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Martha Jane Cannary (a.k.a. Calamity Jane)

Updated on October 23, 2014
Calamity Jane most respected woman of the Old West.  She could shot better than most men and was quick to render aid to those in need.
Calamity Jane most respected woman of the Old West. She could shot better than most men and was quick to render aid to those in need.

Myth or Heroine?

Martha Jane Cannary (a.k.a. Calamity Jane) 1 May 1852 – 1 August 1903

Folk Hero of the Old American West: a cook, a nurse, a dance-hall girl, a dishwasher, a waitress, an ox-team driver, a miner, a drunker, and according to some tales, a prostitute.

Martha Jane Cannary was born in Princeton, Missouri. She was the oldest of six children and a lover of the great outdoors from the moment she was able to set foot outside. Her skills with fire arms and horses were unheard of even at a very young age. In 1865, Jane and her family joined a wagon train heading west for Virginia City, Montana. It took the family five months to make the trip across the plains. Jane utilized her time improving her shooting and horse-riding skills by helping the men hunt and protect the wagon train from hostiles; while also helping to care for her five younger siblings. In her autobiography written in 1896, she stated, "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." It is believed during this period when she picked up the nickname of “Calamity Jane”; however, history will show other times and events that may have led to the name also.

It wasn’t long after Jane and her family reached Montana that she had to take over caring for the younger children when her mother died in Black Foot in 1866 of pneumonia. Unhappy following the loss of his wife, Jane’s father decided to move the family to Salt Lake City, Utah in the summer of 1866. As if fate was foreshadowed with the death her mother following their travel, Jane’s father died before the year was up. Jane became the head of the household and decided to move the family to Fort Bridger, Wyoming. Arriving on 1 May 1868, Jane set out to find any job available that would provide for her family. She accepted jobs as a cook, dishwasher, waitress, and dance-hall girl. It was during this time Jane realized she would not be able to provide for her younger siblings and found families in the area willing to adopt them.

On her own Jane basically became a ghost and an actuate account of what happened to her for a few years cannot be found. However, Jane claimed that in 1870, she rode as a soldier scout out of Fort Russell, Wyoming under the command of General George Armstrong Custer. This is the first account of Jane wearing men’s clothing and would not be the last. She claimed General Custer road south to Arizona on a campaign to put the Indians back onto their reservations. Jane claimed in her autobiography “she was the most reckless and daring rider and one of the best shots in the West”. It should be noted there is no historical proof of General Custer ever going to Arizona and it is believed this may have been one of her many tales that border lined on truth, for which Jane was very well known to tell.

Jane returned to Fort Sanders, Wyoming in 1872, where she received orders to join Generals Custer, Nelson Miles, and George Crook. Always one to do her duty, she joined them on the campaign they were engaged in against the Muscle Shell Indians; which, would last until the fall of 1873. This is another time in history it has been reported Jane earned her name of Calamity Jane. The story Jane told leading to her name occurred at Goose Creek, Wyoming. Jane, Captain Egan and his troops had been ordered to quell an Indian uprising. The troop was returning from their mission when a large group of Indians attacked, shooting Captain Egan from his horse. Jane had been riding ahead of the troop, but upon hearing gun shots turned around rode back to aid the Captain. Jane was able to lift the Captain onto her horse and to deliver him safely to the Fort. Jane claims, upon recovery Captain Egan laughingly said, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.” Jane would be ordered to Fort Custer in the spring of 1874, which was only a rest stop since she was furthered order to Fort Russell prior to the end of the year. Jane and Army personnel remained at Fort Russell till the spring of 1875, at which time they were sent back to the Black Hills in an attempt to protect the settlers and miners from the Sioux Nation.

The spring of 1876 found Jane once again heading north with General Crook to Join Generals Miles, Terry and Custer at the Big Horn River. As part of her scouting duties during the march, Jane swarm back and forth across the Platte river near Fort Fetterman delivering dispatches from General Crook to all the local outpost they came across. Jane never made it to the meeting at the Big Horn River, due to contracting a severe illness. General Crook having respect for Jane and also feeling responsible sent her back to Fort Fetterman in his personal ambulance. It took Jane roughly fourteen days to recover in the Fort’s hospital, but recover she did. Once she was healthy enough to ride; Jane took off to Fort Laramie, were she first met Wild Bill Hickok.

