The Methodist Church in Terry, S.D., was packed for the funeral of Calamity Jane who was one of the Old West’s most enduring characters — leading a life as a frontierswoman, Army scout, Wild West storyteller, mother and sometimes lady-of-the-night.
She liked guns but wasn’t as great as Annie Oakley; nor was she a cowgirl or even literate. She dressed like a man, drank too much, smoked cigars, swore too much, told tall tales and was often depressed — but had a kind heart for the sick and needy.
So many stories have been spun about Calamity Jane that to this day historians are still trying to separate the facts from the fiction. Despite her un-feminine appearance and notorious ways, she had a natural charisma that made her stand out in the crowd.
One report said, “Her vices were the wide-open sins of a wide-open country — the sort that never carried a hurt.”
Her real name was Martha Jane Canary or Cannary, born in 1852 in Princeton, Mo., near the Iowa border, eldest of six kids. Her father had a gambling problem and her mother was a prostitute.
In 1866, the family left Missouri for a five-month long wagon train journey to Virginia City, Mont., and young Martha Jane riding with the men learned to hunt and shoot. Later, she called herself “the best shot in the West.”
Then during the trip, her mother died of pneumonia.
The father and children moved from Montana to Salt Lake City to farm when he suddenly died. As the eldest at 14, Martha Jane took charge of the family, packed them and their goods into a wagon and headed for Wyoming, ending up at Piedmont.
To support the family, Jane worked as a dishwasher, cook, waitress, dance-hall girl, nurse and ox team driver. Six years later, she is said to have been a scout for Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer at Fort Russell during the Indian Wars, wearing the uniform of a soldier — the start of her dressing like a man.
She bragged about being a scout for the famed Indian fighter, but that story may not be true because no military records show Custer was ever at Fort Russell.
As a girl, Calamity Jane was described as “extremely attractive” and a “pretty, dark-eyed girl.” But by the time she was in her 20s, she was wearing buckskins like a man, and the rugged life on the frontier was taking its toll. “Her youthful good looks were gone; her skin was leathery and tanned by sun and wind exposure on the high plains, she was muscular and masculine, and her hair was stringy and seldom washed.”
Despite the lack of glamor, her journey to fame was just getting started.
The Wild West allowed her to be the loose, hard-drinking, cussing, pistol-totin’ free spirit she wanted to be, and that often got her into trouble — even among other “free spirits.”
While working as a bartender in Deadwood in the late 1870s during the Dakota Territory gold rush times, she had to battle the “good and virtuous women” who were trying to run her out of town.
“They came into the saloon with horsewhip and shears to cut off my hair,” she said. “I jumped off the bar into their midst and before they could say ‘sickem’ I had them bowling.”
Calamity Jane was not the only frontier woman to lead a bawdy life. According to Time-Life’s “The Women,” the Wild West was full of women who were rough and tough — though few as flamboyant as her.
Outlaw Belle Starr swaggered around the West with pistols strapped to her ample hips; and teenagers Cattle Annie McDoulet and Lille Britches (Jennie) Metcalf made a name for themselves bootlegging whisky to the Indians, rustling cattle and tipping off their Doolin Gang outlaw pals when law officers where close by.
And of course, Annie Oakley dazzled Buffalo Bill’s show audiences with her incredible shooting.
According to Dorothy Gray in her book “Women of the West,” many frontier women were gun totin’ not only as “an equalizer in relationship” with men but also as “indicative of how the conditions of the frontier forced women to expand their image of themselves beyond that of the passive and helpless female.”
Calamity Jane in her autobiography (written by someone else because she couldn’t write) claimed she got her nickname after a military campaign in 1872-73: “It was on Goose Creek, Wyoming where the town of Sheridan is now located. Capt. Egan was in command of the Post. We were ordered out to quell an uprising of the Indians, and were out for several days, had numerous skirmishes during which six of the soldiers were killed and several severely wounded.
“When on returning to the Post we were ambushed about a mile and a half from our destination. When fired upon Capt. Egan was shot. I was riding in advance and on hearing the firing turned in my saddle and saw the Captain reeling in his saddle as though about to fall.
“I turned my horse and galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling. I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Capt. Egan on recovering, laughingly said: ‘I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.’ I have borne that name up to the present time.”
Other sources however tell different stories.
What catapulted her into the national limelight was meeting Wild Bill Hickok in a wagon train headed for Deadwood to look for gold in South Dakota in 1876. She was 24 and allegedly became infatuated with Wild Bill — who had a reputation for multiple shootouts and killings — and claimed in her autobiography that she married him.
