ave. (Pierre Dentistry location). Theaters advertised themselves as ‘club rooms’ upstairs. George B. Ridgeway, Susan Chartrand, Peter Ripper, and J.W. Weir operated the saloon and bordello establishments. See Photo Below.
George Ridgeway was a Civil War veteran. As the owner of Ridgeway’s Dive, he regretted his wasted life and pending mortality. In the early 1890s, he began to consult with the local Catholic Church. He sought confession with a priest and was buried in the Mount Cavalry Cemetery north of Pierre. His grave is marked with a Civil War GAR monument.
Joseph W. Weir, whose establishment was at the present location of the River Set Apartments at 121 West Dakota Avenue, purportedly fathered the child of Calamity Jane. At least, that is the theory of a Black Hawk, SD, woman, who claims to be a direct descendant of Calamity Jane. See Photo Below.
Bismarck Annie, operator of a ‘female boarding house’ across the street, was often dragged into court for operating a bordello. She was eventually run out of town.
Dr. Alice Baird, a Pierre osteopathic physician, apparently performed abortions on ‘the girls’. Maude Lee, a long-time Pierre prostitute, died in her care in 1895. Dr. Baird was charged with manslaughter as a result. She was fined and drifted into history.
The era of Missouri Avenue’s days of infamy continued into the 1890s. A house of ill repute came into being near the railroad bridge when that structure was under construction.
When we commenced research into the Missouri Avenue Store, we realized that we would see tidbits regarding Calamity Jane. Accounts of history mentioned that she was in residence from time to time in Pierre. However, no one could ever pinpoint where she actually lived. It was always surmised that she bunked in whatever dive she passed out in after taking on too much rock gut whiskey. But amazingly, the account of early Missouri Avenue by an old timer in l895 brought forth valid new information.
It appears that Calamity Jane actually had a cabin in 1884 on West Missouri Avenue opposite what would later become the M.L. Hegglund house. Well, that was enough of a clue. We knew where the Hegglund House stood. It actually lasted until about 1998. So the Calamity Jane cabin occupied a site directly behind the present-day law Offices of Moreno, Lee & Bachand Attorneys P.C. at 206 West Missouri Avenue. The actual location of the law office was previously the site of a 1880s ‘female boarding house’, euphemism for a bordello -perfect residence for Calamity Jane. See Photo Below.
She was described in an 1880 account as being tall, raw-boned, with a pleasant eye, cowboy hat, cartridge belt for a band. She wore a mule skinner’s coat, a red shirt and a blue calico dress. Boots and spurs, a typical frontier woman.
The same account from 1880 said one afternoon a bull whacker was riding down the avenue on a buckskin pony at a furious pace and, when almost opposite Jane’s shanty, shot at her. She immediately went to the rear of the house and with an oath pumped on a white horse in masculine fashion, revolver in hand, and started in pursuit yelling like an Indian. The bull whacker was the noted Arkansas, afterwards killed by the vigilantes.
Calamity Jane came and went from Pierre on several occasions. She moved around the west as the mood struck her. At one time, she also lived in a cabin on Roberts Street.
The fall of 1880 brought the beginnings of civilization to Pierre. Good people started coming into town to settle and open business places. An element of respectability was established in houses and businesses above Missouri Avenue. Thoughts of building a permanent town was in the minds of many.
However, the lawless element that had moved into Fort Pierre in the 1870s, spilled over into Pierre when it was first settled. Ruffians, crooks, thieves, drunkards of all types soon kept the dives, saloons, and bordellos of Missouri Avenue in business.
Unfortunately, there are scoundrels who get a monument or marker because their claim to fame is evil deeds. This certainly is the case with one character, Alexander McDonald Putello, alias ‘Arkansas Joe’. He had to pay with his life to receive his monument and the story behind that monument is controversial and conflicting.
