Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane

Martha Jane Cannary (Calamity Jane) was born in Princeton, Missouri on 1st, May, 1852. Her father was a farmer and according to one account her mother was "an illiterate prostitute whose husband, taken by her beauty, tried to reform her, and failed".

Jane later wrote: "As a child I always had a fondness for adventure and out-door exercise and especial fondness for horses which I began to ride at an early age and continued to do so until I became an expert rider being able to ride the most vicious and stubborn of horses, in fact the greater portion of my life in early times was spent in this manner."

In 1865 the family decided to emigrate to Montana in search of gold. "While on the way the greater portion of my time was spent in hunting along with the men and hunters of the party, in fact I was at all times with the men when there was excitement and adventures to be had. By the time we reached Virginia City I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age." Her mother died in a mining camp in Blackfoot and her father died soon afterwards in Salt Lake City.

In 1868 Jane joined a construction gang building the Union Pacific near Piedmont in what was at that time known as Wyoming Territory. Two years later she was recruited by General George A. Custer as an army scout at Fort Russell. Jane claims that she took part in the Indian Wars and it was during one skirmish she saved the life of Captain Egan. She later wrote that "I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Captain 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."

Jane claimed in her autobiography, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane (1897) that in 1871 she accompanied General Custer to Arizona and "during that time I had a great many adventures with the Indians, for as a scout I had a great many dangerous missions to perform and while I was in many close places always succeeded in getting away safely for by this time I was considered the most reckless and daring rider and one of the best shots in the western country." However, the historian, Dan L. Thrapp has argued: "In her purported autobiography she claimed she scouted for the Army between 1870 and 1876, but there is no record that she was was a scout. She said she went to Arizona in this capacity with Custer, but Custer never was in Arizona, nor was Jane at this time."

Over the years she developed a reputation for her skill at riding and shooting. According to Jane: "By this time I was considered the most reckless and daring rider and one of the best shots in the western country." Dressed in buckskin, Calamity Jane was also well-known for her hard-drinking. One man who knew her claimed that she was different from other women as "she swore, she drank, she wore men's clothing."

Calamity Jane also claims that she worked as a pony express rider carrying the U.S. mail in South Dakota between Deadwood and Custer, a distance of fifty miles: "As many of the riders before me had been held up and robbed of their packages, mail and money that they carried, for that was the only means of getting mail and money between these points. It was considered the most dangerous route in the Hills, but as my reputation as a rider and quick shot was well known, I was molested very little, for the toll gatherers looked on me as being a good fellow, and they knew that I never missed my mark. I made the round trip every two days which was considered pretty good riding in that country."

In 1872 she joined the army as a scout and over the next few years served under George Crook and Nelson Miles. The historian Dan L. Thrapp has been unable to confirm this but has he points out that this is understandable as according to her own account, she was "disguised by male clothing" and worked under an assumed name. However, in 1875 she was dismissed after it was discovered she was a woman.

By this time Calamity Jane was an alcoholic. Her biographer, James D. McLaird, has argued in Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend (2005): "Sadly, after romantic adventures are removed, her story is mostly an account of uneventful daily life interrupted by drinking binges." The author of the Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography (1988) has pointed out: "Occasionally she tried acting in vaudeville houses, and while she ever was popular with rough miners, her inclination to get drunk and shoot up the place inevitably precipitated her dismissal... She was generally drunk, often shooting up bawdy houses or saloons, but there was no mean streak in her, and was generally liked, if little respected."

Calamity Jane having a drink
Calamity Jane having a drink

The feminist historian, Kirstin Olsen, agrees: "She was rumored to have been a muleskinner, a pony express rider, and a stagecoach driver, although she was probably only the first. We do know that she was orphaned in her teens and left to wander throughout the West, mainly in Wyoming. She worked on and off as a prostitute and lived with a succession of men she called her husbands." One man who knew Calamity Jane said she was "nothing more than a common prostitute, drunken, disorderly and wholly devoid of any conception of morality." However, a journalist, who met her said she was "generous, forgiving, kind-hearted, sociable, and yet when aroused, has all the daring and courage of the lion or the devil himself."

Calamity Jane met Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood. Calamity Jane later claimed they were lovers but this story is doubted by those who knew the couple. Hickok was murdered by Jack McCall, on 2nd August, 1876: "I was in Deadwood at the time and on hearing of the killing made my way at once to the scene of the shooting and found that my friend had been killed by McCall. I at once started to look for the assassin and found him at Shurdy's butcher shop and grabbed a meat cleaver and made him throw up his hands; through the excitement on hearing of Bill's death, having left my weapons on the post of my bed. He was then taken to a log cabin and locked up, well secured as every one thought, but he got away and was afterwards caught at Fagan's ranch on Horse Creek, on the old Cheyenne road and was then taken to Yankton where he was tried, sentenced and hung." Jane was obviously very attached to Hickok and often visited his grave.

In 1878 Deadwood suffered an outbreak of smallpox scourge. James D. McLaird, the author of Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend (2005), has argued that while other women in the town refused to help them for fear they would contract it, Jane cared for them, day and night, over the course of weeks. As one survivor pointed out "the last person to hold the head of and administer consolation to the troubled gambler or erstwhile bad man who was about to depart into the new country."

In 1885 Calamity Jane married Clinton Burke. On 28th October, 1887, gave birth to a daughter. The marriage broke up and in 1895 she deposited the daughter in St Mary's Convent at Sturgis. Calamity Jane returned to the road. In 1896 she starting appearing on the stage as "Calamity Jane! The Famous Woman Scout of the Wild West." The following year she published a small pamphlet, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane.

