The 1876 Johnny Spaulding Cabin - Belle Fourche
Last Updated by
Images of the Past The 1876 Johnny Spaulding Cabin - Belle Fourche This rare two-story cabin holds stories of adventure, deceit, and romance.
Old log cabins have a certain romantic appeal. They’re symbols of early America as we want to remember it. Lamplight, wood burning stoves, quilts and feather pillows, warm and snug against wicked winters and wolves.
But the true-life story attached to one of the oldest pioneer dwellings in South Dakota actually does involve an honest-to-goodness romance, complete with adventure, deceit, love lost and love found again against the odds.*
This cabin was the first permanent dwelling in Butte County, on the northern edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills. It was built by “Buckskin” Johnny Spaulding.
Johnny Spaulding was born in west-central Wisconsin in 1849. He attended grade school and learned to read and write. Like most frontier children, he also learned something about farming and raising livestock. Johnny grew up near a community of native Ojibway and their children were the best friends of his childhood. He learned their language and folkways, how they hunted, fished, and lived in harmony with nature.
When he was 19, Johnny moved to Winona County in southeast Minnesota to further his formal education at a private academy. He lived in the academy headmaster's house with the headmaster's family. He paid his own way by working a variety of jobs. He was especially good at caring for horses but could do almost any kind of work. One summer, he was paid to tend a raft of logs being moved from the north woods of Minnesota down the Mississippi river to St. Louis.
During his time in Minnesota, he fell in love with Nettie Dobbs, a classmate who happened to be the headmaster’s daughter. Johnny proposed to Nettie in 1871 and with her family’s blessing, Nettie accepted. He was 22, she was 16.
After the harsh and deadly winter of 1872-1873, the young couple agreed they'd prefer a life in a milder climate. In 1874, Johnny went west to see what he could find. He crossed the icy Missouri River into Nebraska and made his way west along the Platte River. He eventually laid claim to some land in south central Nebraska. He planted a crop, but at the time there was a lot more money to be made as a so-called market hunter, killing buffalo and other wild game for money. Spaulding and a shooting partner kept three skinners employed full time, ranging throughout western Nebraska and eastern Colorado.
It was a risky occupation. Spaulding and his pack horse were both bitten by rattlesnakes. Johnny almost died and the horse did. He was once stranded in a blizzard without food or water for three days. His partner ventured out some 80 miles from their home base, eventually finding Johnny, barely alive but walking and trying to make his way home. On another occasion, while approaching a buffalo he'd shot at some distance, Spaulding noticed several arrows protruding from the dead animal's ribs. An Oglala Indian named Yellow Horse soon arrived at the kill site and a dispute arose over who owned the carcass. The competing hunters agreed to wrestle for it. After a half hour struggle, they agreed to a draw. Yellow Horse kept the buffalo's meat and Johnny Spaulding kept the hide.
Spaulding had been writing and sending letters to Nettie Dobbs as often as possible but never got a letter in return. Deeply worried, he sent a letter to one of Nellie's aunts. The aunt's reply was sad. Not long after Johnny went west, she said, Nettie moved in with another aunt who happened to be ill. After the sick aunt passed away, Nettie married the widowed husband.
Heartbroken, Johnny went back to market hunting on the plains of Nebraska and Colorado.
But Johnny and Nettie were the victims of a cruel deceit. Nettie Dobbs never received any of Johnny's letters, nor did she receive any letters from other family members. None of the letters she wrote to Johnny were ever delivered. The aunt’s husband, a Mr. Giles, was colluding with a good friend - who happened to be the local postmaster. With the postmaster's help, Giles intercepted and destroyed every letter Johnny wrote. He also destroyed letters from Nettie’s own family.
Even worse, Mr. Giles presented Nettie with a letter supposedly written by her stepmother. The letter said that Johnny had married an Oglala girl and obviously “cared for her (Nettie) no more than a dog.”
Not long after her aunt died, Giles pressured Nettie into marrying him. Having lived together for so long, he told her, people were talking. They would be shamed and shunned by the local society if they didn't get married. Nettie gave in. Then, not long after they were married, Giles moved Nettie and the children to Texas.
By 1876, Johnny Spaulding knew that the big buffalo herds were just about gone. He contacted his sister and brother-in-law and urged them to join him in the Black Hills. Like everybody else in the country, he'd heard about the gold strikes in Custer and Deadwood.
