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Wild Western Women: Calamity Jane

By Edited Apr 8, 2016 2 6

Jane Says . . .

Perhaps no other woman embodied the archetype of the wild Western woman better than Calamity Jane. 

Indian scout, prostitute, teamster – Calamity Jane sampled life to the fullest.  Her death at age 51 was premature, even for the shortened life expectancies of the late 19th century.  Her rough livin’, tough lovin’, and hard drinkin’ left her prematurely worn down, and she died an alcoholic. 

Martha Jane Cannary a/k/a, Calamity Jane

Western Wear & Tear
Women of the Old American West had no choice but to toughen up or die.  Survival hinged upon many things: maintaining peaceable relations with the Native Americans, handling the frontier menfolk, and keeping up the grueling pace of simply living and putting food on the table.

The life of the early Western settlers was drudge and toil compared to the relatively easy living of the East.

But the people who set out on that path of migration knew life would be hard. 

Charles Ingalls, a daydreaming Wisconsin farmer, relished the planned struggles.  He gave up his sedate life of bucolic steadiness for the open expanses of the Great Plains.  He dragged his family of wife and daughters with him.  They lived in a period of a very few short years in a wagon, a lean-to, tents, a shack, a dugout under a creek hillock, a cabin on Indian lands (from which they were ejected by the U.S. Army), back to another shack, to two more shacks, and a hotel in Iowa before finally settling down in the DeSmet, South Dakota, and relative prosperity.  Charles’ daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, wrote of this family’s adventures in the West in her Little House series of books.

The Ingalls’ family experience, however, no matter how precarious or grueling it may seem to modern minds was not unique.  In fact, it was very common.  And, as Charles Ingalls had done, a daydreaming gold-feverish Missouri farmer would likewise uproot his family.  The two frontier fathers never met, but in the process of roaming, much like Charles Ingalls, Robert Cannary inadvertently created a celebrity from one of his children. 

Fly Away
Martha Jane Cannary was born on a farm on May 1, 1852, in Princeton, Missouri (north-central part of the state but a handful of miles from the Iowa border).  The family’s last name is sometimes incorrectly reported as “Canary” or “Canery”. 

Her parents were both natives of Ohio.  Her father, Robert Cannary was motivated in 1860 to move his wife Charlotte, and their six children (of whom Martha Jane was the oldest) a few miles to the northeast to Ravanna, Missouri.  In 1865, he made the decision to leave Missouri.

Robert and Charlotte packed up their brood and what household goods they could manage for the trail, and they joined a westbound wagon train.  Robert Cannary had selected Virginia City, Montana, as their destination; it was a gold rush burg, established around 1863.  Charlotte Cannary never made it.  As was common in those days, Charlotte died on the trail.  Historically, she is recorded as succumbing to “washtub pneumonia” (a respiratory disease like silicosis, generally attributed to laundresses, women who inhaled airborne soap flakes and other vaporous solvents).

Charlotte Cannary’s place of death seems to be misreported, however.  Most sources (including Calamity Jane in her own words) record her mother’s demise in Blackfoot, Montana (a settlement in northwestern Montana about 40 miles from the Canadian border, and several hundred miles north of Virginia City).  This is logistically absurd – there would be no reasonable trail for the Cannarys to follow from Missouri taking them all the way north to the U.S./Canadian border, only then to drop south to Virginia City, Montana.

Calamity Jane (studio portrait)
The more likely scene of Charlotte’s demise must have been Blackfoot, Idaho.  Leaving Missouri, via the Oregon Trail (the best northwest passage of the day) the family would have traveled through Wyoming (a place to which Jane would retreat after her father’s death).  Entering the southeast corner of Idaho, the Oregon Trail split at Soda Springs, Idaho; the southerly path connected to California and the northerly fork snaked into the Oregon Territory.  Blackfoot, Idaho, lies directly on the northerly route the Cannarys would have taken to reach Virginia City, Montana.  And for the largely illiterate and geographically challenged Calamity Jane this would be but the first in a long string of confusions, exaggerations, and lies (some of her own devising) that would color her history even during her own life time. 

Robert buried Charlotte Cannary in Blackfoot, leaving the widower  with a feisty early teenage daughter – though dutiful – and five other children to tend.  He continued his trek northward.  Five months after leaving Missouri, the Cannary family of prospectors arrived in Virginia City in the late spring of 1866.

