Martha Jane Canary (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 Hickok, but also for having gained fame 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 famous 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 Cannary (or Canary) in Princeton, within Mercer County, Missouri. Her parents, Robert W. and Charlotte Cannary, were listed in the 1860 census as living about 7 miles (11 km) further northeast of Princeton in Ravanna. 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, Montana. Charlotte died along the way in Black Foot, Montana, in 1866 of "washtub pneumonia." 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, Wyoming 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 period, Jane also began her on-and-off employment as a prostitute at the Fort Laramie Three-Mile Hog Ranch.
- 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 Sheridan 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 Wesley Merritt and George Crook, 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 McGillycuddy. 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 travelled with them to Deadwood in Utter's wagon train. Jane greatly admired Hickok (much later others alleged to the point of infatuation and also claimed she was obsessed with his personality and his life).
The McCormick claim
On September 6, 1941, the U.S. Department of Public Welfare granted old age assistance to a Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick (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, Montana Territory, on September 25, 1873, documentation being 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 that Hickok was the father of McCormick, who was born on 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 that establish the existence of Captain O'Neil. During the period that the alleged child was born, Calamity Jane was working as a scout for the army. At the time of his death, Hickok 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 McCall, 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 stagecoach by diverting several Plains Indians who were in pursuit of the stage. 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, she bought a ranch west of Miles City, Montana, 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 Bill's Wild West Show as a storyteller. She also participated in the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. At that time, she was depressed and an alcoholic. 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 Cheyenne 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 manager Madame Dora DuFran was still going strong when Jane returned to the Black Hills in 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 July, she travelled to Terry, South Dakota. 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 a train and became very ill. The train's conductor carried her off the train and to a cabin, where she died soon after. In her belongings, a bundle of letters to her daughter was found, which she had never sent. 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 Cemetery, South Dakota, next to Wild Bill Hickok. Four of the men who planned her funeral (Albert Malter, Frank Ankeney, Jim Carson, and Anson Higby) 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 Wild Bill Hickok by giving Calamity an eternal resting place by his side.
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." She died on August 1st, 1903 at the age of 51.
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"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 "Missourri" 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.
Major media representations
- The Plainsman is a 1936 film starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane.
- In Young Bill Hickok with Roy Rogers (1940), she was portrayed by Sally Payne.
- Calamity Jane was played by Jane Russell in the 1948 comedy movie The Paleface.
- Calamity Jane and Sam Bass was a 1949 film; Calamity was played by Yvonne De Carlo, Sam Bass by Howard Duff.
- Calamity Jane was a 1953 musical-western film from Warner Brothers Studios starring Doris Day in the title role and Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok. It won the Best Song Oscar for the song "Secret Love", by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster.
- In the 1975 movie Death Race 2000, Calamity Jane was the name of one of the racers and was portrayed by Mary Woronov.
- In the 1995 movie Tall Tale she was portrayed by actress Catherine O'Hara as a mythic figure, acquainted with Paul Bunyan and John Henry, and as Pecos Bill's jilted sweetheart and as a sheriff or deputy of some sort.
- In the 1995 film Wild Bill, Calamity Jane was portrayed by actress Ellen Barkin.
- Jane was portrayed in the 2009 French movie Lucky Luke.
- In the episode "Calamity" (December 13, 1959) of the ABC/Warner Brothers western series, Colt .45, Dody Heath is cast as Calamity Jane and Joan Taylor as a woman doctor, Ellen McGraw. In the story line, series character Christopher Colt, played by Wayde Preston, hires Calamity Jane to drive the stagecoach containing Dr. McGraw and the vaccine needed for the smallpox outbreak in Deadwood. Colt is unsure if Calamity can handle the job because miners and Indians seek to steal the valuable medication.
- In the 1963 episode of Bonanza, "Calamity Over the Comstock", Stefanie Powers plays Calamity Jane, who visits Virginia City along with Doc Holliday. In this primarily comedic episode, she is rescued by Little Joe, at first thought to be a male. She becomes infatuated with him and he receives threats from Doc who covets Jane for himself. At her urging (and threat) Doc demurs from facing-down Joe, and Jane and Doc exit town together.
- Season 5 of Have Gun, Will Travel included an episode called "The Cure" (first broadcast on May 20, 1961) with an alcoholic Jane (Norma Crane as "Martha Jane Conroy") seeking revenge from a promoter who had replaced the "real" Jane with a younger woman.
- In 1984, the television movie called Calamity Jane featured her life story including her alleged marriage to Wild Bill & their daughter that she gave up. Actress Jane Alexander portrayed Calamity and was nominated for an Emmy in 1985 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Special. It also featured an early performance of Sara Gilbert as Calamity's daughter, Jean, at age 7.
- Jane is the central character in Larry McMurtry's book Buffalo Girls, played by Anjelica Huston in a 1995 TV adaptation of the same name, with Sam Elliott as Wild Bill Hickok.
- In 1997 a cartoon series on Kids' WB called The Legend of Calamity Jane depicted a young Jane (voiced by Barbara Weber Scaff).
- Jane, portrayed by Robin Weigert, was an important character in HBO's 2004 television series Deadwood.
- In 2012, the cartoon My Little Pony mentioned a character named Calamity Mane, meant to be a spoof of Calamity Jane.
- Calamity Jane was an important character in the Deadwood Dick series of dime novels beginning with the first appearance of Deadwood Dick in Beadle's Half-Dime Library issue #1 in 1877. This series, written by Edward Wheeler, established her with a reputation as a wild north vacation heroine and probably did more to enhance her familiarity to the public than any of her real life exploits. (There is no evidence that she was consulted by Wheeler or approved the Deadwood Dick stories, so the character in the stories was entirely fictitious - as were the events described, but the fictional adventures were muddled in the public mind with the real Jane.)
- Calamity Jane was the title character in an 1882 serial published in New York's Street & Smith's Weekly under the title, "Calamity Jane: Queen of the Plains," by the author "Reckless Ralph."
- The science fiction writer A. Bertram Chandler included a character named Calamity Jane Arlen in his far future novels taking place on the frontier Rim Worlds, a kind of space analogue of the Old West.
- A fictitious fight between Calamity Jane and an impostor is depicted in Thomas Berger's 1964 novel Little Big Man.
- Jane is the central character in Larry McMurtry's book Buffalo Girls.
- Jane is a central character in Pete Dexter's 1986 novel Deadwood, which was the basis for the HBO series Deadwood.
- J. T. Edson features Calamity Jane as a character in a number of his books, as a stand-alone character and also as a romantic interest of the character Mark Counter.
- An alternate universe version of Jane is a character in the short story "Deadwood" in Corsets and Clockwork, a 2011 steampunk anthology. The story also features Jesse James.
- "In Calamity's Wake," a novel of historical fiction written by Natalee Caple and published by Bloomsbury in 2013 including Martha, or Calamity Jane, as one of two main narrators; the other, her daughter Miette.
- Calamity Jane is the name that James Bond gives to his putter in the novel "Goldfinger," by Ian Fleming, due to its inaccuracy.
- Calamity Jane figures as a main character in an album of the same name of the Franco-Belgian comics series Lucky Luke, created by Morris and Goscinny.
- Some of her purported letters were set to music in an art song cycle by 20th-century composer Libby Larsen called Songs From Letters.
- Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok are featured in the song "Deadwood Mountain" by the country duo Big & Rich.
- Calamity Jane is referenced in a song by Bob Schneider called "Getting Better"
- Calamity Jane is referenced in a song by The Magnetic Fields called "Two Characters In Search Of A Country Song"
- "Calamity Jane" is a song by Kiya Heartwood on the duo, Wishing Chair's Underdog CD 2005
- In 2006, Alain Bashung, Chloé Mons & Rodolphe Burger released the album "La Ballade de Calamity Jane" based on her letters to her daughter
- Calamity Jane appeared as a side-main character in the 1996 videogame Wild ARMs.
- She also appeared as a side character in the 1991 computer RPG Worlds of Ultima: Martian Dreams.
- In the Facebook application FrontierVille there is a suitlike outfit for female characters called the "Calamity Jane Outfit."
- In Call of Duty: Black Ops Zombies Mode, the Pack-a-Punched CZ75s are called Calamity & Jane
- In Fallout 3 there is a reference to Calamity Jane by talking with the sheriff in Megaton.
- In Parasite Eve II there is a reference to Calamity Jane when checking a portrait on one of the motel rooms once you acquire the master key.
- List of female adventurers
- Griske, Michael (2005). The Diaries of John Hunton. Heritage Books. ISBN 0-7884-3804-2.
- at Project Gutenberg