Martha Jane Cannary-Burke, better known as Calamity Jane (May 1 1852 – August 1 1903), was a frontierswoman and professional scout best known for her claim of being a close friend of Wild Bill Hickok, but also for having gained fame fighting Native Americans.
Early life: 1852 – 1874
Calamity Jane was born on May 1 1852
as Martha Jane Cannary in Princeton, Missouri
, within Mercer County
. Her parents, Robert W. and Charlotte Cannary, were listed in the 1860 census as living about 7 miles further northeast of Princeton in Ravanna
. Martha Jane was the oldest of six children, having two brothers and three sisters. In 1869, Robert packed his family and moved by wagon train from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana. Charlotte died along the way in Black Foot, Montana in 1866 of "washtub pneumonia
". After arriving in Virginia City in the spring of 1866, Robert took his six children on to Salt Lake City, Utah. They arrived in the summer, and Robert supposedly started farming on 40 acres of land. They were there only a year before he died in 1867. Martha Jane took over as head of the family, loaded up the wagon once more, and took her siblings to Fort Bridger
, Wyoming Territory. They arrived in May of 1868. From there they traveled on the Union Pacific Railroad to Piedmont, Wyoming
In Piedmont, Martha Jane took whatever jobs she could to provide for her large family. She worked as a dishwasher, a cook, a waitress, a dance-hall girl, a nurse, and an ox team driver. Finally, in 1874, she found work as a scout at Fort Russell.
From her autobiography of 1896, Martha Jane writes of this time:
- "In 1865 we emigrated from our homes in Missouri by the overland route to Virginia City, Montana, taking five months to make the journey. While on the way, the greater portion of my time was spent in hunting along with the men and hunters of the party; in fact, I was at all times with the men when there was excitement and adventures to be had. By the time we reached Virginia City, I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age. I remember many occurrences on the journey from Missouri to Montana. Many times in crossing the mountains, the conditions of the trail were so bad that we frequently had to lower the wagons over ledges by hand with ropes, for they were so rough and rugged that horses were of no use. We also had many exciting times fording streams, for many of the streams in our way were noted for quicksands and boggy places, where, unless we were very careful, we would have lost horses and all. Then we had many dangers to encounter in the way of streams swelling on account of heavy rains. On occasions of that kind, the men would usually select the best places to cross the streams; myself, on more than one occasion, have mounted my pony and swam across the stream several times merely to amuse myself, and have had many narrow escapes from having both myself and pony washed away to certain death, but, as the pioneers of those days had plenty of courage, we overcame all obstacles and reached Virginia City in safety. Mother died at Black Foot, Montana, 1866, where we buried her. I left Montana in Spring of 1866, for Utah, arriving at Salt Lake City during the summer."
Accounts from this period described Martha Jane as being "extremely attractive" and a "pretty, dark-eyed girl." Martha Jane received little to no formal education but was literate. She moved on to a rougher, mostly outdoor adventurous life on the Great Plains.
Scout: 1870 – 1876
Wearing the uniform of a soldier, Martha Jane began her career as a scout. According to her biography, she joined with Custer
. As historians have since discovered, she was prone to exaggerations and lies about her exploits, and no evidence exists that Custer
was ever at Fort Russell. One source states she more likely served with General George Crook, stationed at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming.
Whichever account is true, this is the time she started dressing like a man. She states:
- "Up to this time, I had always worn the costume of my sex. When I joined Custer, I donned the uniform of a soldier. It was a bit awkward at first, but I soon got to be perfectly at home in men's clothes."
Martha Jane did serve in one campaign in which Lt Colonel Custer was involved, following the spring of 1872. Custer and Generals Miles, Terry and Crook were dispatched with their forces to handle Indian uprisings near present day Sheridan, Wyoming, which would be called the "Mussel Shell Indian Outbreak", and is also referred to as the "Nursey Pursey Indian Outbreak". This is the only confirmed opportunity Calamity Jane had to meet Custer, although it is unlikely that she did.
Following that campaign, in 1874, her detachment was ordered to Fort Custer, where they remained until the following spring. During this campaign (and others involving Custer and Crook together), she was not attached to Custer's command.
Acquiring the nickname
Martha Jane was involved in several campaigns in the long-running military conflicts with Native Americans. Her unconfirmed claim was that
- "It was during this campaign that I was christened Calamity Jane. 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."
However, it may be that she exaggerated or completely fabricated this story. Even back then not everyone accepted her version as true. A popular belief is that she instead acquired it as a result of her warnings to men that to offend her was to "court calamity".
One verified story about "Calamity Jane" is that in 1875 her detachment was ordered to the Big Horn River
, under General Crook. Bearing important dispatches, she swam the Platte River
and traveled 90 miles (145 km) at top speed while wet and cold to deliver them. Afterwards, she became ill. After recuperating for a few weeks, she rode to Fort Laramie
, Wyoming, and later, in July 1876, she joined a wagon train
headed north, which is where she first met Bill Hickok, contrary to her later claims.
Deadwood and Wild Bill Hickok: 1876 – 1881
Calamity Jane accompanied the Newton-Jenney Party
into the Black Hills
in 1875, along with California Joe
and Valentine McGillycuddy
In 1876, Calamity Jane settled in the area of Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills. There, she became friends with, and was occasionally employed by, Dora DuFran, the Black Hills' leading madam. She became friendly with Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter, having travelled with them to Deadwood in Utter's wagon train. Jane greatly admired Hickok (to the point of infatuation), and she was obsessed with his personality and life.
