GIRLS OF THE
Calamity Jane was part of the overhead.
No woman in the annals of Western gold camp history so captured the imagination as Martha “Calamity Jane” Cannary.
from one gold camp to another, most wayward women of the old west
shrouded their shady occupations with phony names and fantasy pasts. Not
the flamboyant Calamity Jane. She gloried in the notoriety that pursued
her as she wandered in and out of settlements from Montana to Kansas.
Dime novels created a fictional heroine with scant resemblance to the woman who wore masculine attire, worked, drank and swore like a man, frequented saloons and sporadically worked as a teamster or bullwhacker, laundress or a cook.
Unfortunately, dime novel tales were often confused with fact and grew larger in the telling.
Nearly a century after her death, the notorious Calamity is still a subject of controversial stories about her life on the Western frontier. So much misinformation circulated during her lifetime, and since her 1903 demise, serious researchers have problems sifting fact from fiction.
Even what seems to be
tangible evidence, a ghostwritten autobiography, is filled with tales
that don’t fit known facts. No one was better at spinning a good yarn
than the imaginative Calamity herself. She had no high regard for truth,
particularly when she was “tight as a goat” and cadging drinks in
In her bullwhacker buckskins, Calamity hit the trail for Deadwood Gulch the summer of 1876, preceded by her reputation. Gold seekers already in the Black Hills had reason to remember her exuberant behavior in other mining camps throughout the territory.
Calamity was certainly not noted for her beauty. The Black Hills Daily Times once described her as looking like the “result of a cross between the gable end of a fire proof and a Sioux Indian.”
Despite Hollywood’s later attempts to pretty her up, that
description was not inaccurate. Calamity was tall for a woman, just
under six-foot when wearing her high-heeled boots. Big boned and
muscular, with rough, weather beaten skin and dark, stringy,
seldom-washed hair, she was masculine in appearance even when wearing a
Calamity is often referred to as Martha Jane Cannary (sometimes spelled Canary) but the middle name is open to question; she didn’t claim it in her so-called autobiography. Men who patronized prostitutes were called johns and trollops referred to as janes, which may explain the Jane portion of her nickname.
A small pamphlet, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane, By Herself, begins with the statement: “My maiden name was Marthy Cannary, was born in Princeton, Missourri, May 1st, 1852.”
She was virtually illiterate, so misspellings of Martha and the state in which she was born are hardly surprising.
The ensuing pages are filled with braggadocio and contradictions to known facts.
Tales of her adventures--as an army scout with General Custer, her rescue of a mail coach from Indian attack, capture of Wild Bill’s assassin with a meat cleaver, even the origin of her nickname--were figments of the lady’s active imagination, augmented by the able assistance of a ghost writer. And 1896 might well have affected Calamity Jane’s recollections of places and dates by too many shots of whiskey.
The little pamphlet first appeared about 1896 when Calamity was an attraction at a Minneapolis stage show. She peddled copies at various shows where she was engaged, on the streets and in the saloons of towns throughout the territory.
With uncharacteristic feminine conceit, Calamity probably subtracted a few years from her age in the autobiography. She was most likely older than she claimed to be; contemporaries described her as appearing older than her years. Her original tombstone at Mount Moriah was engraved “Aged 53 Yrs” which would have meant an 1850 birth date; some researchers believe she was actually born no later than 1847.
She described Wild Bill as “my friend” but hadn’t yet dared depart far enough from the truth to maintain she had been the slain gunfighter’s sweetheart and the mother of his child.
That particular fraud was perpetuated in a 1941 CBS radio program when Jean Hickok McCormick publicly announced she was the daughter of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill. To substantiate her paternity, McCormick produced a diary and letters purportedly written by the infamous Calamity.
Reputable historians have long disputed the authenticity of the diary and letters, yet McCormick’s tale has been picked up and repeated, given widespread coverage in Larry McMurtry’s novel, Buffalo Girls, and the subsequent television movie based on the book.
McCormick’s claims received considerable media coverage in the decade before her 1951 death. On September 12, 1941 the Rapid City Journal reported on her visit to the Black Hills when she “tenderly placed” flowers on the Wild Bill and Calamity Jane graves in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery.
The Journal described McCormick as: “a little woman five feet, four inches tall and weighing perhaps 100 pounds, whose appearance belies her age of 68 years.” The story reiterated her claims of Gabriel Heatter’s “indisputable proof of her birth” and a “message from the daughter of a minister who purportedly married the couple near Abilene” between 1869 and 1872.
The minister’s daughter was sadly mistaken. Rev. W. F. Warren had indeed presided at Wild Bill’s wedding, but the bride was Agnes Lake, not Calamity Jane.
South Dakota historian J. Leonard Jennewein concluded, after meticulous research, that McCormick’s story was “a hoax from start to finish.”
Neither Jennewein or any other serious historian has been able to unearth solid evidence to validate a marriage of Martha Cannary to Wild Bill, or to any other man for that matter, despite her own statement in Life and Adventures:
It is unlikely she lived in Texas during that time. Newspaper reports show she was in Wyoming in 1885 and 1886 and eyewitness accounts place her in Rapid City in 1886, well liquored up and riding a big red bull through downtown streets.