Virginia City, Montana, was a town in the midst of a gold rush (since about 1862).  It was founded in 1863; in 1864 it became the first town in Montana to incorporate.  Robert, however, did not stay long in the gold fields.  He struck out soon after arriving, headed south, and settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, by the summer of that same year.  He started a homestead with 40 acres of farmland that he immediately prepped for planting.  The family, missing a mother, was further devastated; only a year after arriving in Salt Lake City, Robert died in 1867.  His cause of death is unknown. 

[Part of the legend of Calamity Jane (as reported by her friend William “Buffalo Bill” Cody) claimed she and her father had been separated during an Indian attack in which Robert died.  Cody said she was ten years old when this happened (she would have been 15, not 10).  He also claimed the Cannarys had come to Utah from Virginia City, Nevada (also incorrect).  Finally, the last nail in the Indian separation story is the simple fact that settling Mormons had good relations with the Utes and there were no recorded Indian massacres, just a massacre staged by Mormons – the Mountain Meadows Massacre – against a “white” wagon train with Paiute Indian help in 1857.   Thus the confusions continued to mount.]

Martha Jane (as a female and a minor) could not hold onto the Utah property Robert had claimed.  As the head of the family, the sixteen-year old loaded up her three younger sisters and two brothers, and she made her way to Fort Bridger in the Wyoming Territory in May 1868.  She had a rudimentary plan to keep the family together, but it required being closer to civilization.  From Fort Bridger, the orphaned group traveled by train to Piedmont, Wyoming.  Jane found a job working on a gang building a section of railroad for a Union Pacific line running through Piedmont.

In direct contrast to her later rough-looking tomboy appearance, the young Martha Jane was reported as quite attractive, a “pretty, dark-eyed girl”.  This teenage Plains girl would have to do something to provide for herself and her siblings, however.  The tender Martha Jane took up part-time prostitution.  She also worked at waitressing and as a dishwasher.  During the course of her life, she became the house hooker for ranchers at a Fort Laramie hog farm and at the fort.  Although Martha Jane wandered for work, and perhaps would have had no trouble making her way as a full-time prostitute (something she would do part-time for almost the rest of her life when times were tight), she felt a toehold in the regular world was important.  She took other jobs as a cook and as a dance-hall girl.  Finally, her work as an ox-team driver led to her next adventure.

Many of the exaggerations, including the genesis of her sobriquet “Calamity Jane”, began in about 1872 when, as an ox-team driver, she stumbled upon another career opportunity.  Martha Jane (during her family’s westward trek that had cost her both parents and had led to her wanderings to support her siblings) had learned to ride, hunt, and shoot so well she was considered an expert frontier range rider at the ripe old age of 20. 

Calamity Jane (in scout uniform)
She was well-known in the southern strip of the Wyoming Territory as a tough girl, and in 1874 she found work with the U.S. Army as a civilian Indian Scout, reporting to General George Crook whose adjutant was a young Buffalo Bill Cody. 

Cody took charge of Jane’s activities.  Her work for the Army generally involved reporting on local Indian activities and ferreting out raiders and potential troublemakers.  This was the period just before the Native American victory at Little Big Horn over the incompetently arrogant General George Armstrong Custer.

Jane’s activities, however, were more pedestrian and of a reconnaissance nature and not nearly as heroic as she reported in an autobiography in 1896 (wildly embellished, self-aggrandizing, and erroneous in dates and places, there is little truth in it):

“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.”

It was only after the death of Custer (in 1876) that Jane started claiming she served under him in Fort Russell and during the Arizona Indian Campaigns.  She spread this rumor effectively.  However, there are no records supporting Custer as ever having been assigned to Fort Russell.  Furthermore, she did not take any active role in the Arizona Indian Campaigns; her job assignment concerned the Plains Indians only.

Buffalo Bill reported, although favorably, somewhat differently on her role:

“From that time on her life was pretty lively all the time. She had unlimited nerve and entered into the work with enthusiasm, doing good service on a number of occasions.  Though she did not do a man’s share of the heavy work, she has gone in places where old frontiersmen were unwilling to trust themselves, and her courage and good-fellowship made her popular with every man in the command.”

