Updated: May 8
Colorful Legend of the Wild West
Calamity Jane, born Martha Jane Canary, is an enigma in Western legend. Much has been written about her, much of it fictional, but that's no different than male legends of the West. We do know this: she was one tough woman. Bigger-than-life, famous and infamous, a sure shot, a great horsewoman, she traveled in the circles of the West's most famous male icons and she was an icon herself. She could cuss, drink whiskey and shoot better than most men and she wore fringed buckskin pants and tunic when most women were wearing corsets, petticoats and dresses.
She was born in 1852 in Missouri, a beautiful girl, the oldest of six children. Her father had a gambling addiction and her mother worked occasionally as a prostitute to support her children. The family went out west to Montana, and Martha Jane was quickly orphaned at age 14 and had to support her siblings. She worked as an ox-team driver, laundress, nurse, whatever would pay, then a dance-hall girl, and finally as a prostitute. But she railed against stifling feminine constraints and landed a job as a scout.
In 1872, at age 19, she joined an Army contingent at the post in Goose Creek, Wyoming, commanded by Captain Egan, where she claimed to have saved him from marauding Indians in which six soldiers were killed. Jane wrote in her autobiography that Captain Egan said she saved him from calamity and, thus, named her "Calamity Jane."
Although some of the scouting adventures she recounted in a later autobiography were disputed, one story was confirmed. In 1875 or early 1876, she carried important dispatches for the army near the Big Horn River, swam the Platte River, and rode hard for 90 miles wet and cold to deliver the dispatches. Shortly after that, she rode to Fort Laramie to join a wagon train that included Wild Bill Hickok. Both were characters, heavy drinkers, big story tellers, and colorful creations of the frontier. They hit it off right away. She rode with Wild Bill and his good friend, Charlie Utter.
Wild Bill had worked for the founders of the Pony Express and, during the month of June 1876, Jane rode as a Pony Express rider from Deadwood to Custer, 50 miles over grueling Black Hills terrain. She stayed in Deadwood that summer, close to Wild Bill Hickok, whom she loved, until he was shot in the back of the head during a poker game. Jane was only 24 and his death took a piece of her heart. The rest of her life, she mourned him.
Shortly after Wild Bill's death, Jane was riding shotgun with stagecoach driver, John Slaughter, when they were attacked by Plains Indians. Slaughter was killed during the chase, and she took up the reins and drove hell-bent and lickety-split to Deadwood, saving the passengers.
Later, probably in 1878, Jane earned her reputation as a kind-hearted woman, too, when she took it upon herself to nurse many victims of a smallpox epidemic in Deadwood. By now, Jane's reputation had grown across the nation and newspapers reported her adventures to a hungry public. Americans had a voracious appetite for all things frontier and figures like Calamity Jane, Wild Bill, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley were the rage.
In 1893, Calamity Jane appeared in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and told her stories to rapt crowds in her inimitably crusty style. In 1901, she was recruited by the Pan-American Exposition to perform her stories, as well, and traveled all over the Midwest appearing at "dime museums" and selling her autobiography.
But, alcoholism had taken its toll and she felt her years and health waning. She made her way back to South Dakota and Deadwood, her old stomping grounds with Wild Bill. She almost made it. She stopped in Belle Fourche in the Black Hills and her friend and brothel owner, Madame Dora DuFran, gave her a job doing laundry. Jane was a rock-bottom drinker and grumbled to the brothel girls that she only wanted the world "to leave me alone and let me go to hell by my own route."
In late July, 1903, she hopped an ore train to Terry, South Dakota, a mining town near Deadwood. She had to be carried off the train, where the conductor and a bartender got her a room at the Calloway Hotel. She died on August 1, 1903-the day before Wild Bill's death date-probably of alcohol poisoning and pneumonia. She was 51. Calamity did get her last wish. The Deadwood townspeople collected her body and buried her beside her true love, Wild Bill Hickok, forever together in loam and lore.
Even in her later years, when a hard life and alcoholism had ravaged her, she was still a force to be reckoned with. In 1902, the year before she died, she was drinking in a saloon in the small town of Oaks, North Dakota, minding her own business, when some rowdy men thought they would have some fun with the old lady in buckskin. They were mocking her and jostling her when she pulled out two guns and told them to dance. "You've had your fun. Now it's my turn," she said. "The calves on my Montana ranch have more sense than you fellows," she said, shaking her head. They danced.
PHOTOS: (1) Jane was born Martha Jane Canary in Missouri, the oldest of six children and described as "extremely attractive" and a "pretty, dark-eyed girl." But the cards were stacked against her from the start. Her father was a gambler, her mother prostituted herself to support her children. When they went west, Jane was orphaned at age 14 and had to support all of her siblings. (2) Jane as a young woman. She worked as a waitress, nurse, laundress, then a dance-hall girl, and finally a prostitute to support her siblings. (3) Jane hated feminine constraints and when she was nineteen, she worked as an ox-team driver, then a scout. An excellent horsewoman and sure shot, she began wearing buckskins and pistols and carrying a rifle. Which rifle is a matter of dispute, possibly either an engraved 1873 Winchester Lever-Action Saddle Ring Carbine or a 1874 Sharps. The TV series, Deadwood, shows Calamity carrying a Colt Single-Action Army Cavalry Model. (According to a Nov. 21, 2007 Reuters article, a San Antonio gun auction sold a 32-caliber Hopkins and Allen Ranger pistol (1870s or 80s) Jane reputedly carried at her death. (4) Jane on her favorite horse, Jim. Jane claimed that she once took up the challenge to race a stranger in a saloon-hopping route through Deadwood in which they rode their horses INTO each saloon to get a drink. Jim drank too! Needless to say, Jane won that race. (5) Calamity Jane in 1890 standing at the grave of her lost love, Wild Bill Hickok, at Deadwood's Mount Moriah Cemetery. At this point in Jane's life, she rarely wore a dress and preferred the signature garb of a frontier scout: fringed buckskin pants and tunic. Perhaps she dressed up for Wild Bill?
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-Wild Bill Hickok
Calamity Jane was originally posted on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on June 19, 2019
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