Calamity Jane formed temporary liaisons with several men, including Burk (or Burke) but no records exist of any legal marriage. And no birth certificate has ever surfaced to validate her claim of motherhood.
In a book published in 1996, Ruth Shadley of Boise, Idaho, said that her mother, Maude Weir, was Calamity Jane’s daughter, adopted by a Pierre couple in 1883. There are no records to confirm Shadley’s allegations.
The little girl who accompanied Calamity to Deadwood in 1895 is believed to have been Burke’s daughter by another woman.
Calamity knew she could count on the kind-hearted people of Deadwood to help with the little girl’s education. According to Estelline Bennett, author of Old Deadwood Days, money raised at a benefit held at the Green Front saloon “was enough to have kept that child in St. Martin’s convent until she was ready for Wellesley or Bryn Mawr.”
Green Front turned it over to Calamity and she walked up to the bar to treat the crowd for
having been so kind to her child. Her friends tried, after the first
drink, to curb her lavishness, but she forgot all about the young
daughter, the convent, and higher education for women, and got roaring
The one consistent fact about Calamity, verified in numerous newspaper stories and first person accounts of those that knew her, is she was a drunk. Today she probably would be labeled an alcoholic, perhaps sent to treatment. No such enlightened programs existed in that era when bartenders were quick to comply with her order, “Give me a shot of booze and slop it over the brim.”
According to Jennewein:
She begged money for drinks. She would borrow five dollars, buy a
few drinks and then one for the house. She would go out on the street
and borrow some more. She would order the house to buy and the house
bought. This was tolerated; it was considered neither begging or
borrowing. Calamity was Calamity …it was part of the expenses of the
night to keep her glass filled … Calamity Jane was part of the
Judgmental writers have enjoyed casting stones, describing her as a drunken harridan, a disgrace to womankind. Defenders cite her kindness and maintain she managed to stay sober for periods of time when volunteering her services as an unpaid nurse. Even her most severe critics credit her with caring for miners quarantined during a Deadwood smallpox epidemic and for children or adults stricken with diphtheria, mountain fever and other diseases.
Early in the spring of 1903 Calamity Jane returned to the Black Hills for the last time, worn out from a hard life and in the final stages of raging alcoholism, carrying her pathetically few belongings in a dilapidated old suitcase.
She’d worn out her welcome in so many towns across Dakota Territory, but found refuge in Belle Fourche, cooking and doing laundry for Dora DuFran’s brothel girls.
In late July Calamity went on her last binge. She rode an ore train to Terry, a little mining village near Deadwood, where she became violently sick to her stomach. A bartender secured a room for her in the Calloway Hotel and a doctor was summoned. Her death, on Saturday, August 1, 1903, was ascribed to inflammation of the bowels and pneumonia.
In compliance with her dying requests, the Society of Black Hills Pioneers took charge of her funeral and burial in Mount Moriah Cemetery beside Wild Bill. Not just old friends, but the morbidly curious and many who wouldn’t have acknowledged Calamity Jane when she was alive, overflowed the First Methodist Church for the August 4 funeral services and followed the hearse up the steep winding road to Deadwood’s boot hill.
After a lifetime of wandering the west, Calamity Jane’s restless spirit was finally at peace. She was home to stay.
One of Deadwood’s old
pioneers seemed to understand her hankering for the hills:
is easy for a woman to be good who has been brought up with every
protection from the evils of the world and with good associates,”
wrote Dora DuFran in her booklet Low
Down on Calamity Jane.
Buffalo Bill, quiet in Montana newspaper: Only the old days could have produced her. She belongs to a time and a class that are fast disappearing … Calamity had nearly all the rough virtues of the old West as well as many of the vices . . . She was one of the frontier types and she has all the merits and most of their faults.
Estelline: More than anyone else who lived into the twentieth century, CJ as symbolic of old ues were of the endearing sort. Her vices were the wide-open sins of a wide-open country—the sort that never carried a hurt.”
Capt. Jack Crawford: CJ was a good-hearted woman, under different environments would have made a good wife and mother . . . She grew up in a wild unnatural manner which we wonder did not quench out every spark of womanhood in her, and it is to her credit that she did retain a kind and generous heart even while following in the footsteps of her dissolute father and careless mother.
BH Daily Times, when she returned to deadwood in 1895:
… She has always been known for her friendliness, generosity and happy cordial manner. It didn’t matter to her whether a person was rich or poor, white or black, or what their circumstances were, Cal Jane was just the same to all. Her purse was always open to help a hungry fellow, and she was one of the first to proffer her help in cases of sickness, accidents or any distress.
Teddy Blue: Miles City – I’ve been on the plains for fifty-eight years, and I’ve never heard of an old-timer that knew her, but what spoke well of her. Photo taken at Gilt Edge Mont., shows her drinking with Teddy Blue, one of Montana’s most colorful cowboys, who is wearing her flowered hat.
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Deadwood Magazine ©2001