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."
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."