I wrote a friend of mine today and misspelled his name as Bryon instead of Byron. It’s an old fault of mine; my brother Brian spent most of his youth as Brain. But it got me to thinking about Al Swearingen, the notorious saloon keeper of the gold-rush era who first opened business in Custer City and then moved, famously, to Deadwood. In the historical record, his name is often grossly misspelled, but we rarely mistake him and his enterprises for anyone or anything else.
Consider how his name appears in Captain Jack Crawford’s letters written from Custer City during the gold rush. “Swannger’s Hall, or Hurdey Gurdey house, as it is termed, is open and in full blast,” Crawford wrote on 27 March 1876. The rest of the letter makes clear the nature of this Swannger’s business. On a wooden floor in the back of the hall could be found, Crawford continued, “four fairy-like forms gliding around in the gay quadrille, while four of the hardy miner boys, whose heavy boots sounded like so many trip-hammers in a foundry, were handling the girls as they would flowers in the spring time—they looked so delicate, you know.” For those who wished to indulge, the dance cost “the sum of fifty cents for each set, to be paid at the bar after the dance is over, for which [the purchaser] receives a cigar or drink, and his girl, or the young lady he danced with, also receives a treat” (Ho! For the Black Hills, p. 95, published by the SDSHS Press).
Crawford wasn’t alone in mangling Swearingen’s name. Harry (“Sam”) Young, another early Custer resident and later a bartender at Deadwood’s Saloon No. 10, also struggled with the moniker. Young recorded Al’s arrival in Custer City via Cheyenne, Wyoming, in his 1915 memoir Hard Knocks: “Swarringer immediately constructed a large log building, flooring it, and in the rear erected fourteen stalls, or rooms, where the girls slept. . . . This new enterprise took the town by storm and Swarringer made a great deal of money there” (p. 194).
By any other name, Swearingen is still recognizable as himself. I hope my brother and my friend remember that fact when I misspell their names once again.