A Calamity Is Born
Jane, between her scouting missions, still prostituted.  She was already starting to look as frontier hardened as any man, but for the frontier man in need she was a good sport.  She adopted the gear of male garb almost exclusively – such wear would have been infinitely more practical than the typical woman’s clothing of her daycorsets, voluminous skirts, etc.  

As elsewhere in the Western world, the Victorian sense of euphemism was alive and well in the frontier American West.  Skirting around an issue was as “direct” as many people got to straightforward speech.  Nothing turned faces redder or more quickly than any open talk of sex; certainly one did not discuss such matters in the mixed company of women.

In Britain, the Victorian’s use of euphemisms for many words and phrases most often alluded to the real meaning of the speaker’s intent.  The average Victorian listener ably inferred what was put forth.  For the Victorian British man, any woman who had “gone gay” was a woman who had turned into a prostitute.  Syphilis, a debilitating killer causing degenerative brain damage, could be a scourge if left untreated.  No one wanted to claim it, so it was often referred to as “The French Pox” by the British, “The Italian’s Disease” or “Spanish Flu” by the French, and so on.  Again, the listener knew it was “syphilis”. To keep from contracting the French Pox from a gay girl, the British sport used a “French Letter” (the condom).

The Victorian British had a couple of names for the common sexually transmitted disease, gonorrhea.  Though not fatal usually, untreated it causes urinary tract problems, blindness, and most importantly, sterility in women. British men called it the “clap”, a term still used today.  When a man was “clapped” he had gonorrhea.  They also had a wonderfully modernly slangy sounding word for it as well, the “gleet”.

In the Victorian American West this disease was sometimes called the “calamity”.
The Calamity Jane myth begins with this nickname, and for many it embodies everything tragically heroic about the woman. Jane recorded, again in her 1896 autobiography, her wild tale of the name’s origin:

“…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. 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.”

As mawkish, melodramatic, and heroic as this is, it is untrue.  Her direct report, Buffalo Bill, recalled:

“Her old nickname was received in 1872 in a peculiar way. She was at that time at Goose Creek Camp, S.D., where Captain Egan and a small body of men were stationed. The Indians were giving a lot of trouble, and there was much fighting. One day Captain Egan was surrounded by a large band. They were fighting desperately for their lives, but were being steadily, but surely slaughtered. Captain Egan was wounded and had fallen off his horse. In the midst of the fighting, it is said, the woman rode into the very center of the trouble, dismounted, lifted the captain in front of her on her saddle, and dashed out. They got through untouched, but every other man in the gallant company was slaughtered.  When he recovered, Captain Egan laughingly spoke of Miss Canary as ‘Calamity Jane,’ and the name has clung to her ever since…”

Buffalo Bill did not meet Jane until 1874; it is clear he was  relaying this story from another party, and there is no doubt Jane herself fed it to him. And most of Jane’s contemporaries did not believe her histrionic tale, either.  Another popular myth is that Jane got the nickname as a result of her warnings to men that to offend her was to “court calamity”.  Also a bald-faced lie – the casual prostitute Jane Cannary would no more have cared about her “virtue” than the men who paid her for sex did.

Calamity Jane (scout bivouac, on horseback)

The unfortunate truth is Calamity Jane had been branded as diseased, plainly and simply.  There were no heroics involved in her getting the “calamity”, just a young woman’s unfortunate  need to earn a living in a hard land.  Certainly, any deflection from the truth would be easier to live with than being known as a carrier of gonorrhea (and in women the disease does not always make its presence known quickly – the inflammation and general infection may start months after the causative bacteria has been introduced). But Calamity Jane she was after 1872 and Calamity Jane she would be until her death.  The name fit her well – tragedy and coincidental misfortune seemed to follow her like a cloud of doom.  Her parents were dead, she was the caregiver for a family of five by 16, and she prostituted and rode the range as an Indian scout.  Traveling was in her blood, as was the excitement of a frontier life. 

Calamity Jane (Gen Crook's scout, studio portrait, c1874)
In the spring of 1874 she was ordered to Fort Custer. In the fall she was directed to Fort Russell where she stayed and prostituted until the following spring (1875).  The troops were then sent into the Black Hills of Dakota Territory to protect settlers and miners from the Sioux Indians where they stayed until the winter of 1875, and decamped for Fort Laramie to ride out the season.  In early 1876 she escorted a wagon train to Deadwood, Dakota Territory, a developing rough mining camp. Frontiersman Charlie Utter and his brother Steve led a wagon train to the mining camp filled with what they thought was necessary to profit from the gold fields: dry goods, gamblers, and prostitutes.  The women were the most valuable commodity they transported; within short order one of them, a brothel Madam named Dora DuFran, ran what became the most profitable whore house in Deadwood.  Her “cross-town rival”, another Madam name Molly Johnson, however, came in at a very close second. 

