Historical Black Hills characters, both factual and fictional, have taken center stage in the successful HBO series “Deadwood.”
One of the more interesting characters is based on a man who came to the Black Hills for a purpose greater than the pursuit of gold. Henry Weston Smith assumed a significant place in the history of the Black Hills by virtue of his brief stay in the area.
“Preacher” Smith was born on January 10, 1827, at Ellington, Connecticut. He first married in 1847, but his wife and an infant son died a year later. Smith became a Methodist preacher at the age of 23. Nine years later he married Lydia Ann Joslin in Connecticut and they had four children. Smith moved to Massachusetts and served with that state’s 52nd Infantry during the Civil War. Following the war, Smith became a doctor.
In 1876, Smith followed a higher calling to minister to the participants in the gold rush in the Black Hills, as he had not been formally appointed to do so by the church.
Smith has the distinction of being the first preacher of any denomination in the Black Hills camps. He walked beside a wagon train from Cheyenne to the Black Hills in the spring of 1876. George V. Ayres, who was to become a prominent merchant in the area, recorded that “Reverend Smith held the first church service in the Hills” at Custer City on May 7. Ayres wrote in his diary that the congregation was composed of 30 men (including himself) and five women.
Smith preached in Custer again on the following Sunday and then received permission from Captain C.V. Gardner to walk alongside his wagon train to the booming gold mining camp in Deadwood Gulch. “We were nearly three days making the trip to Deadwood,” Gardner later recalled. A Methodist himself, Gardner refused the $5 Smith offered him for the privilege of walking with the party.