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Calamity Jane: The Most Notorious Woman in the Wild West

Calamity Jane once tried to use a picture of herself to pay a bar tab.

They say well-behaved women rarely make history, and Martha Jane Cannary, aka Calamity Jane, was about as ill-behaved as any male outlaw of her day.

Martha Jane Cannary was born May 1, 1852 in Princeton, Missouri to parents who were not a great influence. Martha Jane’s mother had spent time as a prostitute and her father had a gambling problem. Martha Jane more than likely had to fend for herself quite a bit while watching over her two brothers and three sisters. After losing their father in 1867, 15 year-old Martha Jane naturally stepped into the role of caretaker for her siblings.

Calamity Jane once tried to use a picture of herself to pay a bar tab.
Calamity Jane once tried to use a picture of herself to pay a bar tab.

In 1865, Martha Jane’s father packed the family up in a wagon train and headed out to Virginia City, Montana. This move would take the family over five months. Martha Jane recounts the journey as saying that she spent most of the way with the men hunting and becoming an excellent shot. She writes, “By the time we reached Virginia City, I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age.” During the journey, Martha Jane’s mother died of pneumonia. From Virginia City, the family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah so Martha Jane’s father could farm. He died in 1867.

The Cannary children did not stay in Utah after their father’s death. Martha Jane moved them to Wyoming, arriving in 1868. Here she picked up any odd job she could find, which may also have included working as a prostitute at Fort Laramie’s Three-Mile Hog Ranch.

Whether true or not, most people know Martha “Calamity” Jane for the role she played as a scout for the U.S. military while fighting against the Indians. Around 1870, she claimed to have joined General Custer’s outfit as a scout. Martha Jane told wild, tall tales about her adventures as a scout with General Custer, but there is no documentation to support she spent time with him. In fact, what we do know of Custer’s whereabouts contradicts Martha Jane’s claims. She also claims to have served under Captain Egan and General Crook. Her story goes that the Indians at Goose Creek, Wyoming, shot Captain Egan during an ambush. Martha Jane caught the Captain before he fell off his horse, essentially saving Captain Egan’s life. She writes in her autobiography, “Captain Egan on recovering, laughingly said, ‘I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.” Regardless if that story is true, it was around that time that the newspapers started referring to her as “Calamity Jane” and the nickname stuck.

What is true about Calamity Jane is that she did in fact serve as a scout at Fort Russell in 1874, but if she ever partook in any type of fights with the Indians is questionable. In June of 1876, Calamity Jane was riding one of the most dangerous passes of the Black Hills in South Dakota for the pony express.

Though most pictures and Hollywood depictions of Calamity Jane show her wearing men’s clothing, it was not until she served as a scout that she started cross-dressing. It is said that Calamity Jane had a masculine, rugged appearance and stood tall for a woman at close to six feet. With this unfeminine appearance, along with wearing men’s clothes, it’s not at all surprising the company she kept, such as Arkansas Tom, Wild Bill Hickok, and Buffalo Bill Cody.

From 1874 to 1875, Calamity Jane, still serving as a scout, spent time in Fort Laramie. By this time in her life, Calamity Jane had already become quite the lush, being a hard drinker, a rough curser, and already making headlines with hell-raising. While in Fort Laramie, Biography.com states that one night she was very drunk and somehow lost most of her clothing. The soldiers she was with did not know what to do with her, so when Wild Bill Hickok’s gang rolled into town, they asked Wild Bill if they would take Calamity Jane into Deadwood, South Dakota. The party agreed. News travelled fast into Deadwood and the paper announced the loose cannon’s arrival by writing, “Calamity Jane has arrived.”

Calamity Jane was already a celebrity at this point. It did not really matter where the stories came from or if they were even true. Calamity Jane received a lot of attention in the newspapers and was popular when she would make appearances in the dance halls. Women did not drink in saloons at the time, but clearly, Calamity Jane lived her life as if she didn’t care about cultural and societal norms.

A rare moment wearing what she called the costume of my sex.
A rare moment wearing what she called the costume of my sex.

Both the newspapers and Calamity Jane exaggerated and sensationalized her stories. Rumors were the basis for much of Calamity Jane’s notoriety, but the public did not care. They loved her. Even though she had the mouth of a sailor, the demeanor of a man, and was often so drunk she had to be taken care of, many who knew her described her as kind and selfless. When small pox hit Deadwood, Calamity was first to nurse those who fell ill without caring of her own well-being. Without thought for her own safety, she also rescued a family attacked by Indians.

In the late 19th Century, dime novels became one of the nation’s most popular forms of entertainment. Dime novels, much like our celebrity gossip magazines today, told tall tales, highly exaggerated, and fake stories of fictional and non-fictional characters. Calamity Jane was the star of approximately six dime novels. One called her “The White Devil of the Yellowstone.”

Calamity Jane did not stay in Deadwood for the rest of her days, though. In her autobiography she writes, “I always had a fondness for adventure.” The itch to move on eventually caught up with her. For 15 years, Calamity Jane would leave Deadwood and travel, hanging out at railroad camps and shacking up with various men, even taking their names.

When Calamity Jane was 33, she met Clinton Burk in El Paso, Texas. She writes, “As I thought I had travelled through life long enough alone and thought it was about time to take a partner for the rest of my days,” so she married Burk and they moved to Colorado. Calamity Jane writes that she bore a baby girl from the union, but there is speculation whether or not that child was actually Burk’s from a previous relationship. Either way, Burk took off and left Calamity Jane and the little girl alone. Eventually, the girl ended up at a convent in Sturgis, with no one knowing what happened to her after that.

The most widespread and popular myth about Calamity Jane was her relationship with Wild Bill Hickok. After Wild Bill’s murder, Calamity Jane claimed that the two had been secretly married. Supposedly, she said he was the only man she ever truly loved. Serious historians, though, say there is no way that Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok were lovers. In fact, Wild Bill was married to Agnes Lake Thatcher. Regardless of the reason, Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok remain in their final resting place next to each other.

There are many speculations on how the two came to final rest next to each other. Some claim it is because it was Calamity Jane’s dying wish. Others say that it was Wild Bill Hickok’s friends playing a joke on him, and yet others even suggest that it was a marketing ploy on Deadwood’s behalf to create a tourist trap. Calamity Jane spent some time on the road with a travelling museum, telling her life story and even had a brief stint in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, however her drinking, cussing, and antics lead to her firing from the show.

Calamity Jane was never far from the bottle.
Calamity Jane was never far from the bottle.

After 15 years on the road, Calamity Jane returned to Deadwood in attempt to make money on her legend. She had written an autobiography titled, “Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane,” which she sold. She also sold pictures of herself and charged patrons of the saloon 25 cents a dance. The end of Calamity Jane’s life was dark and tragic. Biography.com states, “Calamity Jane was a bit of a train wreck.” Alcoholism had completely taken over her life and her rebellious and rowdy behavior got tiresome to the folks of Deadwood. In 1903, on a train bound to Terry, South Dakota, Calamity Jane fell ill. She was too drunk and ill to help herself, so the train conductor carried her off and checked her into the Calloway Hotel on August 1. She died not long after.

Though Calamity Jane met a tragic and sad ending, she was one of the very first women to break the stereotypical mold of what makes a good hunter, shooter, and solider.

 

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