Calamity Jane, beyond her routine scouting activities, did perform heroically, and verifiably. In 1876, her scouting detachment was ordered to the area of the Big Horn River for recon. She was given a set of military documents to race to another detachment to join Generals Miles, Terry, and Custer at Big Horn River. She rode ahead of her group, making 90 miles to her delivery point in record time.  During the course of this trek, she had to swim the Platte River; she contracted a nearly fatal illness from the constant wet and cold, and she was taken by military ambulance back to Fort Fetterman by General Crook’s order. She spent the next two weeks in the fort’s infirmary recuperating.

After this convalescence, she rode  back to Fort Laramie, her general base of operations (and the hog farm where she casually prostituted).  In July 1876, striking out again as a scout for a wagon train, she headed north, where she first met Wild Bill Hickok.

As well as the people, both men and women, of the Old West who are remembered as outlaws and rogues, heroes and gunslingers, the towns in which these transients lived and died also have become iconic.  Tombstone, Arizona … Dodge City, Kansas … Abilene … Laredo … Santa Fe … the list goes on. 

But for sheer undying myth, legend, grime, squalor, lawlessness, and human misery no town of the Old West can beat Deadwood, Dakota Territory, as the last place of refuge for the hopeless and the broken. To explain its sense of desolation and despair: it got its name from a deadfall, a loose pile of dead, fallen trees in a nearby gulch.  The has-beens, the never-weres, the dreamers, the freed slave, the Chinese laborer all made their homes in this little freezing-cold gold rush town in the badlands

Deadwood, Dakota Territory (collage, late 1800s)

At the terminus of her July 1876 trip to Deadwood, Jane decided to stay. She quickly found regular employment shuttling supplies to the gold field miners.  She prospected a bit. As a backup, the local Madam, Dora DuFran,  also gave Jane a steady place in her brothel to bed miners when she needed.

The 24-year-old frontier scrapper had probably found her niche.  In this town of misfits and other social outcasts a filthy woman who habitually wore men’s clothes, prostituted, drank rotgut, chewed tobacco, and smoked cigars, Calamity Jane raised no eyebrows.  She was accepted as yet one more of the town’s colorful characters. And her notoriety preceded her as well: the local newspaper, the Black Hills Pioneer reported “Calamity Jane has arrived.”   

Wild Bill Hickok (James Butler)

The biggest celebrity in town was a very big name, indeed: Wild Bill Hickok (born James Butler in Illinois in 1837).  Jane had met him on her more recent trek north to Deadwood when she elected to stay.  Hickok lived the life of a celebrity, and his checkered past was writ large on the Western landscape.  He had been a constable, a Union scout and spy in the Civil War, a U.S. Marshal, a sheriff, a town marshal, a renowned Indian fighter, and a crack shot. His real life adventures were heady enough, but Wild Bill was also a shameless self-promoter.  Like Calamity Jane he exaggerated his exploits and was sufficiently charismatic that he became the subject of many dime novels of the day.  Furthermore, he was the star attraction of a traveling vaudeville and western extravaganza from 1872 to 1874. 

Wild Bill had recently married a younger woman.  Hickok’s time in Deadwood was purely for “entertainment” purposes.  He was attracted to the rough life, and he also enjoyed preening before a crowd wherever he went.  His time was spent gambling and in leisure “sporting” activities.  He and Calamity Jane struck up a friendship as the two braggarts had much to talk about.

Jane later claimed she rode for the Pony Express in the Deadwood area during this time.  This is but one of her many lies – the Pony Express had ceased operation in 1861 when Jane was about 9 years old.  Although she might have carried an occasional contemporary express or freight pouch as a favor, she never rode with the Express.  It only hired men.   

