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. – “Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane”
The legend of the American “Wild West” era is such a powerful and enduring one that it’s sometimes difficult to remember that it lasted only one generation, from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the 20th century; many of those who either played important roles in the story of westward expansion, or who were notable for other reasons, found themselves literally legends in their own time by the early ‘90s. One of these was Martha Jane Canary, a woman who would probably have lived and died in obscurity had she been born in a different place and time; like so many other women she made the best choices she could among the opportunities available to her, and found to her considerable surprise that they had resulted in fame (but not, alas, fortune). She was born on May 1, 1852 to Robert and Charlotte Canary of Princeton, Missouri, the eldest of six children (two boys and four girls). In 1865 the family headed west to Virginia City, Montana, but after Charlotte died of pneumonia en route Canary decided to push on to Salt Lake City. They arrived in 1866 but he died only a year later, so 15-year-old Martha Jane became head of the family; she packed up the wagon and moved them to Piedmont, Wyoming, where she took whatever jobs she could find. She is known to have worked as a dishwasher, a cook, a nurse, a driver, a dancer and a whore.
Jane does not seem to have cared that much for sex work; though it would have been the most lucrative of her jobs, her heart belonged to the Great Outdoors. She had been an avid rider since childhood, and as related in her 1896 autobiography, “Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane”: “While on the way the greater portion of my time was spent in hunting along with the men and hunters of the party, in fact 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.” Since she is believed to have been functionally illiterate this short document was almost certainly ghostwritten, and many of the claims it makes are at odds with known facts. For example, it states she worked as a scout under several generals (including the infamous Custer) from 1871-1873 and took part in the Indian wars; in truth, she did not secure her first scouting job until 1874. It also attributes her nickname to an incident which supposedly occurred in 1873; my own theory is that it was actually her stage name, perhaps derived from a drunken attempt by either a client or Jane herself to say her last name.
The pamphlet did not lie about her skills, however, which were sufficient to win her a man’s job; some historians believe that she actually disguised herself as a man, and was dismissed after the truth was discovered in 1875. In the spring of that year she accompanied General Crook to the Big Horn River, and was sent to Fort Fetterman with important dispatches; after fording the ice-cold Platte River she rode 145 km straight, and as might be expected she became seriously ill and was hospitalized for two weeks (during which time her sex was naturally discovered). However, it is also possible that her superiors knew full well that she was a woman (see picture at right) and that she was fired for the same reason she lost so many jobs in later years: she had a tendency to get rip-roaring drunk and start shooting at people (though she is not known to have ever hit one). In any case, she soon ended up in Fort Laramie, Wyoming, where she met Wild Bill Hickok; she became good friends with him and accompanied him to Deadwood, South Dakota, and it is clear that she already had a reputation by this time because their arrival was announced in the July 15, 1876 Black Hills Pioneer with the headline, “Calamity Jane has arrived!” Though Jane only knew Hickok for a few months, she fell deeply in love with him and was therefore understandably upset when he was shot in the back by Jack McCall during a poker game on August 2, 1876, even if she didn’t really go after McCall with a meat cleaver as she later recounted. After Hickok’s death she began to claim that they had been married several years before and that she had borne him a daughter named Jean on September 25, 1873, but gave the child up for adoption when they separated. Though this is not generally considered a credible claim, a woman named Jean Hickok (who claimed to be that very child and had an impromptu birth certificate written by a minister in a Bible) was entered into the Social Security rolls on September 6, 1941.
Jane stayed in Deadwood after Hickok’s death, supporting herself by prospecting and occasionally working for Dora DuFran, owner of Deadwood’s largest brothel. It was during this period that she won her reputation for courage and golden-heartedness, thanks especially to two incidents in particular: in the spring of 1877 she rescued the passengers of a stagecoach by catching up to it and taking over the reins after the driver was shot by hostile Indians, and in the autumn of 1878 she spent weeks nursing the victims of a smallpox epidemic; three men died, but the rest all survived thanks to her faithful ministrations. She left Deadwood sometime in 1879, apparently working as an ox-team driver to earn enough to buy a ranch and inn near Miles City, Montana in 1881. The settled life of an innkeeper did not long appeal to Jane; she sold the place only two years later and wandered across the West for a while, eventually ending up in El Paso, Texas, where she supposedly married one Clinton Burke and bore him a daughter, Jessie, on October 28th, 1887. As usual, other records conflict with her autobiography, including court records from November 1888 stating that she did “unlawfully bed, cohabit and live together” with a man named Charles Townley; she has also been linked with a Robert Dorsett and a William Steers, all during the time she was supposedly married to Burke and running another hotel in Boulder, Colorado. The only detail we can be sure about is that her daughter did indeed exist, because the girl accompanied her when she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1893; Jane gave her up for adoption in October of 1895 by placing her with St. Mary’s Convent in Sturgis, South Dakota.
Calamity Jane had always been a heavy drinker, and by the time she turned 40 it was out of control; though all she had to do for Buffalo Bill was sit on a stage and tell tall tales about her supposed adventures, her drinking eventually led to his firing her for undependability and excessive use of profanity in her shows. He had a soft spot for her, though, and always rehired her whenever she came looking for a job again. In 1896 she worked for a circus named the Kohl & Middleton Dime Museum, which produced “Life and Adventures” as a 7-page souvenir booklet; even after she was fired by the circus for the usual reasons, she had the booklet reprinted and supported herself between gigs by selling autographed copies of it. This went on until 1901, when she was fired from the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York after being arrested for public drunkenness. Buffalo Bill gave her the money to go home to South Dakota, where she returned to Dora DuFran’s brothel and was given a job as cook and housekeeper. While on a visit to Terry, South Dakota, she died of “inflammation of the bowels” on August 1, 1903, and was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery next to Wild Bill Hickok.
As we’ve seen, the lives of whores are often full of conflicting details, and this is more true of Jane than of most. Even other people’s perceptions of her varied wildly; one citizen of Deadwood later described her as “nothing more than a common prostitute, drunken, disorderly and wholly devoid of any conception of morality,” while another said she was “generous, forgiving, kind-hearted [and] sociable,” and one of her biographers stated that “her story is mostly an account of uneventful daily life interrupted by drinking binges.” But whatever the objective truth might be, the legend of Calamity Jane – adventurer, wanderer, entertainer and golden-hearted whore – will be told and retold for as long as people write stories against the mythic backdrop of the Wild West.