Other biographies say she “had dalliances” with Wild Bill, which could have happened, but the marriage is doubtful because a month after arriving in Deadwood, Wild Bill was shot in the back and killed while playing five-card draw poker in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, holding what became known as the “dead man’s hand” — two black aces, two black eights and another card.
More likely to be true about Calamity Jane was her good side, attested to by many accounts. One good deed that’s in her autobiography tells about how she rescued a runaway stagecoach escaping from Cheyenne Indians, and driving the coach to Deadwood, carrying six passengers and a driver wounded by an arrow.
When a smallpox epidemic broke out in Deadwood, she helped nurse the sick back to health. Old Doc Babcock said that while caring for the children, “She’d swear to beat hell at them — but it was a tender kind of cussin’!”
Jane was mother of a daughter born in 1887, after supposedly marrying a man named either Edward or Clinton Burke.
As public interest in the wild and wooly West was growing in the late 1800s, pulp fiction couldn’t resist writing about notorious characters like Calamity Jane. Her fame spread — aided and abetted by her own self-promotion.
In 1895, she joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show touring the Midwest shooting from a galloping horse — though not everyone agrees on all of this either. The work wasn’t steady because her drinking and fighting became a constant problem. To earn extra money while on tour, she’d peddle her exaggerated autobiography for pocket change.
In the years that followed she did more touring — including appearances at the Palace Museum in Minneapolis, and the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y.
Her last job was cooking and doing laundry for the girls at Madame Dora DuFran’s brothel in Belle Fourche, S.D.
Near the end of her life, she seemed to tire of being “Calamity Jane,” saying she hoped the world would “leave me alone and let me go to hell my own route.”
Where she did go when she died on Aug. 1, 1903, in Terry, S.D., was what she asked for — a burial plot at Mount Moriah Cemetery next to her long-gone idol — Wild Bill Hickok.
Today’s history books list her simply as “Calamity Jane — American folk hero.”
She’d probably be OK with that.
• • •
Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“She had friends and very positive opinions of the things that a girl could enjoy, and she soon gained a local reputation for daring horsemanship and skill as a rifle shot.”
— Buffalo Bill Cody
About Wild Bill…
While in the Army, Hickok became poker-playing pals with Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer and was one of his scouts. Shortly after the Civil War, Hickok was interviewed by Henry M. Stanley, correspondent for the New York Herald who later found the famous British missionary he was looking for in Africa, greeting him with the immortal words, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?”
Wild Bill with a straight face told Stanley that he had personally slain more than 100 men. The fake news story was published by the Herald — and it made Wild Bill Hickok a legend.
‘Buttons and Bows’
Calamity Jane would have laughed at this 1948 song:
East is east and west is west
And the wrong one I have chose…
Let’s move down to some big town
Where they love a gal by the cut o’ her clothes
And I’ll stand out
In buttons and bows
I’ll love you in buckskin
Or skirts that I’ve homespun
But I’ll love ya’ longer, stronger where
Yer friends don’t tote a gun
My bones denounce the buckboard bounce
And the cactus hurts my toes…
Gimme eastern trimmin’ where women are women
In high silk hose and peek-a-boo clothes
And French perfume that rocks the room
And I’m all yours in buttons and bows
Hear the song with full lyrics by Dinah Shore:
For lyrics: http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/top-songs-music-charts/buttons-and-bows.htm
“She was a plain woman, looking older than she really was. She wore a dark cloth coat that never had been good, a cheap little hat, a faded frayed skirt and arctic overshoes … She came unscathed through the long smallpox siege and most of her patients lived. Dr. Babcock believed that without her care not one of them would have pulled through.”
— Estelle Bennett, “Old Deadwood Days”
The REAL Calamity Jane…
Army scout Captain Jack Crawford, who rode for Generals Wesley Merritt and George Crook, knew Calamity Jane. He was quoted in the April 19, 1904 issue of the Anaconda Standard — the year after she died — “She never saw [military] service in any capacity under either General Crook or General Miles. She never saw a lynching and never was in an Indian fight. She was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish, but possessed a generous streak which made her popular.”
Calamity Jane movie…
Warner Brothers made a 1953 musical “Calamity Jane,” starring Doris Day as Jane and Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok. The story was about their alleged romance. The movie won an Academy Award for Best Original Song: “Secret Love.” She recorded the song in one take.
Watch Doris Day sing the song in the movie scene: