The Hills became the ‘cat’s meow’

By Bev Pechan



This story has been told more than a few times, but every  now and then it bears repeating because it has been noted by more than one student of Black Hills history that it is believed virtually all cats in the Black Hills are descendants of “Phatty” Thompson’s excellent adventure back around 1877.

Phatty Thompson was an independent freighter between Cheyenne and the new jumping-off  place of Deadwood. His loads usually consisted of contracted goods and hardware general merchandise, but one day, some of the “girls” around town approached Phatty with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

They wanted cats. Cats for pets and companionship. Cats to get rid of the mice and other vermin, which were threatening to take over the town.

Housewives agreed. Cats would be beneficial around the house and would provide entertainment for the family.  Phatty made a note of this and headed off to Cheyenne where he promised boys of all ages that he would pay 25 cents per cat delivered to him at the “Elephant yard,” the local name for Cheyenne’s freighting pens.

Meanwhile, the teamster — his mind on a tidy profit — nailed together wooden crates – about 80 of them   — and set off for the  Black Hills.

The trip was rough in the early spring and took about two weeks. How he fed the cats and cleaned their makeshift traveling compartments remains unknown.

All went relatively well, however, until the furry shipment hit a bump near Spring Creek, south of Hill City.  Cats flew everywhere and headed for the closest trees, where they were eventually coaxed down by chuckling miners in the area who thought it a great diversion.

Deadwood was bustling at the news of the cats’ arrival in town and some said the whole town turned out to greet them. Phatty hadn’t counted on the demand for his inventory and watched in amazement as both sides of Deadwood society got into fisticuffs over who got what. The only fair solution, Thompson surmised, was to auction them off to the highest bidders. In a place where eggs at the time were $12 dollars a dozen and serviceable horses $25,  cats were bringing  $10 to $25 a piece – tabbys being the lowest and longhairs the highest. A white Persian brought $50.

Phatty counted up his money and returned to Cheyenne for another load. It isn’t certain how many cats wound up in Deadwood as a result of this endeavor or how many trips were made, though estimates seem to indicate there were probably a half dozen, more or less. Prior to this time, no one remembered seeing a domestic cat in the Black  Hills.