Martha Jane Canary or better known as Calamity Jane, was an American frontierswoman and professional scout, known for her claim of being an acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok, and fighting against Native Americans. Late in her life, she appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, and at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. She is said to have always exhibited kindness and compassion to others, especially to the sick and needy. This facet of her character, contrasted with her daredevil ways, helped make her a noted frontier figure.She was also known for her habit of wearing men’s attire
Much of the information about the early years of Calamity Jane’s life comes from the autobiographical booklet she dictated in 1896, which was written for publicity purposes. She was about to begin a tour in which she would appear in dime museums around the United States, and the pamphlet was intended to help attract audiences. Some of the information in the pamphlet is exaggerated, or even completely inaccurate.
Calamity Jane was born on May 1, 1852, as Martha Jane Canary (or Cannary) in Princeton, within Mercer County, Missouri. Her parents, Robert W. and Charlotte (Burch) Cannary, were listed in the 1860 census as living about 7 miles (11 km) further northeast of Princeton in Ravanna. Martha Jane was the eldest of six children, having two brothers and three sisters. In 1865, Robert and his family moved by wagon train from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana. In 1866, Charlotte died along the way in Blackfoot, Montana, of pneumonia. After arriving in Virginia City in the spring of 1866, Robert took his six children on to Salt Lake City, Utah. They arrived in the summer, and Robert supposedly started farming on 40 acres (16 ha) of land. The family had only been in Salt Lake City for a year when he died in 1867. At age 14, Martha Jane took charge of her five younger siblings, loaded up their wagon once more, and took the family to Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory, where they arrived in May 1868. From there, they traveled on the Union Pacific Railroad to Piedmont, Wyoming.
In Piedmont, Martha Jane took whatever jobs she could find to provide for her large family. She worked as a dishwasher, cook, waitress, dance-hall girl, nurse, and ox team driver. Finally, in 1874, she found work as a scout at Fort Russell. During that time, Jane also began her on-and-off employment as a prostitute at the Fort Laramie Three-Mile Hog Ranch
Martha Jane was involved in several campaigns in the long-running military conflicts with American Indians. Her unconfirmed claim was that:
It was during this campaign [in 1872–1873] that I was christened Calamity Jane. It was on Goose Creek, Wyoming where the town ofSheridan is now located. Capt. Egan was in command of the Post. We were ordered out to quell an uprising of the Indians, and were out for several days, had numerous skirmishes during which six of the soldiers were killed and several severely wounded. When on returning to the Post we were ambushed about a mile and a half from our destination. When fired upon Capt. Egan was shot. I was riding in advance and on hearing the firing turned in my saddle and saw the Captain reeling in his saddle as though about to fall. I turned my horse and galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling. I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Capt[.] Egan on recovering, laughingly said: ‘I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.’ I have borne that name up to the present time.
As reported in the Anaconda Standard (Montana, April 19, 1904): Captain Jack Crawford, who served under both Generals Wesley Merritt and George Crook, stated that, Calamity Jane “…never saw service in any capacity under either General Crook or General Miles. She never saw a lynching and never was in an Indian fight. She was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish, but possessed a generous streak which made her popular.”
It may be that she exaggerated, or completely fabricated, this story. Even during her lifetime, not everyone accepted her version as true. A popular belief is that she instead acquired it as a result of her warnings to men that to offend her was to “court calamity”. It appears possible that Jane was not part of her name until the nickname was coined for her.
It is certain that she was known by that nickname by 1876, because the arrival of the Hickok wagon train was reported in the Deadwood newspaper, the Black Hills Pioneer, on July 15, 1876, with the headline: “Calamity Jane has arrived!”.
Another unverified story in her autobiographical pamphlet is that in 1875, her detachment was ordered to the Big Horn River under General Crook. Carrying important dispatches, she swam the Platte River and traveled 90 miles (140 km) at top speed while wet and cold to deliver them. Afterwards, she became ill. Calamity said that after recuperating for a few weeks, she rode to Fort Laramie in Wyoming, and in July 1876, she joined a wagon train headed north. The second part of her story is verified. She was at Fort Laramie in July 1876, and did join a wagon train that included Wild Bill Hickok. That was where she first met Wild Bill Hickok, contrary to her later claims, and that was how she happened to come to Deadwood.
