Calamity Jane – Rowdy Woman of the West

Calamity Jane, 1895

Calamity Jane, 1895

Calamity Jane, one of the rowdiest and adventurous women in the Old West, was a frontierswoman and professional scout, who was known for her being a friend to Wild Bill Hickok and appearing in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.

Born in Princeton, Missouri on May 1, 1852, as Martha Jane Cannary (or Canary), she would later grow up to look and act like a man, shoot like a cowboy, drink like a fish, and exaggerate the tales of her life to any and all who would listen.

From the beginning, Martha loved the outdoors and began riding horses at an early age. In 1865, Martha, along with her parents and five younger siblings, migrated from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana. During the five-month wagon train trip, the teenage girl spent most of her time hunting with the men in the caravan. By the time the wagon train arrived in Virginia City, she was considered a remarkably good markswoman and a fearless rider.

Shortly after arriving in Montana, Jane’s mother died in Black Foot in 1866. The family migrated again to Utah, arriving in Salt Lake City in the summer of 1866. Travel was evidently not good for the Cannary family, because Mr. Cannary died later that same year.

Now heading the household, Jane took her siblings back to Wyoming, arriving at Fort Bridger on May 1, 1868. Taking whatever job that was available in order to provide for the family, she worked as a cook, a nurse, a dance-hall girl, a dishwasher, a waitress, an ox-team driver, and according to some tales, a prostitute.

Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane

In 1870, she joined General George Armstrong Custer as a scout at Fort Russell, Wyoming, donning the uniform of a soldier. This was the beginning of Calamity Jane’s habit of dressing like a man. Heading south, the campaign traveled to Arizona in their zest to put Indians on reservations. In her own words, Calamity would later say of this time, that she was the most reckless and daring rider and one of the best shots in the West.

In 1872, she returned to Fort Sanders, Wyoming, where she was ordered out to the Muscle Shell Indian outbreak. That campaign, in which Generals George Custer, Nelson Miles, George Crook were engaged, lasted until the fall of 1873. It was during this time that “Calamity Jane” reportedly earned her name.

As Calamity told the story, it happened at Goose Creek, Wyoming, where the town of Sheridan is now located. Captain Egan was in command of the Post and the troops were ordered out to quell an Indian uprising. After a couple of days, when the soldiers were heading back to camp, they were ambushed by a large group of Indians. Captain Egan was the first to be shot and fell from his horse. Calamity Jane was riding in advance, but upon hearing gunfire, she turned in her saddle and saw the Captain fall. Galloping back, she lifted him onto her horse and got him safely back to the Fort. Captain Egan on recovering, laughingly said, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.”

Calamity Jane, 1870

Calamity Jane in a dress.

Afterward, she was ordered to Fort Custer, where she arrived in the spring of 1874. In the fall of that same year, they were ordered to Fort Russell where she remained until the spring of 1875. The troops were then ordered to the Black Hills to protect the settlers and the miners from the Sioux Indians where they remained until they arrived at Fort Laramie for the winter.

In the spring of 1876, she was ordered north with General Crook to join Generals Miles, Terry, and Custer at the Big Horn River. During this march, she swam the Platte River near Fort Fetterman to deliver dispatches from General Crook to a local outpost. Contracting a severe illness, she was sent back in General Crook’s ambulance to Fort Fetterman where she was hospitalized for fourteen days.

When she was finally able to ride she headed to Fort Laramie where she met Wild Bill Hickok who was traveling with Charlie Utter’s wagon train to Deadwood, South Dakota. Both being outrageous exaggerators and heavy drinkers, the two hit it off immediately.  Although Jane and Hickok have often been said to have been romantically involved, there is little to support these stories. Jane joined the train which arrived in Deadwood in June of 1876.

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok

James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

During the month of June, she worked as a Pony Express rider carrying the U.S. mail between Deadwood and Custer, a distance of 50 miles, over one of the roughest trails in the Black Hills country. She remained around Deadwood all that summer visiting the many camps of the area.

On August 2, 1876, Wild Bill Hickok was sitting at a gambling table in the Nuttall & Mann’s 66 Saloon, in Deadwood, when he was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall.  Hickok was holding a pair of eights and a pair of aces when he was killed, which would forever be known as a “dead man’s hand.”

Hickok’s funeral was held the next day and the entire population of the gulch, prospectors to prostitutes, followed his funeral procession to “boot hill.” On the same day, a jury panel was selected to try Jack McCall. McCall claimed he had shot Wild Bill in revenge for killing his brother back in Abilene, Kansas, and maintained that he would do it all over again given the chance. In less than two hours the jury returned a “not guilty” verdict that evoked this comment in the local newspaper: “Should it ever be our misfortune to kill a man … we would simply ask that our trial may take place in some of the mining camps of these hills.”

McCall headed out to Wyoming but less than a month later, the trial held in Deadwood was found to have had no legal basis, because Deadwood was located in Indian Territory. He was then was arrested in Laramie, Wyoming on August 29, 1876, charged with the murder, and taken to Yankton, South Dakota to stand trial. Later he was found guilty and in the spring of 1877, Jack McCall was hanged for the murder of Wild Bill Hickok.

