The World of Deadwood: Property Rights and the Search for Human Identity

20 Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 489 (2011)

49 Pages Posted: 11 Mar 2010 Last revised: 9 Aug 2012

See all articles by Michael B. Kent

Michael B. Kent

Campbell University - Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law

Lance McMillian

John Marshall Law School, Atlanta

Date Written: March 9, 2010


The year is 1876. Gold has been discovered in the fledgling camp of Deadwood, bringing hordes of new arrivals each day seeking to strike it rich. The allure of wealth is coupled with the allure of complete autonomy. There is no law. Although part of the United States, Deadwood is unaffiliated with any existing territorial government. It is free. Or is it? From this backdrop, HBO’s highly-acclaimed drama Deadwood springs forth. Series creator David Milch is frank about his mission behind the story: to explore how order arises from chaos. The assignment and protection of property rights play central roles in this journey from anarchy to law. In the world of Deadwood, where ownership of land can be worth millions, law’s promise and law’s pitfalls are both on full display. The stakes are high; the lessons are many.

Stories are powerful teaching tools because they marry information and context. Film and television also supply a picture of law in action, marshalling the power of the visual to make law more real, less abstract. Because of its rich complexity and invocation of ancient debates over what property is and who rightly can be deemed to own it, the three-season run of Deadwood provides fertile ground for this type of interdisciplinary study. Deadwood demonstrates that the interrelationship between property and law is complex, with many moving pieces and many valid points and counterpoints. Property has both naturalist and positivist attributes, it both pre-exists and coexists with the state, it is about economic power and personal identity, it supports both an individualist and communitarian mindset. Accounting for all of these strands in a balanced way is a lot to ask of legal institutions, especially inasmuch as the strands often are in competition with one another. Deadwood suggests that, while law is certainly a component piece in the puzzle of human relations, it alone cannot do all that we ask of it. And therein may lie the ultimate lesson: Law can be a blessing, but the human condition requires more.

Keywords: property rights, Deadwood, John Locke, positivism, takings, gold, law and popular culture, anarchy, David Milch, democracy, natural law, social compact, television, profanity, arts and literature, elections

JEL Classification: K1, K11, K12, J24, B3, B31, C71, D23, D71, J41, K4, L61, N1, N31, O, P1

Suggested Citation

Kent, Michael B. and McMillian, Lance, The World of Deadwood: Property Rights and the Search for Human Identity (March 9, 2010). 20 Southern California Interdisciplinary Law Journal 489 (2011) , Available at SSRN: or

Michael B. Kent

Campbell University - Norman Adrian Wiggins School of Law ( email )

225 Hillsborough Street
Suite 432
Raleigh, NC 27603
United States
(919) 865-4487 (Phone)

Lance McMillian (Contact Author)

John Marshall Law School, Atlanta ( email )

1422 W. Peachtree Street, N.W.
Atlanta, GA 30309
United States

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