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