Margot Mifflin has argued: "As a public figure, Canary was the Courtney Love of her day: A talented pioneer in a man's world, she was a chronic substance abuser prone to outrageous behavior and forever linked in the public mind to a dead man whose fame overshadowed her own... The seeds of her legend planted, Canary became a dime-novel heroine, inspiring writers to work her into their stories of frontier bravery, even though her daily life involved a string of low-paying jobs and bouts of heavy drinking. She lived all over the Northwest, marrying at least three men (one of whom was jailed for attacking her) and working - intermittently - as an attraction in Wild West and dime museum shows. She bore a son who probably died in infancy... and later Jessie, who, before she was given up for adoption at around age 10, was taunted at school because of Canary's reputation. Wherever she could, she sold photos of herself for extra cash."

Martha Jane Cannary (Calamity Jane) died in Terry, South Dakota on 1st August, 1903 of "inflammation of the bowels" and is buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Martha Jane Cannary, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane (1897)

My maiden name was Marthy Cannary. I was born in Princeton, Missouri, May 1st, 1852. Father and mother were natives of Ohio. I had two brothers and three sisters, I being the oldest of the children. As a child I always had a fondness for adventure and out-door exercise and especial fondness for horses which I began to ride at an early age and continued to do so until I became an expert rider being able to ride the most vicious and stubborn of horses, in fact the greater portion of my life in early times was spent in this manner.

(2) Martha Jane Cannary, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane (1897)

In 1865 we emigrated from our homes in Missouri by the overland route to Virginia City, Montana, taking five months to make the journey. While on the way the greater portion of my time was spent in hunting along with the men and hunters of the party, in fact I was at all times with the men when there was excitement and adventures to be had. By the time we reached Virginia City I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age. I remember many occurrences on the journey from Missouri to Montana. Many times in crossing the mountains the conditions of the trail were so bad that we frequently had to lower the wagons over ledges by hand with ropes for they were so rough and rugged that horses were of no use. We also had many exciting times fording streams for many of the streams in our way were noted for quicksands and boggy places, where, unless we were very careful, we would have lost horses and all. Then we had many dangers to encounter in the way of streams swelling on account of heavy rains. On occasions of that kind the men would usually select the best places to cross the streams, myself on more than one occasion have mounted my pony and swam across the stream several times merely to amuse myself and have had many narrow escapes from having both myself and pony washed away to certain death, but as the pioneers of those days had plenty of courage we overcame all obstacles and reached Virginia City in safety.

(3) Martha Jane Cannary, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane (1897)

Joined General Custer as a scout at Fort Russell, Wyoming, in 1870, and started for Arizona for the Indian Campaign. Up to this time I had always worn the costume of my sex. When I joined Custer I donned the uniform of a soldier. It was a bit awkward at first but I soon got to be perfectly at home in men's clothes.

Was in Arizona up to the winter of 1871 and during that time I had a great many adventures with the Indians, for as a scout I had a great many dangerous missions to perform and while I was in many close places always succeeded in getting away safely for by this time I was considered the most reckless and daring rider and one of the best shots in the western country.

After that campaign I returned to Fort Sanders, Wyoming, remained there until spring of 1872, when we were ordered out to the Muscle Shell or Nursey Pursey Indian outbreak. In that war Generals Custer, Miles, Terry and Crook were all engaged. This campaign lasted until fall of 1873.

It was during this campaign that I was christened Calamity Jane. It was on Goose Creek, Wyoming, where the town of Sheridan is now located. Captain 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 Captain 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. Captain 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.

(4) Martha Jane Cannary, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane (1897)

During the month of June I acted as a pony express rider carrying the U.S. mail between Deadwood and Custer, a distance of fifty miles, over one of the roughest trails in the Black Hills country. As many of the riders before me had been held up and robbed of their packages, mail and money that they carried, for that was the only means of getting mail and money between these points. It was considered the most dangerous route in the Hills, but as my reputation as a rider and quick shot was well known, I was molested very little, for the toll gatherers looked on me as being a good fellow, and they knew that I never missed my mark. I made the round trip every two days which was considered pretty good riding in that country.

(5) Martha Jane Cannary, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane (1897)

My friend, Wild Bill Hickok, remained in Deadwood during the summer with the exception of occasional visits to the camps. On the 2nd of August, while setting at a gambling table in the Bell Union saloon, in Deadwood, he was shot in the back of the head by the notorious Jack McCall, a desperado. I was in Deadwood at the time and on hearing of the killing made my way at once to the scene of the shooting and found that my friend had been killed by McCall. I at once started to look for the assassin and found him at Shurdy's butcher shop and grabbed a meat cleaver and made him throw up his hands; through the excitement on hearing of Bill's death, having left my weapons on the post of my bed. He was then taken to a log cabin and locked up, well secured as every one thought, but he got away and was afterwards caught at Fagan's ranch on Horse Creek, on the old Cheyenne road and was then taken to Yankton, where he was tried, sentenced and hung.

(6) Martha Jane Cannary, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane (1897)

My arrival in Deadwood after an absence of so many years created quite an excitement among my many friends of the past, to such an extent that a vast number of the citizens who had come to Deadwood during my absence who had heard so much of Calamity Jane and her many adventures in former years were anxious to see me. Among the many whom I met were several gentlemen from eastern cities who advised me to allow myself to be placed before the public in such a manner as to give the people of the eastern cities an opportunity of seeing the Woman Scout who was made so famous through her daring career in the West and Black Hill countries.

An agent of Kohl & Middleton, the celebrated Museum men came to Deadwood, through the solicitation of the gentleman who I had met there and arrangements were made to place me before the public in this manner. My first engagement began at the Palace Museum, Minneapolis, January 20th, 1896, under Kohl and Middleton's management.