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, for 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.
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.”
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 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.
During the month of June, she worked as a Pony Express rider carrying the U.S. mail between Deadwood and Custer, a distance of fifty 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, Deadwood being 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.
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 denouement in 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.