|One of the earliest photos of Jane hints at youthful good looks.|
Calamity Jane is a semi-mythical character out of the rootin’ tootin’ Wild West famous for being famous. She is a character with serious schizophrenia. On the one hand she has been portrayed as just an All American Tom Boy with a crush on Wild Bill Hickok in innumerable novels and in movies. She was portrayed by Jean Arthur opposite Gary Cooper in Cecil B. DeMille’s wildly inaccurate The Plainsman, by busty Jane Russell in the Bob Hope farce The Paleface, by chipper Doris Day in the musical romp Calamity Jane, and more grimly by Ellen Barkin in Wild Bill. Angelica Huston got a crack at the part in the TV miniseries based on Larry McMurtry’s Buffalo Girls opposite Sam Eliot’s Hickok. Jane Alexander played her in the western cum family tearjerker TV movie also called Calamity Jane.
On the other hand, there are the professional western de-bunkers who depict Calamity as a vicious bull dyke, prostitute, drunk, and an inveterate liar who made up most of her alleged exploits. The latter, in the age of tearing down icons, is increasingly the more popular view these days and frequently gets expressed in books, articles, and in portrayals like that of Robin Weigert in the fine, profane HBO mini-series Deadwood. These portrayals paint her as ugly based on photographs taken of her in her 40’s when she was trying to exploit her image to make a living.
So who was the real Calamity?
Well, the debunkers have the evidence of her death on August 1, 1903. She was carried dead drunk from a train from Belle Fouche, South Dakota where she had been working as a cook in a brothel operated by an old friend, madam Dora DuFran. She was carried to the Calloway Hotel in Terry, South Dakota, where she hemorrhaged and died at the presumed age of 51.
At her request her body was returned to her old stomping grounds in Deadwood and buried next to Hickok in Mount Moriah Cemetery high on a hill overlooking the city. She reportedly made the request, which was honored by her friends who raised money for the grave site and a monument, because she claimed that “Bill was the only man I ever loved.” Both graves are a popular tourist pilgrimage sites to this day.
She started out as Martha Jane Canary on May 1, 1852 to a hardscrabble farmer in Mercer County, Missouri just south of the Iowa border. She was the eldest of a family that grew to include five more children.
Little is known of her early life. After the Civil War in 1865 her father packed the family into a covered wagon and lit out for Virginia City, the gold mining boom town and new capital of Montana Territory. The trek took more than six arduous months. Later in her fictionalized and ghost written Autobiography she claimed that at age 14 on the trip she rode the family horse bare back and honed her skills as hunter to provide meat for the cooking pot. Her mother died “washboard pneumonia” along the route and was buried at Blackfoot, Montana.
Her father was unable to get established in Montana and after a year relocated the family to the Salt Lake Valley where he tried to eke at a living on a 40 acre dust farm on land the Mormons didn’t want. He died in 1867 leaving teen aged Martha to support the family.
She loaded up the wagon and headed east to Fort Bridger, Wyoming where she sold the rig and piled the family onto a Union Pacific train that took them to near-by Piedmont, a railroad boom town whose main industry lumbering and cutting ties for construction of the Transcontinental Railway. Jane and her family stayed in the town until 1874 and she supported the brood by taking any jobs she could find—dishwasher, a cook, a waitress, a dance-hall girl (prostitute), a nurse, and an ox team driver. Despite her later reputation as ugly, at this point in her life she was described as extremely attractive and as a “pretty dark-eyed girl.” She still wore conventional women’s clothing including what finery she could assemble to attract customers to her dance hall/brothel duties.
According to her suspect autobiography, Martha Jane began her association with the Army in 1870 when she claimed to have enlisted as a Scout under Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer (still called General by some because of his brevet Civil War) rank at Fort Russell in Cheyenne. She thus coupled her identity with a famous name. But the story is impossible. Custer was never stationed at Ft. Russell and troops from there were not dispatched to Arizona for an Indian campaign where she claims to have served a Scout. Since Scouts generally needed to be familiar with the territory in which they were operating and a good knowledge of the tribes they were fighting, a youthful girl with no experience in the southwest would hardly have been enlisted.
Some historians date her involvement with the Army to 1872 under General George Crook at Fort Fetterman, one of the string of posts north of Ft. Laramie meant to enforce the terms of the Sioux Treaty of 1868 which ended Red Cloud’s War. She was certainly active there and at other posts by 1874.
Her service was not likely as a Scout, except perhaps unofficially. She was a teamster, a job critical to logistical support of both the permanent posts and operations in the field. It was during this period that she began adopting men’s clothing, certainly more suitable attire for her work than the cumbersome dresses and skirts of the era.
One Cavalry officer who would have known here during this period, Captain Jack Crawford, told a Montana newspaper after Jane died that she “never saw service in any capacity under either General Crook…never was in an Indian fight. She was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish, but possessed a generous streak which made her popular.”
Popular she was on those isolated posts where the men were charmed by her ability to curse like the mule skinner she was, drink and carouse the best of them, and probably liberally bestow her sexual favors for fun and profit.
She was beginning to establish a “reputation” and stories circulated. About this time she acquired the nick name Calamity. She claimed it was for rescuing wounded Captain Egan after a running Indian fight outside a small post at Goose Creek, Wyoming about 1872. This seems to have been a wholly invented yarn. Other times she told people it was because she warned men that it would be a “risking calamity to offend her.” An old timer recalling her probably got closest to the truth when he told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that, “She got her name from a faculty she has had of producing a ruction at any time and place and on short notice.”