Such a tale was typical of Calamity Jane.  The biggest controversy surrounded her relationship with Wild Bill Hickok.  Jane was obsessed with him, and she truly did love him as a friend and perhaps she would have wanted something more.  She was a young woman in her mid twenties, and Hickok was just as big a character as she was.  It is entirely possible Hickok may have had sex with her during one of her turns at Madam DuFran’s brothel, but other than being fast friends, there is absolutely no historical record of their having a close and intimate, long-term relationship.

Jane however, misrepresented her relationship with Hickok to the point of ridiculous claims upon his death.  Wild Bill was playing poker in a local saloon on August 2, 1876 (just a couple of months after his arrival in town).  Contrary to his normal behavior, he sat with his back to the saloon’s door, a clear indicator he expected no trouble.  A roughneck named Jack McCall gunned Hickok down where he sat.   McCall’s beef with Hickok resulted from McCall’s claim Hickok had killed McCall’s brother when Wild Bill was a marshal in Abilene (1871).  Hickok held a poker hand consisting of a pair of aces and a pair of eights. [To this day, some poker players call any combination of this pairing “The Dead Man’s Hand” after Hickok’s hand.  They are wrong.  Hickok was holding the black aces and the black eights – only that combination can properly be called “The Dead Man’s Hand”.]

Ironically, in a variation of a confirmed case of heroism (reported by Buffalo Bill, again as hearsay), earlier that year she had saved Jack McCall’s life.  A stage traveling from Deadwood to Wild Birch was beset by Indians.  The stage driver, Jack McCall, was shot in the chest with an arrow.  The six passengers, all men, were cowed; Jane, spotting the runaway coach, raced alongside, jumped aboard, got the team under control and brought the stage in safely.  So Jane had saved the life of the man who would murder her friend. [The real truth of this tale is the stagecoach driver’s name was John Slaughter, not McCall, and he was killed by a Native arrow, not merely wounded.  Jane did pilot the stage to safety as reported, however, so that part is true].

Jane Cannary was a drunk and had been for some few years (starting almost from the time she arrived to prostitute in Wyoming).  Her drunken antics in Fort Laramie just months earlier may have led to her embarrassing desire to put some distance between her and that place. On June 10, 1876, she publicly humiliated herself when she rented a horse and buggy in Cheyenne. Her intent was to take a leisurely ride for pleasure to Fort Russell, only about a mile or so from Cheyenne.  She was so drunk, however, that she bypassed her destination and kept going until she arrived in a stupor in Fort Laramie about 90 miles away. 

Jane moped around Deadwood drunk in public often.  After Hickok was killed she was inconsolable – he probably was her truest friend.  She started a grieving, drunken rumor that she and Hickok had been married in 1870.  She said she had given birth to a baby girl (that she named “Jane”) on September 25, 1873. She claimed she had put the baby up for adoption.  None of this is true.  She did not meet Hickok until early 1876, nor could Hickok have legally married his new wife, Agnes Lake Thatcher, that year (he would have been guilty of bigamy).  Jane simply wanted to believe.

Jean McCormick Burkhardt
The lies inherent in this tall tale would have been relatively harmless but for the fact years later a woman named Jean “Hickok” Burkhardt McCormick (married three times) surfaced to grubstake money by claiming relation to Hickok as her father.  She used Jane’s drunken domestic fantasy to legitimize her connection to the Hickok name (still a money-maker today), sweetening the lucrative potential by subverting Jane’s assertion she’d had a child with Hickok.  This woman was either deluded or a con artist.  She managed to wrangle an “old age” pension from the United States Government (although Hickok had served in the Army in the Civil War, this woman neither deserved nor was entitled to anything based on his service record) in 1941.  The U.S. Department of Public Welfare, perhaps to relieve themselves of her agitation, gave her the pension based upon the flimsiest of “evidence”.  McCormick presented a family bible in which the Hickok-Cannary “marriage” was recorded as having been done in a place called Benson’s Landing in Montana.  The date for this event was the date Calamity Jane had given as her daughter’s date of birth, September 25, 1873.  Thus, a daughter was born and a marriage solemnized on the same day allegedly.  This “proof” was witnessed in this bible by two reverends  and other witnesses.  It is certainly a forgery, but rather than harangue over a few dollars, the U.S. Government simply let the issue pass.

