Sometimes we find a person who is not so much an icon but a caricature of a place, a group, or a specific period of time. The Black Hills has a few of these persons, but no one more recognized locally than John Perrott.
Folks around Deadwood do not commonly know about John Perrott. However, if you ask them about Potato Creek Johnny, everyone will have a story.
At the age of 17, John Perrott immigrated to the Black Hills from Wales. He left his home with his father and sister in 1883, to seek his fortune in the Gold Rush.
Johnny held various jobs after arriving in the area, but at the age of 25 the impish 4 foot, 3 inch man decided that he would become a gold prospector. By this point in the Black Hills gold rush, only the large mines were producing large quantities of gold. Nevertheless, John joined other prospectors with their sluice boxes and rusty pans trying to find the mother lode in the streams around the Northern Hills. He began a claim on Potato Creek (part of Spearfish Creek), which gave him his nickname and eventually led to his claim to fame.
Johnny let his hair and beard grow, and as he grew older had the appearance of what most people thought a prospector should look like. His life on the claims was not always to be one of complete solitude, as he married Molly Hamilton of Belle Fourche on March 13, 1907. Johnny and Molly never had children, and the union was reportedly much like Johnny’s mining experiences – quite rocky. The marriage lasted until September of 1928 when the couple divorced.
In 1929, Johnny made history when he reportedly found one of the largest gold nuggets in the Black Hills. The story of the day was that Perrott’s nugget was a melted mass of gold ore stolen from a neighboring miner – a claim that has never been substantiated. The weight of the leg-shaped nugget was 7-3/4 troy ounces. W.E. Adams bought the nugget for $250 and put it on display in the Adams Museum (a replica of the nugget is on display at the Adams Museum and the original is stored in the museum safe deposit box).
After Johnny found this nugget he became one of the greatest tourist attractions for the Black Hills. People wanted to talk to Johnny and hear his stories. When asked about the nugget he would often say, “I have been looking for the rest of the leg ever since”.
Johnny served for many years as a promoter of tourism for Deadwood. Visitors came to his cabin on Potato Creek in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s to watch Johnny pan for gold, hear him tell tales, and get his autograph. He was a particularly big attraction for children because of his height.
Potato Creek Johnny died at the age of 77 in Deadwood in February 1943. The funeral procession passed by the Adams Museum and carillon chimes tolled 77 times. He is buried at Mt. Moriah Cemetery alongside Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Upon the occasion of Johnny’s passing, the headline of the Black Hills Pioneer on February 21, 1943 read: “Potato Creek Johnny Crosses the Great Divide.” Thus another Black Hills character passed on into the annals of history.
Sources: Adams Museum, Deadwood, Gold Pans and Broken Picks – Christopher Hills