Martha Jane "Calamity Jane" Cannary (1852-1903)
The woman known as “Calamity Jane” was born Martha Jane Cannary on May 1, 1852. Her family was from Princeton, Missouri and she was the oldest of six children. She was literate although she never received any formal education. In 1865, her family migrated to Montana. During this trip her mother died. Two years later her father died in Salt Lake City leaving Jane in charge of her five younger siblings. She moved the family to the Wyoming Territory in 1868 and eventually settled them in Piedmont, Wyoming. In 1896 Calamity Jane wrote a brief autobiography, widely believed to be full of exaggerations and tall tales.
According to her autobiography, Jane joined General George Armstrong Custer’s regiment in 1870. It is more likely, however, that she actually joined the regiment of General George Crook at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming. She served as an Army scout in campaigns against the Arizona Indians. She boasted that her scouting duties involved her in risky missions and daring escapes. It is not known whether Jane ever officially enlisted in the Army, but it is during her time with the Army that she began to dress as a man. The male clothing was the standard uniform, but it also helped her to fit in with the other soldiers. It was also during this time, around 1872, that she was given the nickname “Calamity Jane.” She credits Captain Egan, the commander of her Post, with its invention, although others credit it to the commotion she caused wherever she went.
In 1876 Jane traveled to the mining town of Deadwood, South Dakota where she became friends with James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. She served for a time as a rider for the Pony Express, riding between Deadwood and Custer City, South Dakota. According to her, this was the most dangerous route. She was successful in her rides, she boasts, because everyone knew that she was an excellent rider and a quick shot. It was rumored that Jane and the newly married Hickok were romantically involved while in Deadwood, but this claim has never been proven. Hickok was murdered during a poker game on August 2, 1876. Upon hearing the news of his death Jane went after his killer with a meat cleaver.
Jane stayed in Deadwood for several years after her friend’s murder. In 1877, she rescued a stagecoach from an Indian raid with only the driver being killed. The next year, during a smallpox epidemic in Deadwood, Jane nursed eight sick men by herself. Five of these men survived and she buried the other three.
For the next few years, Jane roamed throughout the American West. She traveled through the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, and California. In 1884 she arrived in El Paso, Texas. In 1885, she married Clinton Burk, a native Texan, and two years later, she gave birth to a daughter. The marriage and the daughter are disputed, however, because no records exist and they were never mentioned again in Calamity Jane’s autobiography or in any other official documents.
In 1895 Calamity Jane returned to Deadwood. According to her autobiography, she began a public tour, but only two appearances are recorded. In 1896 she appeared at the Palace Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She next appeared in 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. After this performance, she returned to Deadwood and then traveled on to Terry, South Dakota. Here she stayed at the Calloway Hotel. On the evening of August 1, 1903, she died in her hotel room at age fifty-one. The cause of death is not certain, but possible causes were pneumonia or alcohol poisoning. She was buried in Deadwood’s Mt. Moriah Cemetery, next to Wild Bill Hickok.
During her life Calamity Jane lived fast and hard. She dressed like a man, she cursed like a man, and she drank like a man. She did many things that women of her day could only dream of, such as scouting for the Army, riding for the Pony Express, drinking and gambling with men all over the West. She was a woman who held her own among the roughest characters of the Wild West.
- Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend. James D. Mclaird
- By Grit & Grace: Eleven Women Who Shaped the American West. Glenda Riley and Richard W. Etulain
- Calamity Jane. Calamity Jane
- Keating, Susan Katz. Women of the West. Broomall, PA: Mason Crest Publishers, 2003.
- Lyon, Peter. “The Wild, Wild West” American Heritage 11, No. 5: 32-48.
- PHOTO: Martha Cannary (Calamity Jane). Library of Congress. LC-USZ62-95040