McCormick is dead, so she can no longer press her claim to the Hickok name. Her descendants, however, continue to champion her assertion – the money to be made cannot be discounted if one can prove one is a descendant of the Hickok/Cannary line.  [This is the same level of sensationalist drum-beating that the current relatives of the Billy The Kid pretender, Brushy Bill Roberts, are doing to profit from the assertion that The Kid was not gunned down, but faked his own death, and lived out the rest of his life as Roberts]. 

Both claims are without merit.  Brushy Bill Roberts was not Billy the Kid.  Jean McCormick Burkhardt was not the offspring of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.  There are no records other than McCormick’s suspect “family bible” to support any connection to either Jane or Wild Bill.  Calamity Jane was working as an Indian Scout for the U.S. Army at the time of McCormick’s birth – her boss, and friend, Buffalo Bill would have certainly noticed if Jane was pregnant.  He never mentioned it in any recollection of her; Jane never mentioned it, either, in her pamphlet autobiography (nor did she ever repeat the assertion she had married Hickok).  Her drunken fantasizing created a controversy.

Calamity Jane at Hickok's grave (Dakota Territory, after 1876)

In furtherance of her own fantasy, Jane claimed she went after Jack McCall personally after learning of Hickok’s death.  She traced him to a local butcher shop and rather than run home for her shooting irons, she snatched up a meat cleaver and threatened him. This is another tall tale.  If Jane had any hand in McCall’s capture, it would have been as a tracker; she never confronted him herself, although he was taken into custody the same day of Hickok’s funeral.  In an ad hoc miner’s court, McCall claimed self-defense, and the jury found him “not guilty”.  He quickly left the area, lucky to have survived.  The findings were considered outrageous by the national press, and because his case had been heard in Deadwood (in Dakota Indian Territory) it was held up as not binding.  He was caught again by a Federal marshal on August 29, 1876, and retried in proper U.S. jurisdiction in Yankton, South Dakota.  Convicted this time, he was hanged on March 1, 1877.

Jane, like many of the roughnecks of the West, was fiercely loyal to her friends and was reported as extremely compassionate.  During a small pox outbreak she worked as a nurse in the local pesthouse, a filthy log cabin given over for quarantine.  The local doctor remarked upon her particular concern over the afflicted children.  She finally had enough of Deadwood, however.  Or perhaps Deadwood had enough of her – Calamity Jane struck out in 1880 for greener pastures.  She was 28 years old.

High Plains Drifter
Jane ambled aimlessly.  She returned to scouting Indians briefly in 1877.  She spent the entire year of 1878 prospecting in the Rapid City, South Dakota, area.  She then took a job as a teamster, working most of 1879 driving wagon train leads to Fort Pierre from Rapid City. In 1881 she wandered into Wyoming where she prostituted again in her old haunts. 

Calamity Jane (domestic life, 1885)
She made her way up to Montana, in 1882.  By then she was looking for stability. She financed a ranch west of Miles City, Montana, on the Yellowstone River.  She used one of her buildings as an inn for travelers.   She struck out again in 1883 for California, reaching San Francisco in early 1884 where her work is not certain but probably involved part-time prostitution and hauling freight as a teamster.  From San Francisco, she headed southeast, and after spending some time at Fort Yuma, Arizona, she arrived in El Paso, Texas, in the fall of that year.  She met a native Texan, Clinton Burke (in some sources recorded as “E.M.” Burke) in August 1885.  That year the press caught up to her and documented her new-found domesticity in pictures of her outside her home, and sitting on a kitchen table holding a cigar, allegedly “cooking breakfast”.  These photos, while interesting documents of her, are clearly staged for public consumption – her cigar is unlit.

Jane gave birth to a baby girl, on October 28, 1887. Jane glossed over her daughter's fate, only saying the child was allegedly given up to “foster parents” without explanation.  Although Jane mentioned this baby’s birth in passing in her autobiography, she did not give details nor dwell on how she felt about being a mother, etc.  [The harsh reality is that when her marriage to Clinton Burke broke up in 1895, she abandoned her 8-year-old daughter, Jessie, to a convent for care].