After Hickok was killed during a poker game on August 2 1876, Calamity Jane claimed to have been married to Hickok and that Hickok was the father of her child (Jane), whom she said was born on September 25 1873, and whom she later put up for adoption by Jim O'Neil and his wife. No records are known to exist which prove the birth of a child, and the romantic slant to the relationship might have been a fabrication. During the period that the alleged child was born, she was working as a scout for the Army. At the time of his death, Hickok was newly married to Agnes Lake Thatcher, formerly of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
However, on September 6 1941, the U.S. Department of Public Welfare did grant old age assistance to a Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick (name of her 3rd husband), who claimed to be the legal offspring of Martha Jane Cannary and James Butler Hickok, after being presented with evidence that Calamity Jane and Wild Bill had married at Benson's Landing, Montana Territory, on September 25 1873, documentation being written in a Bible and presumably signed by two reverends and numerous witnesses. The claim of Jean Hickok McCormick was later proved to be spurious by the Hickok family. (Rosa, Joseph- "They Called Him Wild Bill")
Jane also claimed that following Hickok's death, she went after Jack McCall, his murderer, with a meat cleaver, having left her guns at her residence in the excitement of the moment. However, she never confronted McCall. Following McCall's eventual hanging for the offense, Jane continued living in the Deadwood area for some time, and at one point she did help save several passengers of an overland stagecoach by diverting several Plains Indians who were in pursuit of the stage. The stagecoach driver, John Slaughter, was killed during the pursuit, and Jane took over the reins and drove the stage on to its destination at Deadwood. Also in late 1876, Jane nursed the victims of a smallpox epidemic in the Deadwood area.
Final years: 1881 – 1903
In 1881, she bought a ranch west of Miles City, MT, along the Yellowstone River, where she kept an inn. After marrying the Texan, Clinton Burke, and moving to Boulder
, she again tried her luck in this business. In 1887, she had a daughter, Jane, who was given to foster parents.
In 1893, Calamity Jane started to appear in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as a horse rider and a trick shooter. She also participated in the Pan-American Exposition. At that time, she was depressed and alcoholic.
By the turn of the century, Madame Dora DuFran was still going strong when Jane returned to the Black Hills in 1903. For the next few months, Jane earned her keep by cooking and doing the laundry for Dora’s brothel girls in Belle Fourche. In July, she travelled to Terry, South Dakota. While staying in the Calloway Hotel on August 1, 1903, she developed pneumonia and died at the age of 47. In her belongings, a bundle of letters to her daughter were found, which she had never sent. Some of these letters were set to music in an art song cycle by 20th century composer Libby Larsen called Songs From Letters. There is no significant evidence to prove she was the actual author of these letters. She was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery (South Dakota), next to Wild Bill Hickock.
"Calamity Jane", as she would become known, lived a very colorful and eventful life but often claimed questionable associations or friendships with notable famous American Old West
figures, almost always posthumously. For example, years after the death of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer
, she claimed that she served under him during her initial enlistment at Fort Russell
, and that she also served under him during the Indian Campaigns
. However, no records exist to show that Cannary was assigned to Fort Russell, and she did not take an active part in the Arizona Indian Campaigns; she was tasked with subjugating the Plains Indians
Major media appearances
- Calamity Jane was an important character in the Deadwood Dick series of dime novels beginning with the first appearance of Deadwood Dick in Beadle's half Dime Library issue #1 in 1877. This series, written by Edward Wheeler, established her with a reputation as a wild north vacation heroine and probably did more to enhance her familiarity to the public than any of her real life exploits.
- Calamity Jane was a 1953 musical film starring Doris Day.
- Jane is a central character in Pete Dexter's 1986 novel Deadwood, ISBN 1400079713.
- J.T. Edson features Calamity Jane as a character in a number of his books, as a stand alone character and also as a romantic interest of the character Mark Counter.
- Calamity Jane also figures as a main character in an album of the same name of the Franco-Belgian comics series Lucky Luke, created by Morris.
- Jane is the central character in Larry McMurtry's book Buffalo Girls.
- Jane is also a central character in HBO's series Deadwood, portrayed by Robin Weigert.
- The Plainsman is a 1936 film starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane.
- Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock are featured in the song "Deadwood Mountain" by the country duo Big & Rich.
- In 1984, the television movie called Calamity Jane features her life story including her alleged marriage to Wild Bill & their daughter that she gave up. Actress Jane Alexander portrayed Calamity and was nominated for an Emmy in 1985 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Special. It also featured an early performance of Sara Gilbert as Calamity's daughter Jean at age 7.
- In 1997 a cartoon series on Kids' WB called The Legend of Calamity Jane depicted a young Jane.
- In the 1995 movie Tall Tale she was portrayed by actress Catherine O'Hara as Pecos Bill's love and as a sheriff or deputy of somesort.
- In the 1995 film Wild Bill she was portrayed by actress Ellen Barkin.
- In the 1963 episode of Bonanza , "Calamity Over the Comstock", Stefanie Powers plays Calamity Jane, who visits Virginia City along with Doc Holliday.
- Science Fiction writer A. Bertram Chandler included a character named Calamity Jane Arlen (see ) in his far future novels, taking place on the frontier Rim Worlds - a kind of space analogue of the Old West.