In Search of Virginia Bill

In Search of Virginia Bill

Early in 1998 I was invited by Nancy Tystad Koupal, Director of Publications for the South Dakota State Historical Society, to write the introduction for a reprint of Dakota: The Autobiography of a Cowman, by W.H. Hamilton, originally published in the Collections of the society in 1938. Part of my research for the introduction was an expedition across West River South Dakota in search of Virginia Bill, as William H. was known out west. After consulting written sources in the collections of the society in Pierre, I headed for Butte and Harding counties to seek out local sources and sites pertaining to Hamilton's homesteading and ranching experiences.

I used some historical maps from the state historical society, but my main reference for locating landmarks was DeLorme's South Dakota Atlas and Gazetteer, used in combination with land utilization maps (based on U.S. Geological Survey maps) I picked up from the Belle Fourche office of the Bureau of Land Management. I also was armed with a hand-held GPS receiver, which I used to take coordinates at various sites I located. This is a civilian unit, no military precision, but it has a position averaging feature that should make the coordinates good to 50 feet or so.

This website should be read in conjunction with the Autobiography, including my new intro, and is not meant to replicate what is there. To summarize briefly: W.H. Hamilton came to Dakota Territory from West Virginia in 1884. He bought a relinquishment and proved up a homestead a few miles east of present-day Belle Fourche, on the north side of the Belle Fourche River. His parents, brother, and sister also settled in the vicinity, as did his uncle's family. In 1889 the railroad arrived in Belle Fourche, and the Hamiltons joined the movement of small ranchers into what had been the domain of the big Texas outfits, the butte-bedecked range between Deadwood and Dickinson. Virginia Bill and brother Jone Hamilton trailed a herd north and set up ranch headquarters on Jones Creek, along the south face of the South Cave Hills. W.H. thereafter divided his time among his homestead on the Belle Fourche, the family ranch in the Cave Hills, and his courtship and marriage to his old West Virginia sweetheart, Nancy Ellen Showalter. Finally in 1901 he sold out and moved the family east for the sake of their children's education. He never forgot his experiences in the West, though. When he wrote his ranching memoir, he told his son that had it not been for consideration of the children, he never would have left Dakota.

Accessible via the gray buttons below are some notes and images coming from my field work in Butte and Harding counties, that is, in Virginia Bill's Dakota.

In April 1999 I addressed the South Dakota State Historical Society about my research on Virginia Bill Hamilton and for that occasion wrote and sang the song, "Ways and Habits of the West." Here is the text of that speech, "What I Learned from Virginia Bill."

Buy the Book!

The reprint of Dakota: An Autobiography of a Cowman was released 1 December 1998. It is available for sale by the South Dakota State Historical Society Press, the Plains Folk (on-line) Bookstore, and your local bookstore (tell them to order it if they don't have it).