Jane and Clinton left Texas in 1889, and moved to Boulder, Colorado.  Jane took up hostelry again, and in 1891 she and Clinton Burke married.  They lived quietly until 1893.  Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show still toured (it survived until 1916), and Calamity Jane was invited to work it as a horse rider and a trick shooter.   [And to give a sense of scope, Buffalo Bill’s show was a monstrous attraction in its day, incorporating trick riders, shoot outs, live Native Americans (on the payroll voluntarily), current Western celebrities, and circus performances.  Anyone buying a ticket to this show got his money’s worth – it ran for an incredible action-packed four hours].  She accepted the job in 1893, but she was not cut out for the rigors of the tour’s schedule or its discipline.  Her drinking grew worse.  Buffalo Bill had to fire her.  By this time she was also chronically depressed and her alcohol consumption grew.  It was about this time her marriage to Clinton Burke ended and she left her daughter with St. Mary's Convent in Sturgis. Wanderlust had returned; she traveled throughout the Plains States and the Rocky Mountain area seemingly with no goal in mind.  Jane remarked of the day when she returned to perhaps the only place she ever considered home: “…arriving in Deadwood October 9th, 1895, after an absence of seventeen years.”

Jane was a celebrity, and Deadwood welcomed her back with open arms.  Some business men looking to capitalize on her notoriety suggested she put herself under their management as a circuit lecturer.  They presumed many women in the East would wish to hear from Calamity Jane “the Woman Scout who was made so famous through her daring career in the West and Black Hill countries.” A business agent arrived in Deadwood and booked her for a lecture in Minneapolis at its Palace Museum.  She gave her maiden lecture in what promised to be a very lucrative career on January 20, 1896.  Calamity Jane, however, couldn’t keep away from the bottle, and it seems as if she never traveled any farther than Minneapolis on her lecture tour.   She shocked her bosses by advising them she had made a vow to “never go to bed with a nickel in her pocket or sober”.  

Jane seemed very much a woman on her own by this time.   In 1900 an unverifiable story claimed a newspaper editor discovered an ill Calamity Jane in a brothel (unknown where or why she was there – certainly no one sought her out as a prostitute).  He allegedly cared for her until she recovered from whatever ailed her (in all likelihood, if this story is true, a gonorrhea recurrence).  She went on to perform, in 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.  She sold copies of her pamphlet autobiography (written in 1896) there for extra money.  Her heavy drinking and public disturbances led to her arrest; Buffalo Bill had to loan her money to get home from the East.  [Buffalo Bill’s sardonic take on this event led him to quip later, “I expect she was no more tired of Buffalo than the Buffalo police were of her, for her sorrows seemed to need a good deal of drowning.”]

With nowhere clear in mind to go, she returned to her spiritual home, Deadwood.  The brothel baroness, Madame Dora DuFran, was still doing brisk business when Jane returned.  Dora gave Jane a job as a laundress and cook in one of her brothels in Belle Fourche, a few miles north of Deadwood.  She earned her keep in this way, but continued drinking heavily.  No one looked for her as a sexual partner – she was wrung out and haggard. 

In July 1903, she took off for Terry, South Dakota.  She checked into the Calloway Hotel and later was reported drinking heavily on board a train.  She was ill on board, and the train’s conductor escorted her off, and to a cabin where she died soon after on August 1, 1903. Her cause of death was reportedly pneumonia (another source records "inflammation of the bowels").  Among her belongings was a packet of letters (unsent) she had written to her daughter she had abandoned.  The letters are of the “dear diary” sort of conversational things in keeping with Jane’s sense of loss for never having the family she may have wanted.
Calamity Jane was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery in South Dakota next to Wild Bill Hickok. One of the men who planned her funeral later claimed since Wild Bill Hickok had “absolutely no use” for Calamity Jane while he was alive, they decided to play a posthumous joke on him by berthing  Jane eternally at his side.  [Hickok was her friend, and he would never have reported such a mean-spirited sentiment.  It was Jane’s wish – made clear during her lifetime – that she be buried next to Hickok].

Jane Lives
During Calamity Jane’s life she was glamorized and fictionalized in many pieces of pulp literature.  She regularly featured as a female heroine in many dime novels as early as 1877 (when she was 25).

When motion pictures developed she was a favored

Calamity Jane (French movie poster, 1953)
subject in Westerns.  In 1949, the too beautiful Yvonne De Carlo played her in Calamity Jane and Sam Bass.  Most images of Jane have ranged from the romantic to the downright demeaning and silly – Jane’s known antics were taken to comedic extremes (as Doris Day’s “aw shucks” portrayal was in her turn as Calamity Jane in 1953).  However, she had never been faithfully portrayed until HBO brought its epic series Deadwood to television.  The morose, insecure, dirty, depressed, drunken Calamity Jane (who is still a good, caring person at heart) is perhaps the closest thing to the real woman ever served up by Hollywood. 

