Much of what we know about Calamity Jane comes from her autobiography, and not all of it may be true. Still, she was a remarkable woman who led an adventurous life.
Calamity Jane’s birth name was Martha Jane Cannary. She was born in Princeton, Missouri, and was the oldest of six children. When she was 13, her family moved to Virginia City, Missouri. It was a rough trip taken by wagon train, and her mother died along the way, of “washtub pneumonia”, a catch-all term for various types of respiratory disease that frequently afflicted women in mining towns. Martha Jane was now playing the part of mother to her five siblings.
When the family got to Virginia City, they pressed on to Salt Lake City, where their father started farming 40 acres. The following year, he died, too, and Martha became the head of the young family. She packed them up and they moved again, first to Fort Bridger in Wyoming Territory, and from there to Piedmont, Wyoming.
Martha took whatever jobs she could find in Piedmont: dishwasher, cook, ox driver, and dance hall girl. She even worked as a prostitute for a time, at the Fort Laramie Three-Mile Hog Ranch, a gambling-drinking-whoring establishment famous for always having at least 10 prostitutes on hand. She also found work at Fort Russell geared more to her taste and talents — as a scout for the Army.
While making the wagon train trip west, Martha had found that she enjoyed the pursuits of the men more than those of the women. She spent as much time with them as possible, hunting, and pursuing whatever adventures were available. She became a crack shot — a talent that would serve her well in the future.
According to her own account of her life, Martha Jane fought Indians and delivered dispatches for the Army. She claimed that she won her nickname, Calamity Jane, from Captain Egan during a campaign against the Indians. Captain Egan was shot, and Martha, riding out at the head of troops, was able to return to his side quickly enough to catch him before he fell to the ground. She carried him back to the Fort, and when Egan recovered he said, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.” Some of her contemporaries, however, claim that she got her title from her practice of warning men that “to offend [her] was to court calamity.”
In 1875, Jane accompanied a geological team into the Black Hills, sent to verify the discovery of gold there, which prompted a rapid increase of population in the vicinity. The following year she went with Charlie Utter’s wagon train to Deadwood, South Dakota. On the trip she made the acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok. Jane admired Bill to the point of obsession, although it’s not clear that he felt any particular affection for her. Jane did claim to have had a child with him, whom she put up for adoption. (There is no proof that any such child existed, much less that it was Hickok’s, although an individual claiming to be their child did claim old age assistance from the government in 1941.)
When Wild Bill Hickok was murdered in 1876, Jane claims that she pursued his killer, Jack McCall, with a meat cleaver and arrested him. She had been too distraught to go back to her home for her guns. It appears that this story may not be true, either.
Smallpox came to Deadwood in 1878, and Jane cared for the ill. Eight men were quarantined in a shack in the hills, with only Jane to take care of them. All she had for medicine were Epsom salts and cream of tartar. Five of the men pulled through, and for the three that died, Jane recited the only prayer she knew: “Now I lay me down to sleep…”
She cared for additional smallpox victims in the days to come, and was said to be an excellent and kind-hearted nurse. Curiously, this is one accomplishment that she does not cite in her autobiography: the story comes chiefly from the writings of Dora DuFran, a madam of the area.
Jane left Deadwood in 1881 and bought a ranch near Miles City, Montana. She kept an inn there for a time, and then married Clinton Burke, of Texas. The couple moved on to Boulder, Colorado and had a daughter in 1887, who was raised by foster parents.
In 1893 Calamity Jane became a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Her specialty was trick riding and fancy shooting. By this time she was depressed and clearly an alcoholic. According to contemporary gossip, she had once vowed never to go to bed with “a nickel in [her] pocket or sober.” Ultimately, Buffalo Bill Cody fired her for drunkenness and fighting.
In 1901, she appeared at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, where she demonstrated her skills and sold copies of her autobiography. (It’s available on Gutenberg, if you’d like to read it.) She got into more trouble in Buffalo, due to her drinking and fighting. Buffalo Bill loaned her money to enable her to leave town.
In 1903, now 51 years old, Jane returned to Deadwood, where she worked as a cook and laundress at Dora DuFran’s brothel. She made a trip to Terry, South Dakota, that year, and got violently ill on the trip. She was taken to the Calloway Hotel in Terry, where she died on August 1. Her death was ascribed to inflammation of the bowels and pneumonia. Among her belongs were found a collection of letters to her daughter that had never been sent.
At her request, Calamity Jane was buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery, next to Wild Bill Hickok, “the only man I ever loved.” A few of the men who planned her funeral claimed that they honored her wishes as a sort of practical joke on Wild Bill, who had had “absolutely no use for her” while he was alive. Her funeral was well-attended; the church overflowed with friends, acquaintances, as well as the simply curious. The man who closed her coffin was said to have been a boy that she had nursed when he had smallpox.
Sources: Chase’s Calendar of Events, 2011 Edition: The Ultimate Go-To Guide for Special Days, Weeks and Months, Editors of Chase’s Calendar of Events; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_1; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calamity_Jane; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort_Laramie_Three-Mile_Hog_Ranch; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newton-Jenney_Party; http://www.digitaldeadwood.com/historylink/people/jane.html; http://www.deadwoodmagazine.com/archivedsite/Archives/Girls_Calamity.htm; http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/cana-mar.htm; http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/490/pg490.html; http://www.cowgirls.com/dream/cowgals/calamity.htm; http://deadwoodcalamityjane.blogspot.com/; http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=166.