Martha Jane Canary or Cannary (May 1, 1852 – August 1, 1903), better known as Calamity Jane, was an American frontierswoman known for being an acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok's. Late in her life, she appeared in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show and at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. She is said to have exhibited compassion to others, especially to the sick and needy. This facet of her character contrasted with her daredevil ways and helped to make her a noted frontier figure. She was also known for her habit of wearing men's attire.
Much of the information about the early years of Calamity Jane's life comes from the autobiographical booklet which she dictated in 1896, written for publicity purposes. She was about to begin a tour in which she appeared in dime museums around the United States, and it was intended to help attract audiences. Some of the information in the pamphlet is exaggerated or even completely inaccurate.
Calamity Jane was born on May 1, 1852, as Martha Jane Canary (or Cannary) in Princeton, within Mercer County, Missouri. Her parents were listed in the 1860 census as living about 7 miles (11 km) northeast of Princeton in Ravanna. Her father Robert Wilson Cannary had a gambling problem, and little is known about her mother Charlotte M. Cannary. Jane was the eldest of six children, and had two brothers and three sisters.
In 1865, Robert and his family moved by wagon train from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana. In 1866, Charlotte died of pneumonia along the way, in Blackfoot, Montana. 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. The family had been in Salt Lake City for only a year when he died in 1867. At age 14, Martha Jane took charge of her five younger siblings, loaded up their wagon once more, and took the family to Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory, where they arrived in May 1868. From there, they traveled on the Union Pacific Railroad to Piedmont, Wyoming.
In Piedmont, Jane took whatever jobs she could find to provide for her large family. She worked as a dishwasher, cook, waitress, dance hall girl, nurse, and ox team driver. Finally, in 1874, she claimed she found work as a scout at Fort Russell, however there is no historical evidence of this. During that time, she also began her on-and-off employment as a prostitute at the Fort Laramie Three-Mile Hog Ranch. She moved on to a rougher, mostly outdoor and adventurous life on the Great Plains.
Jane was involved in several campaigns in the long-running military conflicts with Native Americans. Her claim was that:
- “It was during this campaign [in 1872–73] 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.”
- ―Calamity Jane
Captain Jack Crawford served under Generals Wesley Merritt and George Crook. According to the Montana Anaconda Standard of April 19, 1904, he stated that Calamity Jane "never saw service in any capacity under either General Crook or General Miles. She never saw a lynching and never was in an Indian fight. She was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish, but possessed a generous streak which made her popular."
It may be that she exaggerated this story, or even completely fabricated it. Even during her lifetime, not everyone accepted her version as true. A popular belief is that she instead acquired it as a result of her warnings to men that to offend her was to "court calamity". It is possible that "Jane" was not part of her name until the nickname was coined for her. It is certain, however, that she was known by that nickname by 1876, because the arrival of the Hickok wagon train was reported in Deadwood's newspaper, the Black Hills Pioneer, on July 15, 1876, with the headline: "Calamity Jane has arrived!"
Another unverified story in her autobiographical pamphlet is that her detachment was ordered to the Big Horn River under General Crook in 1875. She swam the Platte River and travelled 90 miles (140 km) at top speed while wet and cold in order to deliver important dispatches. She became ill afterwards and spent a few weeks recuperating. She then rode to Fort Laramie in Wyoming and joined a wagon train headed north in July 1876. The second part of her story is verified. She was at Fort Laramie in July 1876, and she did join a wagon train that included Wild Bill Hickok. That was where she first met Hickok, contrary to her later claims, and that was how she happened to come to Deadwood.
Calamity Jane accompanied the Newton–Jenney Party into Rapid City in 1875, along with California Joe and Valentine McGillycuddy. In 1876, Calamity Jane settled in the area of Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills. There she became friends with Dora DuFran, the Black Hills' leading madam, and was occasionally employed by her. Jane also became friendly with Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter, having traveled with them to Deadwood in Utter's wagon train.
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. She presented evidence that Calamity Jane and Wild Bill had married at Benson's Landing, Montana Territory (now Livingston, Montana) on September 25, 1873. The documentation was written in a Bible and presumably signed by two ministers and numerous witnesses. However, McCormick's claim has been vigorously challenged because of a variety of discrepancies.