The letters Jane wrote to her abandoned daughter were brought to the public in a musical format in the 20th century.  Composer Libby Larsen set some of them to music as homage, and created a musical artwork called Songs From Letters. Other musicians and singers have used her in their tunes over the years as well. And adding a surreal element to her longevity she has featured in several computer action games.


Calamity Jane In Spirit

Pop culture imagery of Calamity Jane has run the gamut from the grungy to the glamorous.  The German photographic artist, Ellen Von Unwerth, has revisited Jane’s re-imagined legend on a few occasions, using models evoking the memory of this lonely, chaotic woman.  The complexity of Calamity Jane is not present in these images but the pop icon and memory certainly is.

Calamity Jane (postcard)

Calamity Jane was a hurricane of activity, a whirlwind of trouble and mischief, and a sad woman.  But insofar as iconic women or great characters go, one would have to look very long and hard to find one as engaging as Martha Jane Cannary, the disastrously fascinating Calamity Jane.


Dirty, foul, and dangerous -- it's "Deadwood"

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Aug 12, 2012 11:09am
Boy oh boy--as a history buff, I truly love the article and, as always, your hard work explodes on the page in the form a great writing. Another five stars here!
Aug 12, 2012 12:55pm
I love these characters (Big Nose Kate, Belle Starr, etc.) Jane, I think, has been so misrepresented she was worth a fresh look. I like her. This is an older piece (part of a series) that I was adding some links to, so thanks for "finding" it and commenting.
May 29, 2014 5:09pm
Thank-you for such an interesting and enlightening article. I just wonder if you could help me? Do you know the date of the first photograph of Martha Jane? She seems very young in the picture and I wonder if it was before she was known as 'Calamity Jane'. Also according to Wikipedia her surname should be spelt with only one N "there is ample evidence - including the census report of her parents when she was 4 years old - that it was properly spelled with only one N, like the songbird". I am also puzzled how she would have been able to write the letters to her daughter if she was illiterate!
May 30, 2014 9:31am
I said she was "largely" illiterate, not totally illiterate, which means she could write and read but had not much in the way of formal schooling.

Many people in her time only got enough education to perform the basest of functions (add numbers, write their names, etc., but reading and comprehending the works of Shakespeare, for example, would have been inconceivable). Others had people write letters for them (dictated) for which they might pay a small fee or extend a favor in exchange. Jane could write; how well, I don't know, but she could have gotten a letter out.

Considering a US Census taker probably filled out a form for the family, it comes as no surprise the last name might have been misspelled by that person (though most likely pronounced "Canary" like the bird as you noted). Every reasoned source I found had variants on the spelling of her last name, but Cannary seems to be the historically accepted one.

I failed to make note of the date of the opening picture, but it appears to be (going back into my file on her) from the early 1870s (possibly 1872).

Thanks for reading about Jane!
May 30, 2014 6:35pm
Wow, you actually replied, and so quickly, I'm impressed. Your article is the most interesting piece I've read on Martha Jane. You obviously do your homework, something decidedly lacking in most of the other articles I came across. Thanks for the information. I've tried & failed to date the photograph myself. It has me stumped, that and an early photograph of Henry David Thoreau which none of the various Thoreau societies/ projects or Wikimedia Commons even include on their websites.

Your intelligent and well researched writing style intrigued me so I read your success story. I too, get frustrated at the plethora of badly written tripe that exits on the web. Your articles are the exception to this. You're a real gem!
May 30, 2014 8:09pm
Thanks for the vote of confidence. Yes, I do reply when people comment (I don't always do it in a timely manner, but I try to catch them as they come through). And, yeah, I screw up from time to time but I try to bring the best out of the subjects I decide are worthwhile, and this woman was definitely worth it (if you look at the rest of my stuff you'll see I write about women a lot).
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  1. "Calamity Jane." Britannica Ready Reference 2003. 2002.
  2. "Martha Jane Cannary." American Peoples Encyclopedia. 1963.
  3. "Calamity Jane." en.wikipedia.org. 29/10/2011 <Web >
  4. "Calamity Jane." britannica.com. 29/10/2011 <Web >

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