Arkansas was one of hundreds who sought a new life in the great American West. He was born to humble and honorable people in Wisconsin. His father was of Italian descendant. His mother was Scottish. He apparently had a normal childhood.
Arkansas, a red-haired tall fellow, came from Boscobel in southern Wisconsin and arrived in Fort Pierre in 1879. He found work with pioneer freighter and rancher Noah Newbanks on Sansarc Creek. It was a four-day trip by oxen team and wagon to haul supplies to the ranch 35 miles west of Fort Pierre. Arkansas found this job tedious. Sensing the excitement in the Black Hills gold rush, Arkansas went to work on the Fort Pierre to Deadwood freight runs.
Charles Gilkison, in his 1927 paper, wrote Arkansas was a steady fellow, well-liked by his fellow ranch hands. He was thought to have been a likeable enough young man, industrious in his habits. He had one vice, that of drink. On payday he went off to quench his thirst and became a different person. He went insane when in his cups. He was an insane bully. All of his good reasoning and strength of character, his sympathy, and kind heartedness left him. Equipped with a set of pistols, he proceeded to shoot up whatever establishment he was in. When his funds ran low, he would simply browbeat the barkeep. Not satisfied with that, he accosted people on the streets and waylaid them for their money.
In Fort Pierre he encountered a plethora of other lowlife types. These ne’r do wells (never do wells) began a reign of tyranny that would culminate in the death for several and a period of calm respectability for young Pierre and Fort Pierre. He lost all respect for humankind when in his cups. Plying his unsavory new occupation and gaining a reputation as someone to avoid at all costs. Arkansas became the bane of both Fort Pierre and Pierre.
In November 15, 1880, about the time when an election should have been held for county officers, the good citizens were at the mercy of thugs, robbers, gamblers, and bullies. There were no appointed or elected law officers. There were city constables with no real authority.
On the night of November 17, 1880, Jennings and McLaughlin, who had a restaurant at the foot of Pierre Street, were robbed about eight o’clock. Jennings was almost killed by a shot from one of the robbers named Pock Marked Kelly, although no money was secured.
After the blatant robbery by Pock Marked Kelly of Jennings and McLaughlin’s café, Anson Hilger, a saloon owner and friend of the two, took it upon himself to ‘arrest’ Kelly. He held Kelly in the back room of his saloon. Though he had no authority, he and his brother John D. had had enough of the robbers and thugs of Missouri Avenue. He wanted to hold Kelly for the territorial court in Yankton.
Shortly after the arrest Baker and Bell, two cohorts of Kelly, attempted to extricate Pock Marked from Hilger’s store. They finally overpowered Anson Hilger and the prisoner escaped. A fellow named Long Joe managed to save Anson Hilger’s life from the gang but just barely.
The good citizens of the new town of Pierre had reached the point; enough was enough. The constant shooting up the town by the drunken pals of Arkansas was too much. Sometimes a thousand shots were fired in a day. The open hold-ups of citizens just walking down the street, the robberies of business places, the accosting of innocent women and children by strumpets and pimps, and the lack of respect for all had to end.
A group of armed citizens marched down Missouri Avenue. They entered a group of tents housing women of vile repute. The inmates were informed that they had four hours to pull up stakes, which this motley group did by crossing over to Fort Pierre. A number of other reprobates may have joined them by gunpoint. This was the first action of the quickly formed group of local citizens.
The outlaws and their women, upon arrival in Fort Pierre, met with Arkansas and others. The riffraff said that as soon as the river was frozen, the whole outlaw force would cross the river and clean the town out of honest citizens. ‘That damn Hilgers and others’ were to be shot on sight.
Among the members of the quickly formed Pierre Vigilance Committee were John D and Anson Hilger, Ira and Henry Drew, E.D. and John H. Hausman, L.L. Shurtleff, Tom O’Neal, and others.
