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Calamity Jane
1852 - 1903


Calamity Jane was a frontier woman of some renown. Many legends and stories have been told about her. It is difficult to sort fact from fiction in many cases, but one thing is certain, she led a life that few women of that time would have survived.

Calamity Jane was born May 1, 1852, near Princeton, Mo. with the given name of Martha Jane Cannary. Most accounts of her life agree that the family moved to Virginia City, Montana around the year 1865. Calamity Jane was always interested in things like riding, shooting and hunting. She gained the respect of many men in the wagon train they traveled with. She became an expert horsewoman and sharp shooter at an early age. Martha often fished and hunted with the men alongside her father and brothers.

Stories state that Martha’s mother died en route to Virginia City. She also lost her father and brothers by the time she was fourteen years of age. Some accounts say her father died in Salt Lake City, Utah, while others have her separated from her father and brothers during an Indian uprising near Virginia City, Montana. Either way, Calamity Jane grew up in the mining towns of the West making a living in whatever fashion she could. She gained a formidable reputation as a sharpshooter and horsewoman and was known for her contempt of convention which she displayed by wearing men’s clothing, cussing, chewing tobacco, drinking and in general trying to best the men she associated with.

“The Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane,” which is said to have been written by her, gives a short detailed account of her years. In this account she joined General Custer as a scout in 1870 at Fort Russell, Wyoming, and left with them for Arizona and the Indian Campaign. During this time it was noted that she was a reckless and daring rider who did many scouting missions for the Army. She stayed in Arizona until the winter of 1871 then returned to Fort Sanders, Wyoming and remained there until the spring of 1872.

Legend has it that Martha Cannary earned her nickname of ‘Calamity Jane’ during an Indian campaign in 1873. Several accounts of the story are told. During this campaign the calvaries under the command of Captain Egan were returning to the fort. The Indians attacked the troops about a mile and a half from their garrison and wounded Capt. Egan. Calamity Jane was riding ahead and turned back when shots were fired. She saw the Captain weaving in his saddle and rushed to his side before he fell to the ground. She pulled him off his horse, put him on her horse in front of her and rode as fast as she could back to the fort in safety. It is said on recovering from this attack Captain Egan laughed and proclaimed, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plain.” The nickname followed her the rest of her life.

Calamity Jane remained with the Army until some time in 1876. She and William Cody, later known as Buffalo Bill, served as scouts under General Cook during some of her time with the army. In 1876 she met William “Wild Bill” Hickock and traveled to Deadwood with him.

Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock were often linked romantically in film, books, etc., but this was highly unlikely. She knew him just a short time before he was shot dead in a saloon in Deadwood by Jack McCall.

Deadwood, South Dakota was the site of some major gold strikes and Calamity Jane worked as a bullwhacker, hauling machinery and supplies from town to the mining camps. She also worked as a pony express rider and carried the U.S. mail between Deadwood and Custer cities. It was a fifty-mile trail and considered to be one of the roughest trails in those famous Black Hills. Calamity Jane was well respected for her horsemanship and ability to make the trip quickly and with little incident. This gained her new respect and admiration in the Deadwood area.

In 1876 Calamity Jane saved the lives of six passengers aboard a stagecoach that had left Deadwood heading to Wild Birch in the Black Hills area. She found the stage being chased by Indians and the driver wounded in the boot of the coach. The stage coach is said to have been near a station and the horses ran for the stables as was their custom. Calamity Jane was able to ride up alongside the stage. It is said she jumped on the coach, threw off all the luggage except for the mail and drove the team hard until they reached Wild Birch safely.

Calamity Jane had gained the attention of several magazine writers in the late 1870's. Many of these writers were giving the country colorful accounts of the wild west and this flamboyant, hard drinking, cussing woman in mens clothing was a great ‘character’ to portray in their magazines. Calamity Jane became a well-known figure throughout the country.

Calamity Jane lived a hard, rough life. It is said she helped nurse many of the Deadwood residents during a smallpox plague. It is amazing how even the toughest of women can be ‘angels’, said old Doc Babcock of Deadwood. He relates in some old stories that she nursed many seriously ill folks back to health and never took ‘as much as a thank you’ from them. Doc Babcock related that there was even a little bit of heaven in her when she nursed children, “oh, she’d swear to beat hell at them, but it was a tender kind of cussin’.”

In 1889 she married Clinton Burke and is said to have had one daughter to him. She deserted him a few years later. Calamity Jane continued to travel throughout the country drinking and living hard. She worked for exhibitions of the times and traveled with the famous “Buffalo Bill” Cody and his wild west show.

Martha “Calamity Jane” Cannary Burke died in 1903. She had been living in a small room in the Calloway Hotel in Terry, South Dakota. She was penniless and had been drinking hard for years. She requested to be buried in Deadwood, South Dakota next to Wild Bill Hickock on Mt. Moriah overlooking the city.

This wish was granted. The funeral was one of the largest ever held for a woman in Deadwood. They say her coffin was closed by a man that she had nursed back to health when he was a boy during the smallpox epidemic.

Although much of her life is shrouded in tall tales, she remains an example of the courageous and brave hearts that settled and won our “wild west.”


Martha Jane Cannary, known as Calamity Jane (1852-1903), was a notorious American frontier woman in the days of the Wild West. As unconventional and wild as the territory she roamed, she has become a legend.

The most likely date of Jane Cannary's birth is May 1, 1852, probably at Princeton, Mo. When she was 12 or 13, the family headed west along the Overland Route, reaching Virginia City, Mont., 5 months later. En route Jane learned to be a teamster and to snap 30-foot bullwhackers. Her father died in 1866 and her mother died a year later. Late in 1867 Jane was in Salt Lake City.

Until the early 1870s nothing more is known of Jane. Then she appeared at Rawlins, Wyo., where she dressed and acted like a man and hired out as a mule skinner, bullwhacker, and railroad worker. "Calamity" became part of her name; she was proud of it.

In 1875 Calamity went with Gen. George Crook's expedition against the Sioux, probably as a bullwhacker. While swimming in the nude, her sex was discovered and she was sent back. Excitement and wild adventure lured Calamity, whether it meant joining "her boys" at the bar or fighting with Native Americans. She was adept at using a six-shooter.

In Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876 Calamity found a home. It was an outlaw town, so her escapades and drinking bouts did not seem out of place. One day she accompanied Wild Bill Hickok into town; apparently they had met before. Whether they were ever married, or lovers, may never be known. Jane later did have a daughter, but that she was fathered by Hickok (as the daughter claimed in 1941) is questionable. On August 2 Jack McCall shot and killed Hickok. Calamity took no revenge, as she later claimed, and McCall was legally hanged.

Yet this flamboyant woman was kind, and many remembered only her virtues. During the 1878 Deadwood smallpox epidemic Calamity stayed in the log pesthouse and nursed the patients.

Calamity Jane left Deadwood in 1880 and drifted around the Dakotas and Montana. She next appeared in California and married E. M. Burke in 1885, and her daughter was born sometime before or after this. Alone again in the later 1880s and the 1890s, she wandered through Wyoming and Montana towns, drinking, brawling, and working, even in brothels. Her fame began to grow. In 1896 she joined the Palace Museum and toured Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City; she was fired for drunkenness. Calamity came back to Deadwood in 1899, searching for funds for her daughter's education. A successful benefit was held at the Old Opera House. In 1900 Calamity appeared briefly at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., as a Western attraction, but she was homesick for the West and soon went back. In poor health, in July 1903 she arrived at the Calloway Hotel in Terry, near Deadwood, where she died on August 1 or 2. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok.











This web page was last updated on: 09 December, 2008