by R.T. Lawton
A few lawmen in the Old West became famous, like Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and Pat Garett, but what about the ones who didn't get written up in dime novels and didn't have some version of their lives and dramatic events turned into movies for the silver screen or into weekly episodes for television? What of those who went about their jobs in once growing towns which later faded into almost obscurity, those individuals who did not receive much recognition in the records of history?
Arch Wilder Riordan was one of those old time lawmen overlooked in most history books.
In late 1874, after gold had been discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota, prospectors started heading into the area. Many traveled north from Sydney, Nebraska, and then turned west where they followed the route used by buffalo herds making their way from the prairie into the hills and out again with the seasons. The great influx of people soon called for a town to be established at the beginning of this natural opening in the landscape. This town became known as Buffalo Gap.
Eleven years after the gold rush started, the Fremont, Elkhorn and Missouri Valley Railroad reached Buffalo Gap and made it a shipping point for both cattle and travelers. At one point, the town claimed to have 17 hotels and eating establishments, 4 general stores, one hardware store, Bonesteel's Ready To Wear store, 2 drug stores, Van der Vort's furniture store, 4 Chinese laundries, 3 livery barns, 4 blacksmith shops and 2 large sporting houses plus several small ones. It also had a station stop established by George Boland for the Sydney Stage Line. As there were no churches, religious services were held in tents.
The quickly growing town soon attracted a collection of low-lifes and law-breakers. Since the local sheriff was not held in high esteem, the town's businessmen met in secret to discuss the problem of law and order. That's when they asked Arch to become their Town Marshal. The salary by 1886 became $75.00 a month.
Arch stood about six feet tall and weighed in at 240 pounds, had an easy manner and a southern accent. He'd come into the Dakota Territory as a cattle drover and found the community and surrounding area to his liking. Deciding to settle down, he opened up a combination drugstore and saloon, which became quite profitable. Believing that a good citizen should do his part in the community, Arch agreed to take on the job of Town Marshal.
Unhappy at the prospect of a cowboy turned Town Marshal riding herd on their rowdy activities, the local hoodlums had their own secret meeting. As a result, they hired Charlie Fugit, a gunman, to come over from Wyoming and take care of their problem. The plan was to start a fight in one of the dance halls, and then when Arch showed up, Charlie would kill him. All went as intended until Charlie confronted Arch in the dance hall. Turned out Arch was a deadly shot and faster than Charlie. Charlie did not survive the shooting.
In another incident, Arch took a gun away from a bad guy named Sam. (Sorry, Sam's last name didn't make it into the history book.) Sam got lodged into the Buffalo Gap jail, a ten foot by ten foot building with stout doors and bars on the windows. Arch turned his back and started to walk away, not knowing that Sam had a small revolver concealed in his boot top. The outlaw called out to Arch. As the marshal turned back to him, the outlaw shot and missed. Arch drew his own weapon, informing Sam that he would bear evidence of this attempted murder for the rest of his life, and then shot off Sam's left ear lobe.
Arch went on to survive several dangerous situations, never using his firearm without due provocation. In later years, he was appointed a U.S. Marshal.
Over time, the railroad pushed north up to Rapid City, the new hub for the Black Hills. Several businesses from Buffalo Gap then moved up the line. Buffalo Gap had peaked and soon faded into near obscurity.
Historical information for this article was taken from Our Yesterdays, the collected writings of oral histories from early pioneers by the Eastern Custer County Historical Society during the late 1960's.