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South Dakotas' "Potato Creek Johnny"

Updated on September 4, 2015

John Perrett was one of Deadwood’s most colorful characters to ever hit the Black Hills. However, if you ask about him using that name you might just get blank stares. But if you ask about “Potato Creek Johnny,” everyone will know who you’re talking about.” "Potato Creek Johnny,” is known for finding one of the world’s largest gold nuggets.

Johnny stood just four feet, three inches and was an impish looking sort of character. In 1883, at 17 years old, he left home in Wales, England with his father and sister bound for the Black Hills Gold Rush.

There was never any problem finding work and he tried his hand at various jobs. But at age 25 he made a decision to be a gold prospector…a decision which would change his life.

Johnny held various jobs after arriving in the area, but at the age of 25 the 4 foot, 3 inch man decided that he would become a gold prospector. By this point, only large mines were producing large quantities of gold. Nevertheless, John joined other hopeful prospectors with their sluice boxes and rusty pans. He began working a claim on Potato Creek…which gave him his nickname.

As he grew older his hair and beard grew also until his appearance became that of the stereotyped old prospector. It took years before Johnny had any luck with his mining. He didn’t find any gold for years. However, he did find Molly Hamilton of Belle Fourche whom he married on March 13, 1907. It was a rocky and childless marriage, but lasted for almost twenty years before they divorced in 1928.

In 1929, Johnny was thrust into the national limelight when he reportedly found one of the largest gold nuggets in the Black Hills. However, the story became slightly tainted when rumors surfaced Perrott’s nugget was a melted mass of gold ore stolen from a neighboring miner. But, that accusation was never proven.

The nugget was leg shaped and weighed 7-3/4 troy ounces. A man named W.E. Adams bought the nugget for $250 and displayed it in the Adams Museum. A replica is now on display with the original stored in the museum safe.

Johnny quickly became a huge tourist attraction for the Black Hills. People came from all over to talk to him and hear his colorful tales. Johnny would often say, "I have been looking for the rest of the leg ever since.” He never became wealthy off his mining but the big nugget did bring him fame

Johnny became tourism promoter for Deadwood, a position he held for many years. Tourists came to his Potato Creek cabin in the 1930’s and 40’s to watch Johnny pan for gold, tell tales of the gold rush days, and get his autograph. Children were particularly drawn to Johnny, perhaps because of his small stature.

Even today, many suspect the nugget was actually several nuggets melted together.  But the original tale still persists, along with stories of his other eccentricities.

Potato Creek Johnny died at the age of 77 in Deadwood, February 1943. The headline of the Black Hills Pioneer on February 21, 1943 read: "Potato Creek Johnny Crosses the Great Divide." Thus another Black Hills character passed on into the annals of history.”

John Perrett was buried at the Mt. Moriah Cemetery alongside other Old West notables such as Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, and Seth Bullock. As the funeral procession passed by the Adams Museum, its carillon chimes tolled 77 times.

Today, Potato Creek Johnny's story and photos, as well as a replica of the original nugget, can be seen at the Adams Museum in Deadwood, South Dakota.


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