The next night, 25 or so respectable men met in the office of lawyer Kincaide, in a corner of Hausman’s general store on Coteau Avenue. On Nov. 18, 1880 they selected a captain, John D, Hilger. Others in the group included Anson Hilger, Ira and Henry Drew, E.D. and John H. Hausman, L.L. Shurtleff, Tom O’Neal, and Louis B. Albright. See Photos Below.
There were several banks in Pierre, and all would have been at the mercy of the outlaws, were it not for that committee. Their spy went out, and in a short time returned saying that the gang was in town. A moment later, two shots were fired in defiance of their orders.
The outlaws led by Arkansas Joe entered French Joe’s Saloon and Card Room at the corner of Pierre St and Missouri Avenue and ordered the proprietor to hand over his gun. The hapless soul had a warning that Joe and his gang were on the way. He tricked the gang by hiding most of his money in the building, so the gang got a smaller amount. Arkansas then said, ‘Now I want $20.00 to go on’. The frightened barkeep quickly conformed to this request. Then Joe demanded that the barkeep set up drinks for everyone in the place.
Now there stepped into the saloon, one Bert Wilcox. He said he came to listen to the violin player. Bert said when he saw Arkansas point the pistol at the barkeep and demand cash, he tried to leave the joint, but there was only one entrance. Then Joe saw him and said, ‘Step up to the bar and take a drink’. Bert said that he told Joe, ‘I promised my deceased mother that I would never take a drink’. Arkansas Joe, angered, said, ‘By ____ you will take drink now’, and pointed his pistols at Bert Wilcox. Being drunk, then Joe tripped and Bert dived out of the door and stood aside. Shots rang out immediately… just missing Wilcox. So Arkansas cared little for anyone’s life.
The two shots aimed at Bert Wilcox were the call to action for the Pierre Vigilance Committee. They marched as a group to French Joe’s Saloon and Card Room. The vigilantes formed a half circle around the building. At that, a stranger stepped up and told them that Arkansas had fled the saloon and was hiding in the bushes opposite the saloon, present site of the Law Office of Adam, May, and others. Arkansas then began a flank movement by walking at a right oblique in the vigilantes’ direction. Tommy O’Neil, one of the vigilantes, said ‘There is Arkansas coming through the bushes. I know him by his buckskin shirt’. We see him even though night had fallen.
John Hilger called out, ‘Arkansas is that you?’. ‘I am the Boy,’ he answered. Shots then rang out from both of his pistols. They went wild for at the same moment nineteen holes were put into his body. One of the vigilantes had a double-barreled shotgun loaded with buckshot. One charge struck Arkansas just below the chin, the other in his forehead. See Photo Below.
He must have expected to die that night. John Hilger searched Joe’s body and found his last will. He gave his riddled buckskin shirt and his guns to his brother-in-law who was present. The brother-in-law said he was glad that Joe was dead, as he and his wife had lived in fear of the man. Apparently Arkansas had killed another brother-in-law in the past.
Hilger shaved the man. They took a new suit from the store clothing stock. He was buried in a new pine box with services by Rev. Williams of the Episcopal Church. The burial spot was about twenty rods from the present capital building, as this was the burial ground at this early time.
But that was not the last that anyone heard from Arkansas Joe.
When crews were digging the basement for the new Capitol, about 1904, a body was uncovered. From the location and Arkansas’s red hair, he was identified by Hilger. Oddly enough, his skull was eventually put on display in the Soldiers and Sailors museum on Capital Avenue. There it reposed in a display cabinet of other skulls until about 1970. It and the other human remains were repatriated by the museum staff at an undisclosed location in rural Stanley County. Now on Judgement Day, poor old Arkansas Portello will rise from two counties.
The Vigilantes had no more trouble for a time. One scarlet maiden shot a pistol off a few weeks later. She was ordered out of town by the Committee and boarded a stage for Deadwood the next day. The outlaw element returned to early Pierre for a time, but there were no more shootings and carrying on by them.
The days of the Shady Ladies and the Outlaw element had ended.