Deadwood, South Dakota, 1876

Deadwood, South Dakota, 1876

Calamity Jane remained in Deadwood, prospecting at the various mining camps in the area. When the smallpox plague struck Deadwood, she nursed many people back to health, with little more than a thank you. Even old Doc Babcock had to admit there was a little angel of some sort in the hardboiled woman. While tending to the children, the doctor said of her, “oh, she’d swear to beat hell at them, but it was a tender kind of cussin’.”

But, still, she was always up to some kind of antic. When the Lard Players were at the East Lynne Opera House, Calamity sat with her rough and ready gunslinger friend, Arkansas Tom. Jane became enraged at the end of the play and stood up and let fly a long stream of tobacco juice which hit the star square in the eye and dribbled down her dress. Jane’s gunslinger boyfriend let out a whoop at this and started to shoot out the lamps. The crowd went wild with delight. Calamity took her gun-slinging friend by the arm and they marched up the aisle together to the cheers of the crowd. Tom, unfortunately, did not see Jane again because he was cut down in a bank stick-up the following day.

One morning in the spring of 1877, when she was riding toward Crook city, she met a stagecoach running from Cheyenne to Deadwood with Indians in hot pursuit. Pulling alongside, she found the driver lying face downwards in the boot of the stage, having been shot with an arrow. Taking the driver’s seat, she drove the coach to Deadwood, carrying its six passengers and the wounded driver.

Calamity left Deadwood in the fall of 1877 and traveled to Bear Butte Creek with the 7th Cavalry, where they built Fort Meade near the town of Sturgis. In 1878 she left the command and went to Rapid City where she spent the year prospecting, with little success. By early 1879 she was in Fort Pierre driving mule trains to Fort Pierre and Sturgis.

Calamity Jane holding a gun in 1895.

Calamity Jane holding a gun in 1895.

By the late 1870s Calamity Jane had captured the imagination of several magazine-feature writers who covered the colorful early days of Deadwood. One dime novel dubbed her “The White Devil of the Yellowstone.”

By 1882 she was in Miles City, where she bought a ranch on the Yellowstone River raising stock and cattle and kept a wayside inn.

Ever restless, Calamity went to California in 1883 but left for Texas in 1884. While in El Paso, she met Clinton Burk, a native Texan, whom she married in August 1885. On October 28, 1887, she gave birth to a baby girl.

They left Texas in 1889 and went to Boulder, Colorado, where they ran a hotel until 1893. During the next three years, the Burk family traveled through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon, and South Dakota. For the next few years, Calamity tried to sell her life story to anyone who would listen.

Having the reputation for being able to handle a horse better than most men and shoot like a cowboy, her skills took her into Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in 1895 where she performed sharpshooting astride her horse. She toured Minneapolis, then Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City, bringing to the stage the rip-roarin’ west as she had lived it. She always managed to get drunk and get fired without ceremony.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show

In 1900 Calamity Jane was found by a newspaper editor in a bawdy house and was nursed back to health. In 1901 she was hired by the Pan American Exposition for a good job with fine pay in Buffalo, New York. But again she got liquored up, shot out the bar glass, made Irish policemen dance the jig to her roaring guns, and then stumbled down the street cursing the whole town. She was run out.

In the summer of 1903, Calamity Jane returned to the Black Hills for the last time. In the final stages of raging alcoholism and carrying her pathetically few belongings in a dilapidated old suitcase, she found refuge at Madam Dora DuFran’s brothel in Belle Fourche.  For the next few months, Jane earned her keep by cooking and doing the laundry for Dora’s brothel girls.

However, by August, Calamity Jane was dying in a frowsy little room in the Calloway Hotel in Terry, near Deadwood, South Dakota. Her last request was to give her the date – August 2, 1903 – and then requested that she be buried next to the great American gunfighter, Wild Bill Hickok, on Mt. Moriah overlooking the town of Deadwood.

Her wish was granted. The funeral was the largest to be held in Deadwood for a woman, and Calamity’s coffin was closed by a man who, as a boy, she had nursed back to health when the smallpox epidemic took so many lives in Deadwood.

Calamity Jane at Wild Bill Hickok's Grave.

Calamity Jane at Wild Bill Hickok’s Grave.

Calamity Jane may have been second only to Wild Bill Hickok in exaggerating her early life exploits into something that only a dime-store novelist would believe. Many of those exciting adventures came from Jane herself, and most of them could not be corroborated by others. However, her legend as a hard-drinking woman, wearing men’s clothing and living a rough and raucous life continues.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated November 2019.

“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

Also See:

Black Hills Historic Characters & Tales

Charlie Utter, Bill Hickok’s Best Pard

Deadwood – Rough & Tumble Mining Camp

HBO’s Deadwood – Facts & Fiction

Wild Bill Hickok & The Dead Man’s Hand