Spaulding arrived in the northern Black Hills not long after the Battle of the Little Big Horn in June, 1876. Tensions between white settlers and Indians were at a high point and Spaulding joined a crew building a stockade in Spearfish. Johnny's knowledge of Native language landed him a job with the U.S. Army. He worked as a scout for General Crook, whose troops were still chasing Crazy Horse. (They never found him.)
Johnny preferred deer hide clothing of his own making to a uniform or manufactured attire. The nickname "Buckskin Johnny" was applied and stuck.
In late 1876, Spaulding built a cabin along the Redwater River just south and east of present day Belle Fourche. Spaulding cut the logs from stands of pine near Deadwood and hauled them some 15 miles to his home site. He wrote to family members and urged them to join him in this new and still wide-open frontier.
Spaulding’s sister Lucinda, her husband T.J. Davis and their children arrived in 1877. Working together, Spaulding and Davis added two rooms to the cabin. By local standards it was fairly spacious, with one bedroom on the first floor and two on the second. For the next two years or so, nine people called the cabin home.
Spaulding did almost everything but mine gold. He hauled freight and moved livestock and timber. In 881, he established a horse ranch in Wyoming. But he couldn't seem to settle down. If anything, he became even more of a rambler. We went back to Nebraska, then to the desert Southwest, then back north to the Yellowstone country and over the Continental Divide, first into Washington, then Oregon. He finally stopped moving in northern California where he bought some land in Modoc County. He appeared to be settling in. He built dams on two streams, diverting the water onto a thousand acres of new cropland. It was among the first irrigation projects in that part of the West.
When the Spanish American War broke out in 1898 Spaulding tried to enlist in the Army. He was 49. When the recruiters rejected him because of his age, he challenged them to 2-mile footrace. Spaulding beat the recruiters' champion, signed some papers, and spent the next 18 months serving with Company K of the First California Volunteers. The unit saw action in both Cuba and the Philippines.
Johnny Spaulding's life was a little more settled after the war. A serious drought forced the sale of his Modoc County ranch. Johnny moved south to Napa County, taking up residence in a "Veteran's Home." But he didn't like what he called the "herd life." He bought another rancher, this one in California's Napa Valley.
Johnny learned the truth about Nettie's life in 1914. By chance, his brother had met with one of Nettie's relatives in Minnesota and the truth came out. After hearing the story, Johnny traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota to convince Nettie's family that they must never tell her about what her husband Giles had done. For years, they honored Johnny's request.
But when Giles died in 1927, letters were exchanged between family members and Nettie learned the whole truth. In October of that year, a meeting was arranged at Johnny's sister’s house in Yakima, Washington. Johnny and Nettie were married a week later - after a 55-year engagement.
The bride and groom returned to Johnny's ranch near Yountville, California. By all accounts, including their own, they lived happily together in the temperate climate of the Napa Valley for the next four years. Johnny Spaulding passed away in 1932 due to complications from surgery at the Napa Veterans home. Nettie died just a few months later. The pair visited Belle Fourche in 1928, just once as husband and wife.
The Spaulding Cabin was inhabited until the 1930s but by the end of the 1950s, it was in poor condition.
In 1960, the William A. Helmer family donated the structure to the Tri-State Museum in Belle Fourche. The Belle Fourche Lions Club renovated the cabin, adding a new roof and chimney, windows, and other improvements.
In 2006, the Belle Fourche Questers Club, the City of Belle Fourche, and the Tri-State Museum obtained a grant and undertook a more complete restoration. In 2007, the cabin was moved to its current location on the Museum grounds and decorated with period-appropriate furnishings.
To see 360-degree views of the interior of the Johnny Spaulding cabin, visit SDPB's Flickr gallery.
To learn more about the "Buckskin" Johnny Spaulding Cabin and plan a visit, check the Tri-State Museum Web site.
*Excerpts and Compilations from "The Lives and Loves of Buckskin Johnny Spaulding," Cy Davis - The Center for Western Studies, Augustana University, Sioux Falls, SD. "The Odyssey of Buckskin Johnny Spaulding" Cy Davis, © 2010, Tri-State Museum, Belle Fourche, SD; "The Girl I Left Behind" John and Nettie Spaulding, © 2010, Tri-State Museum, Belle Fourche, SD.