McCormick later published a book with letters purported to be from Calamity Jane to her daughter. In them, Calamity Jane says she had been married to Hickok and that Hickok was the father of McCormick, who was born September 25, 1873, and was given up for adoption to a Captain Jim O'Neil and his wife. During the period when the alleged child was born, Calamity Jane was allegedly working as a scout for the army, and at the time of Hickok's death, he had recently married Agnes Lake Thatcher.
Calamity Jane does seem to have had two daughters, although the father's identity is unknown. In the late 1880s, Jane returned to Deadwood with a child whom she claimed was her daughter. At Jane's request, a benefit was held in one of the theaters to raise money for her daughter's education in St. Martin's Academy at Sturgis, South Dakota, a nearby Catholic boarding school. The benefit raised a large sum; Jane got drunk and spent a considerable portion of the money that same night and left with the child the next day.
Estelline Bennett was living in Deadwood at that time and had spoken briefly with Jane a few days before the benefit. She thought that Jane honestly wanted her daughter to have an education and that the drunken binge was just an example of her inability to curb her impulses and carry through long-range plans (which Bennett saw as typical of Jane's class). Bennett later heard that Jane's daughter did "get an education, and grew up and married well".
Jane also claimed that, following Hickok's death, she went after his murderer Jack McCall with a meat cleaver, since she had left her guns at her residence. Following McCall's execution for the crime, Jane continued living in the Deadwood area for some time, and at one point she helped save numerous passengers in an overland stagecoach by diverting several Plains Indians who were in pursuit of the vehicle. 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 or 1878, Jane nursed the victims of a smallpox epidemic in the Deadwood area.
In 1881, Jane bought a ranch west of Miles City, Montana along the Yellowstone River, where she kept an inn. According to one version of her life, she later married Clinton Burke from Texas and moved to Boulder, where she once again made an attempt in the inn business. In 1887, she gave birth to a daughter, Jesse, who was adopted by foster parents. She is also said to have traveled with a young girl briefly whom she said was her daughter but there is no evidence supporting her ever having a child.
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.
Her 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 one-mile joy ride to Fort Russell and back, but she was so drunk that she passed right by her destination without noticing it and finally ended up about 90 miles (140 km) away at Fort Laramie.
Jane returned to the Black Hills in the spring of 1903, and brothel owner Madame Dora DuFran was still running her business. For the next few months, Jane earned her keep by cooking and doing the laundry for Dora's brothel girls in Belle Fourche. In late July, Jane travelled by ore train to Terry, South Dakota, a small mining village near Deadwood, and stayed at the Calloway Hotel. She died at the age of 51. It was reported that she had been drinking heavily while on board the train and had become sick to her stomach. The conductor, S.G. Tillett, carried her off the train, a bartender secured a room for her at the Calloway Hotel, and a doctor was summoned. Jane died almost immediately afterwards on Saturday, August 1, 1903, from inflammation of the bowels and pneumonia.
A bundle of unsent letters to her daughter was allegedly found among Jane's few belongings. The 20th-century composer Libby Larsen set some of these letters to music in an art song cycle called Songs From Letters. Those letters were first made public by Jean McCormick as part of her claim to be the daughter of Jane and Hickok, but their authenticity is not accepted by some, largely because there is ample evidence that Jane was functionally illiterate.
Calamity Jane was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery, South Dakota, next to Wild Bill Hickok. Four of the men who planned her funeral later stated that Wild Bill Hickok had "absolutely no use" for Jane while he was alive, so they decided to play a posthumous joke on him by burying her by his side. Another account states: "in compliance with Jane's dying requests, the Society of Black Hills Pioneers took charge of her funeral and burial in Mount Moriah Cemetery beside Wild Bill. Not just old friends, but the morbidly curious and many who would not have acknowledged Calamity Jane when she was alive, overflowed the First Methodist Church for the funeral services on August 4 and followed the hearse up the steep winding road to Deadwood’s boot hill".
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