The Black Hills Stage & Express Line leaving Cheyenne
(WY State Archives Sub Neg 15126)
It’s been 142 years, nearly to the day, since 25-year-old Johnny Slaughter’s murder inspired a community to take a stand against highwaymen.
The well-respected son of Cheyenne City Marshall Judge John Slaughter, Johnny was a stage coach driver on the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage line, the route between what would be Wyoming’s State Capital and the rich, gold-filled Black Hills.
On March 25, 1877, while driving, Johnny was ambushed and shot dead in the seat just 2.5 miles outside of newly established Deadwood, South Dakota.
In the 1870’s, it was not uncommon for occupants of stage coaches to convey amounts of money, some quite large and others not so much, between the Black Hills and Cheyenne.
Troops from the U.S. Army’s Fort Laramie were tasked with keeping the peace on the road between the two areas that appeared at odds with each other, despite being only a few hundred miles apart.
Gold in the Black Hills was a fairly new development at the time, with U.S. Army General George A. Custer leading the expedition that lead to its discovery in 1874. Soon after, miners flocked to the Black Hills by the hundreds, followed by tradesmen who hoped to capitalize on the new industry.
The result: a wild and ultimately unstable community where anything could happen, even with the protection of Army soldiers.
Cheyenne, however, was generally viewed as an established community, having stood for more than a decade, according to the Wyoming State Archives (WSA).
Deadwood, and the lawlessness associated with it, was hundreds of miles away and residents of Cheyenne read about it in newspapers with a passing interest. They believed the anarchy of the Black Hills would never touch their picture-perfect lives on the streets of Cheyenne.
That is, until the murder of one of their own, the son of Cheyenne’s city marshal.
Hattie Durbin, a resident of the time who rode in the stage that followed Slaughter’s the next day, wrote of her own experience when she heard the news.
“This bad news shocked and saddened us, for most of us had known Johnny Slaughter, the young stage driver, quite well,” wrote Durbin.
Durbin wrote of growing suspicion that the highwaymen had waylaid and murdered Slaughter because they thought he was transporting a large sum of money, the WSA says.
Although that was not the case with Slaughter, Durbin believed she was, having been given a weighty package to transport from Cheyenne to Deadwood.
Miles away from their destination, Durbin’s coach was stopped by a log, placed or fallen across the road. She described a menacing man sitting astride a horse, watching the stage negotiate the obstacle, but she later surmised it had been a deputy sheriff, as they had no trouble on their way into Deadwood.
On her way back to Cheyenne, a few months later, Durbin’s coach was stopped again, this time by a man seeking to pass along a message to Marshal Slaughter from the Blackburn gang.
It was common belief that the Blackburn gang had been responsible for Johnny’s death. However, the gang’s message contained a promise of revenge to whomever killed the Marshal’s son.
“[They] swore that they did not kill his son and that if they ever found 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,” Durbin recalled.
Little is known about whether or not the Blackburn’s or anyone else caught up to who, supposedly, killed Johnny Slaughter. The WSA notes that the Marshal, along with many others, believed Johnny had been killed unintentionally by the Blackburn gang, who simply didn’t recognize the young stage coach driver.
Regardless, it was the end of an era of highway robbery, at least on the Cheyenne-Deadwood stage line. Coaches, from that point on, were accompanied by armed escorts and had heavy iron chests installed to combat attempted robberies.