Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Cannary, circa May 1, 1852, in Princeton, Missouri. By age 12, her parents had died and she had to make a living by any means necessary. She traveled to South Dakota and met Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood where her legend as a hard drinking woman was born. Her reputation was advanced with stories of heroism and charity in an autobiography and western dime novels. She performed in Wild West shows immortalizing her as one of the more colorful characters of the West. Eventually, the hard life caught up with her and she died at age 51, in 1903.
Few substantiated facts are known about Calamity Jane’s life, but much is known about the legend. It seems her biography is a mix of wild tales—many promoted by Jane herself—and plausibly accurate events. What is generally believed to be true is that she was born Martha Jane Cannary, possibly on May 1, 1852, in Princeton, Missouri. She was the eldest of as many as six children born to Robert and Charlotte (Burch) Cannary. Both parents were reputed to be unsavory, involved in petty crimes and often financially destitute. The family moved to Virginia City, Montana, in 1863, perhaps to find their fortune in the gold fields. Charlotte died along the route, most likely of pneumonia, and soon after Robert took the family to Salt Lake City in the Utah territory. Becoming Calamity Jane
Martha Jane’s father died soon after arriving in Salt Lake City, making her an orphan at twelve and the head of the family. She had grown up tall and powerfully built with many male characteristics. Illiterate and poor, she was forced to move from one place to another, taking any work available to survive. She was surrounded by desperate people, also scrapping out a living, and not providing a nurturing environment for a young impressionable girl. Martha Jane began to find her way in a man’s world taking on men’s work and a male persona. It is also believed that as a teenager she occasionally engaged in prostitution, as it was more lucrative and always in demand. It was during this time that the moniker, “Calamity” was given to her
A Complicated Legend Emerges
In 1875, Calamity Jane traveled with an U.S. Army troop into the Black Hills of South Dakota and soon drifted to the lawless town of Deadwood. At this point the legends surrounding her life become abundant and the facts harder to find. She is said to have had numerous affairs with some of the most notorious desperados of the time. One such story was her relationship with Western legend Wild Bill Hickok, whom she probably did meet in Deadwood. Their alleged dalliance launched her name into the annals of Western folklore. Even Jane herself, in her autobiography, spun a wild tale of capturing Jack McCall, after he murdered Wild Bill. Nearly all historians discount any intimate relationship between the two and Deadwood’s own newspaper accounts report that McCall was captured by town’s people soon after he killed Hickok.
Calamity Jane was also known for her softer side. In her autobiography, she takes credit for rescuing a runaway stagecoach fleeing from a Cheyenne Indian war party by bravely driving the coach to Deadwood with six passengers and a wounded driver. There are also accounts from several sources of her helping nurse patients during a smallpox epidemic in Deadwood. The accounts have several versions and documentation of her role in the events is suspect, but the stories are plausible because the events did occur.
Calamity Jane’s private life is even more fabled. In addition to her alleged relationship to Hickok, there were saucy tales, creatively recorded by Western dime novel authors, of wild sex, a child born, and even marriage to Hickok. There are numerous stories, with varying levels of credibility, that Jane was a wife and mother one time. Around 1885, she supposedly married a man named Burke (Edward or Clinton) and gave birth to a daughter in 1887. There are numerous accounts of her seen with a young girl in several small towns throughout the West in the 1880s and 1890s, but no marriage license or birth certificate exists. In 1941, a woman claimed to be Calamity Jane’s and Wild Bill Hickok’s daughter, but was later proved to be a fraud.
Calamity Jane’s fame grew even more in 1895 when she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show performing sharpshooting skills astride a horse. For several years, she toured the Midwest, bringing a commercialized version of the rip-roaring west to American audiences. The work was never steady, as she reputedly got drunk and disorderly throughout the tours. Wherever she performed, she brought copies of her greatly exaggerated autobiography, which she sold to fans for pennies.
By the turn of the century, her hard life was catching up with her. She suffered from severe alcoholism and poor health. In July 1903, she arrived at the Calloway Hotel in Terry, near Deadwood, where she died on August 1 or 2 at age 51. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok at Mount Moriah Cemetery in South Dakota.
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