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Calamity Jane: The Woman Behind the Name and Rip-Roaring Musical

Steve Palace
(Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, United Artists & H.R. Locke/Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Calamity Jane is well known from the movie musical starring Doris Day. But behind the Hollywood fantasy was a real person.

The facts about her are as tough to wrangle as a buffalo that’s accidentally eaten some chiles. Here’s what we actually know about Jane, with some Wild West yarns thrown in along the way…

Her real name was Martha Jane Cannary

Those yarns actually begin from the get-go. Martha Jane Cannary was her name, however, her start in life is less certain. According to the lady herself, she was born on May 1st in 1852. Martha was the child of Robert Wilson and Charlotte M Cannary. She had two brothers and three sisters.

Calamity Jane portrait

CIRCA 1895: Martha Canary – Calamity Jane; General Crook’s Scout (Photo Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

“Both parents were reputed to be unsavory,” writes Biography, “involved in petty crimes and often financially destitute.” Robert apparently struggled with gambling, which probably led to debt and desperate measures.

As Martha/Jane approached her teenage years, Robert relocated the family from Missouri to Montana. Tragedy struck en route. It’s thought the nickname “Calamity” Jane may have come from what we’re about to describe.

She was self-sufficient

Charlotte sadly passed away from pneumonia before they reached their destination of Virginia City. Eventually, the Cannarys settled in Salt Lake City. Robert may have become a farmer. Whether he did or not, this period was short. After a year he too died.

Calamity Jane On Horseback

Calamity Jane On Horseback (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

Jane found herself aged just 14 (or 12 depending on reports) and responsible for her younger siblings. Their next destination was Piedmont, now a ghost town in Wyoming. “Her lengthy resume included stints as a waitress, dishwasher, cook, dancer and ranch worker” notes Boredom Therapy.

She also worked in a brothel at times. Did Calamity Jane get her name from this profession? Some think so!

Her skills were impressive

At a time when men were arguably men, Jane stood out as a woman who didn’t dress as expected. And who wasn’t afraid of shooting a gun and jumping on a horse. We can assume that’s true, because of her later stints as a Wild West show attraction. People saw for themselves that Calamity Jane wasn’t someone to be messed with.

 

Martha Jane Burke alias Calamity Jane,

Martha Jane Burke alias Calamity Jane, General Crook’s scout, famed Western markswoman. Undated photograph. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Contributor)

Her ability to steer a bullet, as well as a steed, could have placed her in the military. In one of her various accounts, Jane described rescuing her Captain from death at the hands of Native Americans in South Dakota’s Black Hills.

Her grateful superior bestowed the title of “Calamity” upon her in this version of events. Boredom Therapy mentions how, in reality, she may have been doing her duty in the laundry room rather than the battlefield.

She spent a long time in Deadwood

Jane is associated with one location more than any other – Deadwood, also in South Dakota. Biography writes that her arrival went a long way to cementing the fictionalized Calamity Jane. The “legends surrounding her life become abundant,” with “facts harder to find.”

Deadwood Street Parade

CIRCA 1890: Deadwood Street Parade (Photo Credit: Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

Doris Day is seen as the classic “Calam,” though many others have taken the role. HBO series Deadwood presented a decidedly grittier take on life in the city. Robin Weigert played Jane.

Calamity Jane was a natural performer

No-one seemed better at spinning yarns about Calamity Jane than… Calamity Jane. Would she have approved of the musical version? It’s probable!

She not only wrote her autobiography but appeared as a character in the adventures of Deadwood Dick (yes, really). Author Edward Wheeler presented this sensationalized take on the real-life Calamity in a series of late 19th century novels.

With the 20th century coming up fast, she brought her talent for a tall tale to paying audiences, as part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.

She was liked

What did folks make of Martha Jane Cannary? Good things have been said about this notorious figure. Boredom Therapy writes that people “liked Calamity Jane for her big personality and unselfish nature.”

Calamity Jane in her kitchen

Calamity Jane in her kitchen in Livingston, Montana, when she met Louis R. Freeman in 1901, the meeting described in Down the Yellowstone” (Photo Credit: By Louis R. Freeman – Extracted from public domain pdf file of above on the Internet archive, Public Domain)

She didn’t appear to be someone who’d walk away from danger, whether that involved bullets or not. When smallpox arrived in Deadwood she rolled up her sleeves and nursed the infected.

Ellen Barkin played Jane in Walter Hill’s movie Wild Bill in 1995. This portrayal is regarded as one of the best, with Barkin playing “a rough, raw woman, appealing but uneducated, who has a rare talent for tending the sick in times of plague,” writes The Independent. Jeff Bridges played her rumored lover “Wild Bill” Hickok. More on him shortly!

Meanwhile, she liked a drink

Jane was noted as an alcoholic. Not only did she manage to ride 90 miles out of her way during a simple journey from Cheyenne to Fort Laramie, she couldn’t hold down a job because of her issues.

Legends of America writes about how she was driven from Buffalo, New York, after letting bullets fly during a respectable gig for the Pan American Exposition in 1901. It’s also believed that Calamity Jane suffered from depression.

She’s buried next to Wild Bill Hickok

The love of Jane’s life could have been Hickok, at least going by the way she told it. Did they actually have a relationship? It’s unclear, though attention is drawn to a later photograph of her posing by his grave. Plus, she was buried alongside him, reportedly at her request.

Calamity Jane at Wild Bill Hickock's grave

Cowgirl Calamity Jane at Wild Bill Hickock’s grave, a man she claimed was a lover at one point. She would be buried next to him in 1903. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

She apparently married a Clinton Burk at one point, as well as a William P. Steers. Stories exist of her traveling with a girl she claimed was her daughter. Two children are listed as being hers.

In 1903, Martha Jane Cannary died at the Calloway Hotel in South Dakota. She’d been on a train going to the mining village of Terry when she became ill. Drunk and suffering from bowel inflammation and pneumonia, she passed at the age of 51.

More from us: Wildest Man of the West – The Gunslinging Exploits of Wild Bill Hickok

A definitive account of Calamity Jane’s life seems ever further away. We don’t even know how she earned that famous nickname. However, between the fantasy and the fact, there’s enough to paint a compelling picture of a true Wild West icon.