Calamity Jane accompanied the Newton–Jenney Party into Rapid City in 1875, along with California Joe and Valentine McGillycuddy. By that time (or shortly thereafter), her youthful good looks were gone; her skin was leathery and tanned by sun and wind exposure on the high plains, she was muscular and masculine, and her hair was stringy and seldom washed.
In 1876, Calamity Jane settled in the area of Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills. There, she became friends with, and was occasionally employed by, Dora DuFran, the Black Hills’ leadingmadam. She also became friendly with Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter, having traveled with them to Deadwood in Utter’s wagon train. Jane greatly admired Hickok (and, much later, others alleged she was attracted to him to the point of infatuation, and even claimed she was obsessed with his personality and his life.
Jane also claimed that following Hickok’s death she went after his murderer Jack McCall with a meat cleaver, since she had left her guns at her residence in the excitement of the moment. However, she never actually confronted McCall. Following McCall’s execution for the capital crime, Jane continued living in the Deadwood area for some time, and at one point she helped save numerous passengers in an overland stagecoach by diverting several Plains Indians who were in pursuit of the vehicle. The stagecoach driver, John Slaughter, was killed during the pursuit, and Jane took over the reins and drove the stage on to its destination at Deadwood. In late 1876 or 1878, Jane nursed the victims of a smallpox epidemic in the Deadwood area.
In 1881, Jane bought a ranch west of Miles City, Montana, along the Yellowstone River, where she kept an inn. After marrying the Texan Clinton Burke and moving to Boulder, she once again made an attempt in the inn business. In 1887, she gave birth to a daughter, Jane, who was adopted by foster parents.
In 1893, Calamity Jane started to appear in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show as a storyteller. She also participated in the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. At that time, she was depressed and an alcoholic. Jane’s addiction to liquor was evident even in her younger years. For example, on June 10, 1876, she rented a horse and buggy in Cheyenne for a roughly one mile joy ride to Fort Russell and back, but Calamity was so drunk that she passed right by her destination without noticing it and finally ended up about 90 miles (140 km) away at Fort Laramie.
In the spring of 1903, when Jane returned to the Black Hills, brothel Madame Dora DuFran was still running her business. For the next few months, Jane earned her keep by cooking and doing the laundry for Dora’s brothel girls in Belle Fourche. In late July, Jane traveled by ore train to Terry, South Dakota, a small mining village near Deadwood. While staying at the Calloway Hotel on August 1, 1903, she died at the age of 51 (or 53 or 56). It was reported that she had been drinking heavily while on board the train and became very sick to her stomach. The train’s conductor carried her off the train,a bartender secured a room for her at the Calloway Hotel, and a doctor was summoned. She died almost immediately afterward, on Saturday, August 1, 1903, from inflammation of the bowels and pneumonia.
Allegedly, found among her few belongings was a bundle of unsent letters to her daughter. Some of these letters were set to music in an art song cycle by 20th-century composer Libby Larsen calledSongs From Letters. (Those letters were first made public by Jean McCormick as part of her claim to be the daughter of Jane and Hickok – but the authenticity of these letters is not accepted by some, largely because there is no non-McCormick document supposedly written by Jane, and there is ample evidence that Jane was functionally illiterate.)
Calamity Jane was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery, South Dakota, next to Wild Bill Hickok. Four of the men who planned her funeral (Frank Ankeney, Jim Carson, Anson Higby, and Albert Malter) later stated that since Wild Bill Hickok had “absolutely no use” for Jane while he was alive, they decided to play a posthumous joke on Hickok by giving Calamity an eternal resting place by his side. Another account states: “in compliance with Jane’s dying requests, the Society of Black Hills Pioneers took charge of her funeral and burial in Mount Moriah Cemetery beside Wild Bill. Not just old friends, but the morbidly curious and many who would not have acknowledged Calamity Jane when she was alive, overflowed the First Methodist Church for the funeral services on August 4 and followed the hearse up the steep winding road to Deadwood’s boot hill”.