Calamity Jane (born Martha Jane Cannary; 1852-August 1, 1903) was a controversial figure in the Wild West whose adventures and exploits are shrouded in mystery, legend, and self-promotion. She is known to have dressed and worked as a man, to have been a hard drinker, and to been skilled with guns and horses. The details of her life are mostly unproven, given the amount of fabrication and hearsay that inform her story.
Fast Facts: Calamity Jane
- Known For: Hard living and drinking; legendary skill with horses and guns
- Also Known As: Martha Jane Cannary Burke
- Born: 1852 in Princeton, Missouri
- Parents: Charlotte and Robert Cannary or Canary
- Died: August 1, 1903 in Terry, South Dakota
- Published Works: Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane by Herself
- Spouse(s): Undocumented spouses, Clinton Burke, Wild Bill Hickok; documented spouse, William P. Steers
- Children: Possibly two daughters
- Notable Quote: "By the time we reached Virginia City I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age."
Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Cannary around 1852 in Princeton, Missouri-although she sometimes claimed Illinois or Wyoming as her birthplace. She was the oldest of five siblings. Her father Robert Cannary (or Canary) was a farmer who took the family to Montana during an 1865 Gold Rush. Jane relayed the story of their journey in her later biography with considerable relish, describing how she hunted with the men and learned to drive the wagons herself. Her mother Charlotte died the year after their move and the family then moved to Salt Lake City. Her father died the following year.
After the death of her parents, young Jane moved to Wyoming and began her independent adventures, moving around mining towns and railroad camps and the occasional military fort. Far from the ideal of the delicate Victorian woman, Jane often wore men's clothes. She eked out a living doing menial jobs, some of which were jobs usually reserved for men. She is known to have worked on the railroad and as a mule skinner. She worked as a laundress and waitress and may have also worked occasionally as a sex worker.
Some legends say that she disguised herself as a man to accompany soldiers as a scout on expeditions, including the 1875 expedition of General George Crook against the Lakota. She developed a reputation for hanging out with the miners, railroad workers, and soldiers-enjoying heavy drinking with them. She was arrested, with some frequency, for drunkenness and disturbing the peace.
Jane spent many years of her life in the boomtown of Deadwood, Dakota, including during the Black Hills gold rush of 1876. She claims to have known James Hickok, known as "Wild Bill" Hickok, and she is thought to have traveled with him for several years. After his August 1876 murder, she further claimed that they had been married and that he was the father of her child. (If said child had actually existed, he or she was said to have been born September 25, 1873, and given up for adoption at a South Dakota Catholic school.) Historians do not accept that either the marriage or the child existed. A diary supposedly by Jane that documented the marriage and child has been demonstrated to be fraudulent.
In 1877 and 1878, Edward L. Wheeler featured Calamity Jane in his popular Western dime novels, adding to her reputation. She became something of a local legend at this time because of her many eccentricities. Calamity Jane gained admiration when she nursed victims of a smallpox epidemic in 1878, also dressed as a man.
In her autobiography, Calamity Jane said that she had married Clinton Burke in 1885 and that they lived together for at least six years. Again, the marriage is not documented and historians doubt its existence. She used the name Burke in later years. A woman later claimed to have been a daughter of that marriage but may have been Jane's by some other man or Burke's by another woman. When and why Clinton Burke left Jane's life is not known.
Later Years and Fame
In her later years, Calamity Jane appeared in Wild West shows, including the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, around the country, featuring her riding and shooting skills. Some historians dispute whether she was indeed in this show.
In 1887, Mrs. William Loring wrote a novel named "Calamity Jane." The stories in this and other fiction about Jane were often conflated with her actual life experiences, magnifying her legend.
Jane published her autobiography in 1896, "Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane by Herself," to cash in on her own fame, and much of it is quite clearly fictional or exaggerated. In 1899, she lived in Deadwood again, supposedly raising money for her daughter's education. She appeared at the Buffalo, New York, Pan-American Exposition in 1901, in exhibitions and shows.
Jane's chronic drunkenness and fighting caused her to be fired in 1901 from the Exposition and she retired to Deadwood. She died in a hotel in nearby Terry in 1903. Different sources give different causes of death: pneumonia, "inflammation of the bowels," or alcoholism.
Calamity Jane was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood's Mount Mariah Cemetery. Because of her notoriety, her funeral was large.
The legend of Calamity Jane, markswoman, horsewoman, drinker, and performer, continues in movies, books, and television Westerns.
How did Jane get the moniker "Calamity Jane"? Many answers have been offered by historians and storytellers. "Calamity," some say, is what Jane would threaten to any man who bothered her. She also claimed the name was given to her because she was good to have around in a calamity, such as the smallpox epidemic of 1878. Maybe the name was a description of a very hard and tough life. Like much in her life, it's simply not certain.
- Calamity Jane. Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane by Herself. Ye Galleon Press, 1979.
- “Calamity Jane: Exposed.” True West Magazine, 21 Aug. 2015.
- “Encyclopedia of the Great Plains.” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains | CALAMITY JANE (1856-1903).