The Wild West of Yester-Year

Calamity Jane
By Rachel Kovaciny

When I was a kid, I always felt sorry for Calamity Jane. Who would want to be so unlucky as to get the nickname “Calamity” because bad things happened to you all the time? What kinds of mean people would give someone a nickname like that, anyway? The poor thing. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned Martha Jane Canary (or Cannary) earned the nickname because she was good at causing calamities, not because she endured them. Her companions called her that because she brought misery to her foes.


What we think we know about Calamity Jane may be more fiction than fact. She published an autobiography in 1896 that most historians agree is mostly made-up, an effort on her part to boost her status as a legend of the Wild West and to improve ticket sales for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, of which she was a part. That autobiography obscured a lot of the truth about her early life, but we know a few things for certain. Martha Jane was born in 1852 in Princeton, Missouri. She moved west with her parents and their other five children around 1865, and the family settled near Virginia City in Montana. Reportedly, she learned to ride and shoot while on that wagon train and was a good marksman and horsewoman by the time they reached Montana.


When her mother died not long after that, the family moved again, settling near Salt Lake City in Utah. Her father died a year or so later. Still in her early teens, Martha Jane was now the head of her family. She moved her siblings from place to place, trying to find work and somewhere to live. They wound up in Piedmont, Wyoming in 1868. To provide for herself and her younger siblings, Martha Jane took any job she could find. She cooked and waited tables, washed dishes, took in laundry, drove oxen teams, worked at dance halls and saloons, nursed sick people, and probably turned to prostitution from time to time. In the early-to-mid-1870s, she found work as a scout for the cavalry stationed at Fort Russell, at least according to some accounts. Her skills at riding and marksmanship certainly would have suited her for the job. Jane claimed to have taken part in several skirmishes with Native Americans while working for the Cavalry, but others have since disputed those claims.


We know for certain that Jane wound up in Deadwood, South Dakota in the late 1879s. She claimed to have had a romantic relationship with Wild Bill Hickock there, but Hickock was murdered not long after her arrival, so any relationship they may have had was short-lived. Jane kicked around Deadwood, taking odd jobs to support herself once again, though she appears to have parted ways with her siblings by then. She even rode for the Pony Express for a short time. It was somewhere in this time that she earned her nickname “Calamity Jane” and became notorious for wearing men’s trousers instead of skirts, drinking alcohol and chewing tobacco, getting in fistfights with men, and being a sharpshooter. Dime novelist Edward Lytton Wheeler heard about Calamity Jane’s exploits and was so struck by her colorful persona, he added her to his popular Deadwood Dick novels, adding fiction to her legend even before she wrote her sensational autobiography.


Jane was not only a fierce drinker and fighter, able to hold her own against the men folk, but was also kind and compassionate. She nursed sick people during a smallpox epidemic in Deadwood. Other stories about her are that she singlehandedly rescued a wounded Cavalry officer during a skirmish, and rescued a runaway stagecoach and drove it to safety, saving the lives of the passengers and the wounded driver after Indians attacked. In the early 1880s, Jane bought a ranch along the Yellowstone River in Montana and probably married a man named Clinton Burke. The couple possibly had a daughter they later gave up for adoption. About ten years later, Calamity Jane began touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.


Jane’s hard drinking and hard living caught up with her. She died a penniless alcoholic near Deadwood in 1903, at age 51. The locals buried her next to Wild Bill Hickock, though it’s unclear if this is because they acknowledged her as having a relationship with him before he died, or if it was because people thought it would be a good joke because they knew she had NOT been in a relationship with him. Both versions of the story are still in circulation today. Countless other women share Calamity Jane’s story of scrabbling for survival on the frontier. Why did she become so famous? Possibly because she was eccentric and colorful, dressing and acting like a man and refusing to adhere to the roles and customs society dictated in her day. Or possibly her nickname was so memorable, it caught the public imagination and made a legend out of a woman who had no concrete claim to fame. Either way, her life and legend continue to fascinate us over a century after she died.