On March 25, 1877, Johnny Slaughter became the first driver killed on the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage line.
“History does not record a more foul and dastardly murder than was perpetrated by highwaymen on the night of the 25th instant, when Johnny Slaughter was shot dead from the front seat on the stagecoach… When we consider that this affair happened within two and one half miles of [Deadwood], a city boasting a population of three or four thousand, and within a stone’s throw of several miners’ cabins, we are surprised at the boldness of the attack and offer up a prayer for the speedy extermination of the vile perpetrators of such horrid deeds.”
Slaughter was the well-liked 25 year old son of Judge John Slaughter, then City Marshall of Cheyenne. The family had come to Cheyenne in 1867-68 as some of the first settlers in town. While the death of any stage driver would have caused a stir, Johnny’s in particular made an impact on the area’s sense of security and stirred up the community to action against highwaymen.
The Cheyenne-Deadwood stage linked the railroad at Cheyenne to the new town of Deadwood, South Dakota, and the Black Hills gold fields surrounding it. Only a few years earlier, gold had been discovered in the streams by the Black Hills Expedition of 1874 under the command of General George A. Custer. The rush of miners hoping to get rich – and those hoping to get rich from the miners – created towns almost overnight and further incited the Sioux upon whose land the gold was found. The troops at Fort Laramie were tasked with keeping the peace and protecting travelers on the stage route and trails. The instability of the gold fields seemed a safe distance from bustling Cheyenne, which was by then a decade old and thus considered ‘well established,’ until one of their own was killed. Thanks to the federal Works Progress Administration writer’s project, we have the first hand account of Hattie Durbin, a passenger who rode on the stage that followed Slaughter’s.
“About the most exciting experience of my early years in the West was in 1877 when my husband went to the Black Hills on a mining venture. After he had been gone a short time, I decided to join him. He begged me not to come, as the town of Deadwood was a rough place. But I persisted…I sold my furniture, packed my clothes and, with my two and a half year old baby, made ready to leave on a stagecoach scheduled for the Black Hills late in the month of March. My husband’s brother, John, accompanied me on this journey, and I was thankful, later, that he could be with me. The morning of my departure, Mr. Post of the bank of “Stebbins and Post,” stepped up to the coach and handed me a package with the request that I deliver it to Mr. Stebbins who was in Deadwood at the time. The Stebbins and Post Bank in Cheyenne were starting another bank in Deadwood, and I was quite sure that Mr. Post had given me some money to take to the “Hills,” but I did not ask him about the contents of the package, but tucked in a small satchel that contained the baby’s clothes and bottles. Mrs. Stebbins and her daughter, Florence, were taking the stage that morning and I wondered why the package was not sent in care of Mrs. Stebbins. However, I heard later, that money was often carried by a woman traveling with a baby, for she was less liable to be bothered by road agents if the stage were held up — the gentlemen of the road being notoriously tender-hearted and gallant toward young mothers and babies…”
“When I think back, I can remember that feeling of anxiety that seemed to settle on the passengers that [3rd] day, and by the time we reached the top of [Red] Canyon where we were to spend the night, even the men breathed a sigh of relief. We reached Custer City the next night… when word was brought to us that the driver of the stagecoach which had been one day ahead of us on the road to Deadwood, had been killed by road agents. This bad news shocked and saddened us, for most of us had known Johnny Slaughter, the young stage driver, quite well. The supposition was that Johnny had been held up and shot because the road agents thought that he was carrying money to the bank in Deadwood. My heart almost stopped beating when I heard this story, but I did not mention the package at the bottom of the small satchel – that was my secret – and I was determined that I would complete my mission and that no one should learn of it until all was over. The satchel was always with me, but that didn’t seem odd to the other passengers, as it contained the baby’s bottles and other necessities; and I very nonchalantly took the bottles out and fed the baby from time to time, and I was sure that there wasn’t the slightest suspicion among the passengers as to the rest of the contents of that satchel… Nerves were tense and excitement was high as we set out the next morning on the last lap of our journey. The road between Custer and Deadwood was narrow, and the spring thaws had softened the bed of the road, making travel slow and hazardous. We were all breathing easier as we came nearer to Deadwood…”
Only a few miles from Deadwood, the stage encountered a log across the road and a menacing man on a horse watching from the ridge above. Just as they stared back on the road, stage got caught in the mud.
“While I sat on a damp log beside the road, my baby developed croup. I was weary and nervous to the point of exhaustion, but this was no time to complain. As I sat there beside the road, it came to me that the man we had seen on the mountain was, perhaps, stationed there for our protection; was probably a deputy sheriff watching for hold up men; and the log across the road was, no doubt, put there as a warning that there was a bad place ahead. This must have been the case, for we had no more trouble and finally arrived in Deadwood at 2 o’clock the next morning. We should have reached our destination at 8 o’clock the night before. My husband was waiting for me at the stage station, and the first thing I did was to hand him the package I had carried with so much anxiety during the past 6 days. I did not know until some time later that the package contained ten thousand dollars in currency.”
The Durbins lived in Deadwood only a few month before deciding to return to Cheyenne in the fall of 1877.
“On the return trip to Cheyenne, we made better time, as we came straight through instead of stopping overnight at the stage stations. The journey was uneventful except for one stop on the road. Not far from Deadwood, we were signaled to a halt by Frank Whitney, a freighter who camped nearby. He said that Blackburn and Webster, two road agents, had just left him and had asked that he send a message to Cheyenne by someone traveling on the first stagecoach to come over the trail. ‘Tell Marshall Slaughter,’ he said, ‘that Blackburn and Webster swore that they did not kill his son and that if they ever found out who the man was who committed the crime, they would follow him to the ends of the earth to revenge the shooting of their friend Johnny. ‘ We had heard that the Blackburn outlaws had held up the stage that was driven by young Slaughter, but the general opinion was that the road agents did not know who the driver was or he might have been spared.”
Following Johnny’s death, extra effort was made to secure the large sums of gold and cash traveling on the stage. Heavy iron “treasure boxes” were added and the drivers and shotgun riders were nearly bristling with weapons.
1. Cheyenne Daily Sun March 27, 1877.
2. According to the April 27, 1877, Cheyenne Daily Leader, after he was shot, “[Johnny] whipped up his horses, got out of the way of the robbers, and then stopped the stage, and said in a broken voice to the passengers: ‘I don’t want to frighten you passengers, but I’m a killed man. Don’t be skeered, I say; I won’t stop the stage; but I want one of you fellows to get up and drive while I get down in the boot to die!’ In an hour Johnny was dead.”
3. “Mrs. Thomas F. Durbin – Cheyenne Pioneer” written by Harriet Ann Durbin, WPA Bio File 278, Wyoming State Archives.
5. Ibid. $10,000 in 1877 is equivalent to approximately $216,000 today. Gold was abundant in Deadwood, but currency (paper money) was not. At the time, US currency was backed by gold so banks would exchange gold for currency, and vice versa.