The year is 1876, the location is the Black Hills of what is now primarily South Dakota, the story is of a small yet steadily expanding mining camp on land that was promised the Sioux in what was the Ft. Laramie treaty. Once yellow—aka gold—was found in the hills all pretense of treaty and/or promised sovereign land was off and white men flooded the Sioux’s territory in hopes of freedom and riches. The mining camp called Deadwood was not considered a part of the United States, as it was still in fact Sioux land, the laws of the young nation did not apply. Many came simply to escape justice, on the run, or just wanting to live somewhere where those type concerns need not apply.
Just as addiction to gold, wealth and riches birthed the camp, other substances enter the scene and flow just as plentifully. Whiskey and women being on the forefront, this is the age of the patent medicine. Opium, primarily in the form of the doctors Laudanum, comes in a close forth. It’s first seen within the first couple episodes: a wealthy wife from New York City has come to Deadwood with her husband, a prospective gold miner, and her habit, an opiate based medicinal syrup called Laudanum. At the time prescribing opiates simply for the treatment of opiate addiction was fine (a remarkably sensible application in my mind) as the camps doctor makes clear to the wife, her symptoms need not be repeated in order for her refill to be replenished. He’s happy to see to her needs, at a cost, regardless of the presenting ailment, though makes no secret of his displeasure with her choice.
The opium trade is centered in the equally expanding Chinatown, or “Chinaman’s Alley” as it’s called in the show. This is just before the Opium Exclusion Act as is mentioned in brief by the towns predominant opium junkie, a man who makes his way running secrets, or snitching, from one ranking community member to another. When asked if he was planning to vote—in an election setting the scene for what was a mining camp becoming a mining town—his response concerned only the seen proposed changing opium laws. In any event the Chinese seem to control the opium trade.
Interesting to me is the plethora of addictions, one seemingly driving the next, alive and well in Deadwood in 1876. Power and prestige, wealth, clearly dominates all other detrimental yet highly repeatable habits. Regardless of the death left in the wake of its pursuit men will stop at almost nothing to amass this yellow stone. The stress left in those not killed by this drive has most running to the gambling tables, the bar stools, and the whore houses, these being the consistently steadiest businesses in town.
Whiskey flows like lava from a volcano, certainly adding to the violence seen in town. Many in the town would be what one would call drunks, spending near every waking hour hammered or blacking out so often waking life can seem more dream. Many more seem to be of the functional drunk variety, conducting business and getting the days deeds done yes but with shots poured by an ever-steadying hand throughout. To be fair, whiskey was often a safer choice than water..
Shakespeare used the term addiction a good many years before the Deadwood camp saw its first tree fall. Although around the time of Deadwood the word was seldom used to describe the pursuit and use of drugs and alcohol it would seem in activity it was alive and well. It would also seem to me very little has changed in its favor nor view, other than the laws surrounding some of the substance addictions very little has changed in it’s treatment as well. The drunk sleeps it off in the cell overnight, the opium addict sweats and pukes it out for a couple weeks in bed at home, and the deaths behind many mens pursuit of power prestige and pleasure continue to rate and rank. I guess the primary difference there would be the opiate addict now also has the opportunity to sweat it out in a cell.
It’s been almost 150 years since Deadwood went from mining camp to American city. By the end of the series it is in fact annexed to the Dakota Territories, complete with politicians and laws and borders and whatever other social services (if any) were offered a man, a citizen of this nation, at that time. The change in language is clear, the wardrobe changes are endless, the way we address and speak to one another has in many ways changed, the machines we use, the way we toil, etc etc..
The way we view and treat the drunk remains the exact same. The way we view and treat the opium addict has gotten significantly worse. The way we celebrate the man and his monies, and the means deemed appropriate in its pursuit seem to count then exactly as they do now: don’t get caught and you might just get celebrated.
(This written about one year before the DAPL protests at Standing Rock)