Martha Bullock

Last Updated by Brian Gevik, Text by Rachel Lovelace-Portal - Curator of Collections - Deadwood History Inc. on

On March 16, 1939, the Weekly Pioneer-Times declared that “a long and interesting life has ended” when announcing the passing of Martha Eccles Bullock the day before. It is generally known amongst Deadwood history enthusiasts that Martha’s husband, Seth Bullock, lived an interesting life and left an unforgettable mark on Deadwood’s society. Martha Bullock’s life, however, is less well known and written about by today’s scholars.

martha bullock portrait

Martha Eccles Bullock, 1882. Deadwood History, Inc., Adams Museum Collection.

 

Martha was born in Pennsylvania on September 17, 1851. She spent most of her childhood in Michigan. It seems that Martha had a passion for music, culture, and education. She had a soprano voice and throughout her life she sang as a member of church quartets. At a young age she became a school teacher in Battle Creek, Michigan. Martha met Seth Bullock while living in Michigan. Unlike in the popular HBO® Deadwood series, Martha was not married to Seth’s brother before marrying Seth. Martha and Seth were actually childhood sweethearts. When he left for Montana in 1867, Martha was only 15. Despite the distance, their relationship continued and they were married in Salt Lake City in 1874.

seth bullock portrait

Seth Bullock, 1882. Deadwood History, Inc., Adams Museum Collection.

 

In 1875, the couple had their first child, Margaret, known as Madge.

martha bullock portrait

Madge Bullock, September 26, 1895. Deadwood History, Inc., Adams Museum Collection.

 

In 1876, Seth left Helena, Montana, for Deadwood and Martha went to live with her parents in Michigan until Seth was settled in Deadwood. When she did join her husband, she traveled by the Cheyenne to Deadwood Stagecoach. Her obituary states, “She was a woman of superb health, high ideals, fine mentality and character, and wonderful energy. She became a natural leader in social, literary and musical circles of Deadwood.” In local newspapers Martha’s name appears often regarding social events she hosted, clubs she was involved with, and the church services and concerts in which she sang. Martha belonged to many clubs, often serving as an officer, including the Ladies Auxiliary, the Round Table Club, the Culture Club, and the Woman’s Suffrage League.

women's social club

Round Table Club 21st Anniversary celebration at the Bullock Home, 1908. Deadwood History, Inc., Adams Museum Collection.

 

One social club that Martha served as president of was the Round Table Club. The club was founded in February 1887 at the home of Marie Gaston who also served as the first president. The name of the club was inspired by Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poems about King Arthur. The club was rather exclusive, at first allowing only thirteen members and then expanding to fifteen. The members were women of the social elite in Deadwood. The women gathered weekly to study literature, history, authors, and grammar. They adopted the motto “Dare to be Wise” in 1895. Martha is first listed as a member in 1891. She was elected and served as president in 1893-1895, 1902-1904, 1908-1911, and 1916-1919.

The Black Hills Federation of Women’s Clubs formed in 1897 and the Round Table Club became a member. Martha and several other club members, including Marie Gaston and Clara Coe, became involved in the Federation. Memberships in federations helped women’s clubs by providing lists of authors and books to study and supplied books at discount prices.

After 1900, the Round Table Club’s membership expanded, as did the topics members discussed. Besides literature and history, they also discussed art and opera and even housing conditions in London and Berlin in comparison with those in the United States. At each meeting, members read papers on the topic of discussion. Each year they held an annual meeting to elect officers. During their annual meeting in 1916, the women put together an art gallery of “studies which had been made during the last year of celebrated French, German and Italian masterpieces.”[1]

The club was not only interested in educating themselves, but the community of Deadwood as well. They spearheaded the effort to start a public library. They formed the Round Table Club Library Association in 1895 and lent books to the people of Deadwood from a rented room in the Syndicate Building. Marie Gaston served as the librarian until her death in 1902. The association obtained a grant from the Andrew Carnegie Foundation for a library and in 1905 the Deadwood Library opened.

deadwood library

Black Hills Studios photograph of the Deadwood Public Library, circa 1930s-1940s. Deadwood History, Inc., Adams Museum Collection.

 

The Round Table Club also participated in civic affairs. In 1916, they worked with the Deadwood Women’s Auxiliary to put on Baby Day which raised awareness of children’s health issues. During World War I, Round Table Club members helped with the war effort. Despite taking part in local causes and the war effort, the club did not take a position on Women’s Suffrage. Suffrage, however, was an issue that Martha became interested in and an advocate for outside of her Round Table Club involvement.

South Dakota’s women’s suffrage history is fascinating in that as early as 1890 the legislature put woman’s suffrage on the ballot. It was voted down, but was back on the ballot in 1894 and 1898 only to fail again. Suffrage groups were active in both Lead and Deadwood. Martha did not sit idle during this time. In 1914 she became the president of the Deadwood Franchise League and later the county chair for the league. She is listed as the Deadwood Woman’s Suffrage League president in the Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times on April 23, 1916. The Franchise League held lectures on suffrage and brought in such speakers as Catherine W. Towell who was the state president of the Universal Franchise League. The League also hosted Jane Addams, who stayed with the Bullocks while in Deadwood. Jane Addams was a reformer and feminist and one of the founders of the Hull House in Chicago, which offered kindergarten and day care for working class families as well as citizenship and English language classes. We cannot know for certain, but it is possible that Martha’s advocacy for women’s suffrage influenced Seth. He also became a supporter of woman’s suffrage.

In 1918, women’s right to vote was on the ballot again. At that time, Martha was the county chairman for the Franchise League and Mrs. Paul Rewman was the State Finance Chairman. On June 12-13, 1918, Deadwood hosted a “Suffrage School.” Mrs. S. V. Ghrist led the school. She was the Vice President of the South Dakota Universal Franchise League. The school went over the details of Amendment E which, if passed, would enfranchise woman.[2] The amendment passed on November 5, 1918 giving South Dakota women the right to vote. The next year, the United State Congress passed the 19th amendment on June 4, 1919 and it was ratified on August 18, 1920 granting all women in the country the right to vote.

After winning the vote, it appears that Martha continued her interest in politics. On November 6, 1932, she published a paragraph in the Deadwood Pioneer-Times supporting President Herbert Hoover in the election. She wrote, “I deem it a happy privilege to lend my support toward the re-election of Herbert Hoover, and to encourage the women to cast their ballot for the man whose wisdom and fidelity to duty have staved off disastrous chaos . . .”

martha bullock portrait

1882 J.C.H. Grabill portrait of Martha Bullock. Deadwood History, Inc., Adams Museum Collection.

 

Along with being involved in a club that founded the Deadwood Library and organizations that worked to gain the vote for women, Martha left another tangible reminder of her presence in Deadwood in the form of a park on Sherman Street. In 1929, Martha donated property to the City of Deadwood for a park which for many years was known as Rotary Park. In 2014, the Deadwood City Commission voted to rename the park the Martha E. Bullock Memorial Park.

 

[1] “Round Table Club Elects its Officers,” The Weekly Pioneer-Times, Thursday April 27, 1916, page 5.

[2] “Suffrage School to be Held in State,” The Daily Deadwood Pioneer-Times, June 1, 1918, Page 2.

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