In the spring of 1876, Nat’s outfit received orders to deliver a herd of three thousand steers to the Black Hills of Dakota Territory. It would be in the Black Hills where he would receive his most famous nickname.
According to two sources the group of cowboys arrived in Deadwood City on July 3, 1876, while the town was busy preparing for its 4th of July celebration. The mining men and gamblers banded together to organize a “cowboying” contest with $200 set aside for prize money. Each cowboy was to rope, throw, bridle, and saddle a mustang in the shortest possible time. Nat entered the contest and roped, threw, bridled, saddled, and mounted his mustang in exactly nine minutes. The next competitor took twelve minutes and thirty seconds.
In the rifle and Colt events, shooting at 100 and 250 yards with 14 shots, Nat placed all of his rifle shots in the bull’s eye and 10 of the 12 pistol shots in the center spot to win the prize money. He rode out of town with the nickname of “Deadwood Dick”. He remained a cowboy in the Southwest for another decade and a half before settling down and getting married in 1889.
The name and exploits of Deadwood Dick and other western characters became the stuff of fiction and fodder for mass-produced dime novels sold round the world. Numerous books played to the fascinations and stereotypes with wild and fanciful tales of “Deadwood Dick” and his fictional adventures in the Wild West.
As the cattle industry and the American frontier changed, Nat left the open range in 1890 to work as a Pullman porter on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad out of Denver. He worked on routes south and west of Denver to famous mining camps in the Rockies, and later moved on with his family to live in locations along the Union Pacific Railroad in Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, and Southern California.
Nat told his life history (panned by some as a remarkable work of fiction; by others a the story of a remarkable life) in his 1907 autobiography. The validity of details in the work has never been fully substantiated, and it is quite difficult to tell exactly where fiction departs from the facts. Several other men claimed to be, or took on the persona of Deadwood Dick over the years, but none were able to persuade and provide details as did Nat.
Contemporary critics of that day were unsure of how dime novels would impact the working class readers and what actions they might provoke. Either they were described as “a narcotic escape from daily life with no genuine symbolic meaning or, a symbolic universe so potent as to erase the real world from the minds of readers, leading them to act out the scenes depicted in dime novels”. Anthony Comstock was the leader of these latter believers, calling editors of such fiction “Satan’s efficient agents” who would ultimately destroy the young.