Martha Jane Canary or Cannary (May 1, 1852 – August 1, 1903 age 51), better known as Calamity Jane, was an American frontierswoman and professional scout, known for her claim of being an acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickock and for fighting Indians. She is said to have also exhibited kindness and compassion, especially to the sick and needy. This contrast helped to make her a well known frontier figure.
Early life: 1852–1868
Much of the information about this period of Calamity Jane’s life comes from the autobiographical booklet she dictated many years later, in 1896. The booklet was written for publicity purposes—she was about to begin a tour in which she would appear in dime museums around the country, and the pamphlet was intended to help attract audiences. Some of the information in the pamphlet is exaggerated or even completely inaccurate. Calamity Jane was born May 1, 1852, as Martha Jane Canary (or Cannary) in Princeton, within Mercer County, Missouri. Her parents, Robert W. and Charlotte (Burch) Cannary, were listed in the 1860 census as living about 7 miles (11 km) further northeast of Princeton in Ravvana. Martha Jane was the eldest of six children, having two brothers and three sisters. In 1865, Robert packed his family and moved by wagon train from Missouri to Virginia City. Montanna. Charlotte died along the way in Black Foot Montanna, in 1866 of “washtub pnuemonia.” 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. They were there only a year before he died in 1867. Martha Jane took over as head of the family, loaded up the wagon once more, and took her siblings to Fort Bridger, Wyomming Territory. They arrived in May 1868. From there they traveled on the Union Pacific Railroad to Piedmont, Wyoming.
In Piedmont, Martha Jane took whatever jobs she could to provide for her large family. She worked as a dishwasher, a cook, a waitress, a dance-hall girl, a nurse, and an ox team driver. Finally, in 1874, she found work as a scout at Fort Russell. During this time, Jane also began her on-and-off employment as a prostitute at the Fort Latamie Threemile Hog Tanch.
- In 1865 we emigrated from our homes in Missouri by the overland route to Virginia City, Montana, taking five months to make the journey. 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. I remember many occurrences on the journey from Missouri to Montana. Many times in crossing the mountains, the conditions of the trail were so bad that we frequently had to lower the wagons over ledges by hand with ropes, for they were so rough and rugged that horses were of no use. We also had many exciting times fording streams, for many of the streams in our way were noted for quicksands and boggy places, where, unless we were very careful, we would have lost horses and all. Then we had many dangers to encounter in the way of streams swelling on account of heavy rains. On occasions of that kind, the men would usually select the best places to cross the streams; myself, on more than one occasion, have mounted my pony and swam across the stream several times merely to amuse myself, and have had many narrow escapes from having both myself and pony washed away to certain death, but, as the pioneers of those days had plenty of courage, we overcame all obstacles and reached Virginia City in safety. Mother died at Black Foot, Montana, 1866, where we buried her. I left Montana in Spring of 1866, for Utah, arriving at Salt Lake City during the summer.
Accounts from this period described Martha Jane as being “extremely attractive” and a “pretty, dark-eyed girl.” Martha Jane received little to no formal education and was illiterate. She moved on to a rougher, mostly outdoor adventurous life on the Great Plains.
Acquiring the nickname
Martha Jane was involved in several campaigns in the long-running military conflicts with Native American Indians. Her unconfirmed claim was that:
- “It was during this campaign [in 1872–1873] that I was christened Calamity Jane. It was on Goose Creek. Wyoming where the town of Sheriden 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 reported in the Anaconda Standard (Montana, Apr. 19, 1904): Captain Jack Crawford, who served under both Generals Westley Merritt and George Cook, stated, 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 or completely fabricated this story. Even back then 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 appears possible that Jane was not part of her name until the nickname was coined for her.
She certainly was known by that nickname by 1876, because the arrival of the Hickok wagon train was reported in the Deadwood 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 in 1875 her detachment was ordered to the Big Horn River, under General Crook. Bearing important dispatches, she swam the Platte River and traveled 90 miles (145 km) at top speed while wet and cold to deliver them. Afterwards, she became ill. Calamity said that after recuperating for a few weeks, she rode to Fort Laramie Wyoming, and later, in July 1876, she joined a wagon train headed north. The second part of her story is true. She was at Fort Laramie in July 1876 and did join a wagon train that included Wild Bill Hickok. That is where she first met Wild Bill Hickok, contrary to her later claims, and it is how she happened to come to Deadwood.
Deadwood and Wild Bill Hickok: 1876–1881
Calamity Jane accompanied the Newton Jenney party into the Black Hills in 1875, along with California Joe and Valentine MacGillyCuddy. By this time (or shortly thereafter) her youthful good looks were gone; her skin was leathery and tanned from sun and wind, she was muscular and masculine, and her hair was stringy and seldom washed.
In 1876, Calamity Jane settled in the area of Deadwood South Dakota, in the Black Hills. There, she became friends with, and was occasionally employed by, Dora Dufran, the Black Hills’ leading madam. She became friendly with Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter, having traveled with them to Deadwood in Utter’s wagon train. Jane greatly admired Hickok (much later, others alleged to the point of infatuation and claimed she was obsessed with his personality and his life).
