Martha Jane Canary (May 1, 1852 – August 1, 1903), better known as Calamity Jane, was an American frontierswoman, and professional scout most noted for her claim of being an acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok, but also for having gained fame fighting Native Americans. She is said to have exhibited kindness and compassion, especially to the sick and needy. This contrast helped to make her a famous figure, in the old frontier.

In both physical resemblance and mannerisms, Ellen Barkin’s portrayal of Jane in the 1995 film, “Wild Bill” was particularly memorable.

Video comes courtesy of YouTube:

That was reel life, Hollywood-style.

Here’s what history has to tell us, about the lady, herself:

Jane’s Early Life: 1852–1876

Calamity Jane was born May 1, 1852, as Martha Jane Cannary (or Canary) in Princeton, within Mercer County, Missouri. Her parents, Robert W. and Charlotte 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 packed his family and moved by wagon train from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana.
Charlotte died along the way in Black Foot, Montana, in 1866 of “washtub 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. They were there only a year before he died in 1867.

Martha Jane took over as head of the family, loaded up the wagon once more, and took her siblings to Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory. They arrived in May 1868. From there they traveled on the Union Pacific Railroad to Piedmont, Wyoming.

In Piedmont, Martha Jane worked variously as a dishwasher, a cook, a waitress, a dance-hall girl, a nurse, and an ox team driver.
During this time period, Jane also began her on-and-off employment as a prostitute at the Fort Laramie Three-Mile Hog Ranch.

Finally, in 1874, she found work as a scout at Fort Russell.

From her (ghostwritten) autobiography of 1896, Martha Jane writes of this time:

“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.”

Accounts from this period described Martha Jane as being “extremely attractive” and a “pretty, dark-eyed girl.”

Martha Jane received little to no formal education and was illiterate.

Calamity, by Name

Martha Jane was involved in several campaigns in the long-running military conflicts with Native 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 of Sheridan 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.”

It may be that she exaggerated or completely fabricated this story. Even back then, not everyone accepted her version as true.

A popular belief is that she instead acquired the monicker as a result of her warnings to men that to offend her was to “court calamity”.
It also appears possible that Jane was not part of her name until the nickname was coined for her.

She certainly 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!”

One verified story about “Calamity Jane” is that in 1875 her detachment was ordered to the Big Horn River, under General Crook.

Bearing important dispatches, Jane swam the Platte River and traveled 90 miles (145 km) at top speed while wet and cold to deliver them.

After recuperating from the resulting illness for a few weeks, she rode to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and later, in July 1876, joined a wagon train headed north, which is where she first met Wild Bill Hickok, contrary to her later claims.

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 mile-or-so 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 away at Fort Laramie.

Deadwood and Wild Bill Hickok: 1876–1881

Calamity Jane accompanied the Newton-Jenney Party into the Black Hills in 1875, along with California Joe and Valentine McGillycuddy.

Harsh conditions on the trail may have contributed to her characteristic look in photographs of the time: her youthful good looks were gone; her skin was leathery and tanned from sun and wind, she was muscular and often dressed in men’s clothing, 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’ leading madam.

She became friendly with Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter, having traveled with them to Deadwood in Utter’s wagon train.

Jane greatly admired Hickok (much later others alleged to the point of infatuation, and also claimed that she was obsessed with his personality and his life).

After Hickok was killed during a poker game on August 2, 1876, Calamity Jane claimed to have been married to Hickok, and that Hickok was the father of her child (Jean), who she said was born on September 25, 1873, and whom she later put up for adoption by Jim O’Neil and his wife.

No records are known to exist which prove the birth of a child, and the romantic slant to the relationship might have been fabrication.

During the period that the alleged child was born, Jane was working as a scout for the army. And at the time of his death, Hickok was newly married to Agnes Lake Thatcher.

After Wild Bill’s Death

Jane also claimed that following Hickok’s death, she went after Jack McCall, his murderer, with a meat cleaver – having left her guns at her residence in the excitement of the moment. However, she never confronted McCall.

Following McCall’s eventual hanging for the offense, Jane continued living in the Deadwood area for some time, and at one point she helped save several passengers in an overland stagecoach, by diverting a party of Plains Indians who were in pursuit of the stage. 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, Jane nursed the victims of a smallpox epidemic in the Deadwood area.

Her Final Years: 1881–1903

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, Colorado, she again tried her luck in this business.

In 1887, she had a daughter, Jane, who was given to 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.

By the start of the 20th century, Madame Dora DuFran was still going strong, when Jane returned to the Black Hills in 1903. For the next few months, Jane earned her keep by cooking and doing the laundry for Dora’s brothel girls in Belle Fourche.

In July, she traveled to Terry, South Dakota. While staying in the Calloway Hotel on August 1, 1903, she died at the age of 51 (some sources say 53 or 56).

It was reported that she had been drinking heavily on board a train and became very ill. The train’s conductor carried her off the train and to a cabin, where she died soon after.

In her belongings, a bundle of letters to her daughter was found, which she had never sent.

Calamity Jane was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery (South Dakota), next to Wild Bill Hickok.

Four of the men who planned her funeral (Albert Malter, Frank Ankeney, Jim Carson, and Anson Higby) 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 Wild Bill by giving Calamity an eternal resting place by his side.

Post Script: The McCormick claim

On September 6, 1941, the U.S. Department of Public Welfare granted old age assistance to a Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick, who claimed to be the legal offspring of Martha Jane Cannary and James Butler Hickok, after being presented with evidence that Calamity Jane and Wild Bill had married at Benson’s Landing, Montana Territory, on September 25, 1873 – documentation being written in a Bible, and presumably signed by two ministers and numerous witnesses.

McCormick’s claim has been vigorously challenged because of a variety of discrepancies.

Part of her claim consisted of the letters left by the deceased Calamity Jane – 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.

A remarkable lady, nonetheless.

And a remarkable life.

That’s all, for this one.

Till next time.