Friday, April 8, 2016

Calamity Jane Frontierswoman and Indian Scout, or Braggart and Prostitute?

Calamity Jane could best be described as a man, trapped in a woman’s body. She could out drink, out ride, out shoot, and cuss louder, and nastier than any man alive. An article in The Black Hills Daily Times said she looked like the “result of a cross between the gable end of a fireproof and a Sioux Indian.” She stood nearly six foot tall, had stringy, unwashed hair, and a rough, weather-beaten appearance. When asked to describe her, most acquaintances would say she had a tall, strong build, more male than female, and often dressed in buckskins and leather britches, but when she did wear a dress—still appeared more masculine, than feminine.
Calamity Jane holding her rifle

Whiskey was her downfall. A July 7, 1877, article in the Cheyenne Daily Leader said “she is lifted high up into the heavens on the wings of a snifter and in the next plunged into a sea of unutterable gloom…as a female holy terror, she has no living superior, and her worst enemies will not deny that she is an able drinker.”

She was born Martha Jane Cannary in Pleasanton, Missouri on May 1, 1852. Her family migrated to Virginia City, Montana in 1865. It was a five-month journey by wagon train, and Martha Jane said, “The greater portion of my time was spent in hunting along with the men and hunters of the party, in fact, I was all the time with the men when there was excitement and adventure to be had.”

Her mother died in Black Foot, Montana in 1866 shortly after they arrived, and in the spring of that year, the family moved farther west to Salt Lake City, Utah. Her father passed away in 1867, and that’s when the story of Calamity Jane really begins.


Martha Jane moved her five siblings to Fort Bridger in Wyoming Territory and started doing odd jobs. Most biographies say she cleaned, cooked, worked as a dance hall girl, and possibly, as a prostitute.

She became a scout for General George Armstrong Custer in 1870, working out of Fort Russell, Wyoming. According to Calamity, “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.”
She fought Indians in Arizona during the winter of 1871, returned to Fort Sanders, Wyoming in 1872, and in 1873 headed out to fight in the Nursey Pursey Indian outbreak. This was the campaign that earned her the nickname “Calamity Jane.”

The way Martha Jane told the story she was stationed at Goose Creek, Wyoming. The soldiers were on the trail for several days squashing an Indian uprising in which six soldiers in her company were killed. The company was ambushed while returning to the post and Captain Egan was shot. Jane watched him sway, and nearly fall out of his saddle. She rushed back, blasting Indians with her rifle, grabbed the captain, and tossed him across her saddle as they rode to safety.

Calamity Jane standing by her horse
When he recovered, Captain Egan told her, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.” A 1903 article published in The Wide World Magazine words it a little different. In it Egan tells her, “a man [would be] unusually lucky to have such heroines as Jane in times of calamity.”

After this Calamity says, she was ordered north with General Crook to join Generals Miles, Terry, and Custer at the Little Big Horn. Fortunately, or unfortunately, however you look at it, Calamity “contracted a severe illness” swimming her pony across the Platte River near Fort Fetterman. Otherwise, she would likely have died with Custer on the Little Big Horn.

That’s the story told by Martha Jane Cannary. The truth might be a little different. Captain Jack Crawford, the chief of scouts for General Crook, during that campaign, wrote an article for The Journalist that was published on March 5th, 1904. According to Crawford, Martha “was not with the command at any time.” The only time General Crook recognized her was to “order her out of camp when he discovered she was a camp follower.” The meaning was clear—she was a prostitute, not a scout.

Captain Jack Crawford also disputed the story about how Calamity Jane got her name. He says, “Now I was with Captain Egan and his White Horse Troop and helped patrol the roads between Ft. Laramie and Red Canon, and no such fight ever took place, nor was Captain Egan wounded.” Of course, the article was published a year after her death, so Calamity had no chance to dispute the facts.

When she recovered Calamity made her way to Fort Laramie where she hooked up with Wild Bill Hickok. They headed for Deadwood in June 1876, and Jane was soon working as a Pony Express rider delivering mail between Deadwood and Custer riding through the “roughest trails in the Black Hills.”

One time when she was riding the mail Calamity was chased by two Sioux Indians. While jumping her horse across a small creek, the horse broke his leg. With the Indians almost upon her and only two bullets in her gun, Calamity jumped off her horse, unloaded one ball into his brains to end his suffering. She shot one of the Indians dead, and scared the other into surrendering, then marched him off to jail in Deadwood.

Wild Bill was shot and killed by Jack McCall on August 2nd, 1876 while playing poker at Nuttall and Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood. When she heard about the shooting, Calamity said she chased “the assassin and found him at Shurdy’s Butcher Shop grabbed a meat cleaver and made him throw up his hands.”

Again, the truth was a little different.

McCall was taken prisoner, tried by a jury made up mainly of miners, and acquitted. He made his way to Wyoming and was arrested again for the murder of Wild Bill. The second trial was held in Yankton, Dakota Territory. McCall was found guilty of murder, sentenced to death, and hanged on March 1st, 1877.

Calamity began her climb to national fame shortly after Wild Bill’s death. She was featured with Deadwood Dick in issue number one of Beadle’s Half-Dime Library. Several years later she grabbed top billing in a serial published by Street and Smith’s Weekly titled Calamity Jane: Queen of the Plains.

Calamity says she rejoined the 7th Cavalry in 1877 and helped build Fort Meade, and the town of Sturgis, Colorado. The next year she left the army and spent the better part of a year prospecting around Rapid City. When mining didn’t pan out, she returned to Colorado and started ranching on the Yellowstone. A few years later Calamity found herself in California, and then El Paso, Texas where she married Clinton Burk. In her autobiography Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane, by Herself, she says it was time to settle down.

The couple soon left Texas and headed to Boulder, Colorado, where they ran a hotel until 1893. She signed a contract with Kohl and Middleton in 1895 that took her to The Palace Museum in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but soon lost that job because she was drunk and disorderly on stage.  Calamity appeared at the Pan American Exposition in 1901, and some say later in some Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Shows, but Captain Jack Crawford says “another certainty is that she never saw the original Buffalo Bill.”

Like most things in the life of Calamity Jane, distinguishing truth from fiction is nearly impossible. Newspapers printed tall tales, false interviews, and made up drivel, dime novelists portrayed Calamity as a hard-drinking, fast shooting, Hellcat of the west. And, by all accounts Calamity, Jane did everything she could to encourage the stories.


She died in early August of 1903 at the Calloway Hotel in Terry, South Dakota, most likely from alcohol complications, and was buried next to Wild Bill at Mount Moriah Cemetery. 

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