The Wild West Life of Calamity Jane

Born 165 years ago today, Calamity Jane was an adventurous woman whose raucous life out West still captivates audiences today, especially those who love a good story.
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Icons of the Wild West: Martha Jane Burke ('Calamity Jane'), full-length portrait, on horseback, c. 1901

Icons of the Wild West: 'Calamity Jane', full-length portrait, on horseback, c. 1901

Born on May 1, 1852 near Princeton, Missouri, Martha Jane Cannary would become the Wild West cowgirl known as Calamity Jane. Much of her life is steeped in myth and legend, so the muddied truth of who she was and the adventures that befell her is, in some ways, what makes her story live on.

Having lived a hard childhood along with raising her five siblings after the premature death of her parents, Jane was out on her own by the 1870s. By then she was claiming she was an expert rider, a master shooter, and an Indian fighter. With a strong build and donning men's clothes, Jane also claimed she was a scout for General Custer and rode with him to Big Horn River, although there was no evidence to prove it.

Soon Jane found herself in Fort Laramie, Wyoming, where she met gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok. Both found themselves headed to the gold rush town of Deadwood, South Dakota, and legend has it that the two were lovers and may have even had a daughter, although historians believe that Jane probably invented this story, too. Already a heavy drinker at a young age, Jane spent her days in Deadwood carousing, performing public stunts, and telling big tales about herself.

By the 1890s Jane's alcoholism was catching up to her. Despite having theatrical gigs telling her Wild West story on stage and later, being invited to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, she couldn't hold a job down. And before she died, it seems Jane was tired of maintaining her own mythology. Discovered drunk and working as a cleaning lady at a whorehouse in Montana, Jane had apparently wished to be left alone, muttering "let me go to hell my own route."

On August 1, 1903 Jane died in her early 50s (some say 51) in Terry, South Dakota. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickcok at Mount Moriah Cemetery — one account says Hickok's friends laid her to rest there as a posthumous joke, claiming Hickok had once told them he had "absolutely no use" for Jane. Another account says the following: "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."