Jane and Hickok became instant friends due to both being outrageous exaggerators when it came to telling stories and also their joy of heavy drinking. There have been claims that they were romantically involved and according to Jane married for years upon his death, there is little historical facts to support any of these stories. Jane joined Hickok on a wagon trail heading to Deadwood, South Dakota arriving in June of 1876.

Upon arrival at Deadwood, Jane took a job as a Pony Express rider. Jane road between Deadwood and Custer, a fifty mile distance considered one of the roughest trails in the Black Hills. She spent the summer mostly around Deadwood visiting many camps throughout the area delivering supplies along with the mail. On 2 August 1876, Hickok was shot and killed while gambling in a Deadwood saloon. Following his death, Jane claimed she attempted to avenge Hickok’s murder, when she crossed paths with his murderer in a butcher shop utilizing a knife. Again, there is no historical proof of this event and may have just been another of Jane’s many tall tales during a drunken period. It is known Jane did remain in Deadwood, working as a miner at different camps in the area.

Though Jane had a habit of drinking all of her earnings away, she was also known for her generosity. It was nothing for her to give her last dime to help a poor sole out of a hardship. When a smallpox plague hit Deadwood, she could be found nursing different people back to health at the risk of her own health. In most cases her only payment was a thank you, which was more than good enough for Jane. The local physician Doc Babcock even stated “there was a little angel of some sort in the hardboiled woman”.

Following the smallpox plague Jane continued to prospect and ride with the Army from fort to fort in both Montana and Wyoming for many years. It wasn’t till around 1882 that she attempted to settle down buying a ranch on the Yellowstone River outside of Miles City. Jane raised stock and cattle, using the majority of her house as a way side inn as a way of income. However, it didn’t take Jane long before she became restless and headed out to California in 1883. Finding little to interest there Jane again headed out onto the trail, but this time it was east to El Paso, Texas in 1884. It was in El Paso where Jane met Clinton Burk, Burk was a native of Texas. In August of 1885, Jane and Burk married. They were blessed with a daughter on 28 October 1887.

Jane and her family left Texas heading north two years later in 1889, stopping in Boulder, Colorado. Jane and Burk ran a hotel in Boulder until 1893, upon which some claim they divorced and Jane left their daughter at a convent to be raised. Other stories tell of the family around the Northwest from Montana and South Dakota to Oregon and Washington. Regardless, during this time Jane was trying to make money by telling her life stories to anyone willing to listen. Joining different Wild West Shows such as Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1895 as a way to earn money by utilizing her reputation and skills of handling horses better than most men and the ability to shoot like a cowboy. The problem for Jane, was she would spend her earnings almost as fast as she received them on alcohol. Jane would continue in show business until around 1901, being fired from time to time due to her drunkenness and at times voguer language.

Moneyless and jobless, Jane returned to the Black Hills in 1903. Finding work at as cook and laundress in a brothel in Belle Fourche. Working at the brothel was short lived as Jane became severely ill again and moved to a small room in Terry, South Dakota. It was in this small room that Jane would take her last breath and die on 1 August 1903. Prior to dying, Jane asked for one request, to be buried beside her friend Hickok on Mt. Moriah overlooking the town of Deadwood. This request was granted and it is said that at her funeral an ungodly amount of people showed up, marking her as one of the most liked women in Deadwood. It seems Jane’s fame followed even after death.

The only question left to ask is “Why "Calamity"?” Was it because that is what Calamity Jane would threaten to any man who bothered her -- a calamity. Jane herself claimed it was given to her because she was good to have around in a calamity. Or perhaps it was due to her heroic efforts during the Indian uprising or smallpox epidemic. Or maybe it was just a description of her very hard and tough life. Like much in her life, it's not certain and will probably never be answered.

Most events dealing with Jane are hard to verify, since they were mostly told by her with no one to confirm or deny them. Regardless if Jane was actually an Army scout, prospector, cook, or prostitute for the majority of her life, she was able to spin a great tale and was definitely able to drink any man under the table. Calamity Jane will be forever known as one of the Old West’s celebrity characters.

Martha Jane Cannary. (2014). The Biography.com website. Retrieved Oct 22, 2014, from http://www.biography.com/people/calamity-jane-9234950.

© 2014 Sandy D

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