The McCormick claim
On September 6, 1941, the US Department of Public Welfare granted old age assistance to a Jean Hickok Burkhart McCormack (third married), who claimed to be the legal offspring of Martha Jane Cannary and James Butler Hickok, after being presented with evidence that Calamity Jane and Wild Bill had married at Benson’s Landing, Montanna Territory, 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 Hickok was the father of McCormick, who was born September 25, 1873 and given up for adoption to a Captain Jim O’Neil and his wife. No records are known to exist which prove the birth of a child or establish the existence of Captain O’Neil. During the period when the alleged child was born, Calamity Jane was working as a scout for the army, and at the time of Hickock’s death, he was newly married to Agnes Lake Thatcher.
After the death of Wild Bill Hickok
Jane also claimed that following Hickok’s death, she went after Jack Macall, his murderer, with a meat cleaver, having left her guns at her residence in the excitement of the moment. However, she never confronted McCall. Following McCall’s eventual hanging for the offense, Jane continued living in the Deadwood area for some time, and at one point she did help save several passengers in an overland sragecoach by diverting several Plains Indians who were in pursuit of the vehicle. The 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. Also in late 1876, Jane nursed the victims of a smallpox epidemic in the Deadwood area.
Final years: 1881–1903
In 1881, Jane bought a ranch west of Miles City Montanna, along the Yellowstone River, where she kept an inn. After marrying the Texan Clinton Burke and moving to Boulder, she again tried her luck in this business. In 1887, she had a daughter, Jane, who was given to foster parents.
In 1893, Calamity Jane started to appear in Buffalo Bills Wild West Show as a storyteller. She also participated in the 1901 Pan American Expodition. At that time, she was depressed and an alcahol. Jane’s addiction to liquor was evident even in her younger years. For example, on June 10, 1876, she rented a horse and buggy in Cheyanne for a mile-or-so joy ride to Fort Russell and back, but Calamity was so drunk that she passed right by her destination without noticing it and finally ended up about 90 miles away at Fort Laramie.
By the start of the 20th century, brothel Madame Dora Dufran was still going strong when Jane returned to the Black Hills in the early spring of 1903. 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 traveled by ore train to Terry, South Dakota, a small mining village near Deadwood. While staying in the Calloway Hotel on August 1, 1903, she died at the age of 51 (or 53 or 56). It was reported that she had been drinking heavily on board the train and became very sick to her stomach. The train’s conductor carried her off the train, a bartender secured a room for her at the Calloway Hotel, and a doctor was summoned. She died soon afterward, on Saturday, August 1, 1903, from inflammation of the bowels and pneumonia.
Allegedly, found among her meager belongings was a bundle of unsent letters to her daughter. Some of these letters were set to music in an art song cycle by 20th-century composer Libby Larsen called Songs From Letters. (These letters were first made public by Jean McCormick as part of her claim to be the daughter of Jane and Hickok – but the authenticity of these letters is not accepted by some, largely because there is no non-McCormick document supposedly written by Jane, and there is ample evidence that Jane was functionally illiterate.)
Calamity Jane was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetary, South Dakota, next to Wild Bill Hickok. Four of the men who planned her funeral (Frank Ankeney, Jim Carson, Anson Higby, and Albert Malter) later stated that since Wild Bill Hickok had “absolutely no use” for Jane while he was alive, they decided to play a posthumous joke on Hickok by giving Calamity an eternal resting place 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 wouldn’t have acknowledged Calamity Jane when she was alive, overflowed the First Methodist Church for the August 4 funeral services and followed the hearse up the steep winding road to Deadwood’s boot hill.”
Calamity Jane was a frequent visitor to and sometimes resident of Livingston,Montana and towns in the Paradise Valley
She came up from a very hardscrabble life, unacquainted with bourgeois notions of decorum; she probably never knew financial security, but even in poverty she was known for her helpfulness, generosity, and willingness to undertake demanding and even dangerous tasks to help others. She was afflicted with alcoholism and wanderlust (and, perhaps, promiscuity), but, as someone remembered her, “Her vices were the wide-open sins of a wide-open country – the sort that never carried a hurt.’
|Martha Jane Cannary|
“Calamity Jane”, as she became known, lived a very colorful and eventful life but often claimed questionable associations or friendships with notable famous American Old West figures, almost always posthumously. For example, years after the death of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, she claimed that she served under him during her initial enlistment at Fort Russell, and that she also served under him during the Indian campaigns in Arizona. However, no records exist to show that Custer was assigned to Fort Russell, and he did not take an active part in the Arizona Indian campaigns; he was given the task of subjugating the Plains Indians.
In 1896 she joined the traveling Kohl & Middleton Dime Museum as a performer, and a 7-page souvenir booklet was sold by that circus, titled The Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane by Herself; it was almost certainly written by someone else, as there is no reliable evidence that Jane could read and write. It is this booklet that is described, rather generously, as her autobiography. The booklet misstates her birth name (as “Marthy Cannary”), her birthdate, and misspells “Missouri” repeatedly. Several of the stories in the booklet are unsupported, or even contradicted, by reliable evidence.
Unlike Annie Oakley, her performances did not involve sharpshooting or roping or riding, merely Jane appearing on stage in buckskins and reciting her adventures—”which metastasized with each telling”—in colorful but clean language; however after about six months her increasing drinking and profanity ended her career as a stage performer.
Her reputation for embellishing her accomplishments, and the willingness of some others to attribute to her even more fanciful adventures (even during her lifetime she was used as a character in works of Western fiction), have made it very difficult to determine the “true facts” of her life. Historians have been unable to locate sufficient information to determine the truth about disputed events, and in many instances independent sources completely contradict her own accounts.