As a teamster Jane visited many posts and may have taken to the field in the baggage train of active campaigns. She evidently accompanied troops to the Black Hills for the first time in 1874 and was there again the following year. It was at this time she may—or may not—have made the acquaintance of William Fredrick Cody, the Scout known as Buffalo Bill who would figure in the legends and yarns about her and briefly later employ her in his Wild West Show.
She wintered over at Ft. Laramie where she worked at the Three-Mile Hog Ranch brothel as a prostitute, and reportedly one of the establishment’s top attractions.
At least one instance of her acting in the role of a Scout has been verified by contemporary accounts. In the spring of 1875 accompanying Crook on a second march to the Big Horn. She was entrusted with “important dispatches.” She swam the Platte River and made a 90 mile ride soaking wet to Ft. Fetterman to deliver the message. At the Fort she was taken ill, probably with pneumonia and had to be nursed back to health. It was on the basis of this confirmed episode that many years after her death the Army granted pension survivor benefits to a woman claiming to be her daughter.
Calamity spent another winter at Ft. Laramie and at her employment at the Hog Ranch before signing on as a Teamster on a Charles Utter’s wagon train heading north with supplies for the rogue boomtown of Deadwood. It was on this trip that she met Hickok, a fellow teamster and a meat hunter for the expedition. They arrived in town in July of 1876. Jane had enough of a reputation that the Black Hills Pioneer reported “Calamity Jane has arrived.”
She was smitten with Hickok and he was friendly with her, standing her to drinks in the local saloons. When he decided to stay and take the local miner’s gold at the poker table, Jane decided to stay too, riding mail dispatches to and from Ft. Custer, operating a freight hauling business, and servicing customers for Dora DuFran.
Jane’s later claims that she married Hickok in Benton, Montana in 1873 and that he fathered her daughter Jean, despite being honored by the Army claims board in 1941, were impossible. Hickok had married Agnes Thatcher Lake, who operated a circus in Cheyenne in March, just before joining the wagon train where he did meet Calamity.
Hickok was famously shot in the back of the head at a poker table in Deadwood on August 2. Jane later claimed to have personally hunted down his killer, Jack McCall and “arrested” him armed with a meat clever. It wasn’t true. She was so depressed by the killing that she drank herself in a stupor, not an unfamiliar condition.
Despite Hickok’s death Jane stayed around Deadwood.
In 1877 riding post to Crook City, Jane performed her most famous confirmed act of daring to. She encountered the overland mail coach from Cheyenne under attack by a band of hostiles as it was coming into a relay station to change horses. The driver, John Slaughter—a semi-famous character in his own right—was dead. Calamity stopped the run away team, jumped into the driver’s seat and sped away avoiding a second ambush at the station. She saved the lives of the six passengers and brought the stage safely into Deadwood.
Despite her increasingly obnoxious, alcohol fueled behavior around town, Jane won a place in the city’s heart and history in 1878 when she was the only person who volunteered to care for eight men quarantined with small pox in a small cabin outside of town. Although three of her charges died, the others recovered and Jane treated other victims until the epidemic played itself out.
Shortly after the small pox outbreak, Jane returned to working as a teamster, this time using oxen instead of mules, for the Army, accompanying the 7th Cavalry to Bear Butte Creek where they established Ft. Meade and the town of Sturgis. The next year she joined the gold rush to Rapid City where she evidently panned the streams and tried to establish a claim.
By 1881 Jane had drifted into Montana where she tried her hand at ranching near Miles City on the Yellowstone River and also ran a “wayside inn for weary travelers.” It must not have been successful. In 1883 she headed to California where she spent the next two years in Ogden and San Francisco.
In 1885 she was in El Paso, Texas where she met and may have married Clinton Burk. Although the couple moved together to Boulder, Colorado where they operated a hotel, some scholars don’t believe that they became legally married until the 1890’s. In 1887 Jane gave birth to daughter Jean, who she gave up to foster parents recognizing that she could not care for the child.
What happened to the baby is unknown, although a woman named Jane McCormick claimed to be Calamity’s daughter born earlier by Hickok. Jane claimed to be in possession of letters Calamity written but unsent to her daughter which were found among her possessions at the time of her death. Since Jane was known to be illiterate, these letters have been called into question. But they have entered the lore. A composer even set them to a cycle of art songs and they were the basis of the TV movie starring Jane Alexander.
The couple remained in Boulder through 1893. Meanwhile Calamity’s name had been used without her permission in dime novels including the popular Deadwood Dick series dating back to 1877. The exploits in them were entirely imaginary, but they fueled public interest. Reporters sometime sought Jane out at the Boulder hotel where she was interviewed and happily posed in male garb heavily armed on and off horseback.
Probably due to Jane’s drinking, her marriage deteriorated. She became a vagabond some times with and sometimes without her husband roaming through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Oregon. In 1895 she returned to Deadwood, where she claimed her old friends welcomed her with open arms. Certainly Dora DuFran did, although after 17 years of absence Jane was no longer fit to be one of her girls. She was, however an attraction for the eastern tourists who were already showing up looking for the “authentic west.” If they would stand her for a drink, Calamity was free to accommodate their interest in yarns real and fanciful.
Old associates like Bill Cody had already turned to show business to exploit their celebrity. Even her beloved Hickok had allowed himself to be “put on display” before he died. Jane accepted an offer by the Palace Museum in Minneapolis in 1897. But after a few months her drinking and sometime bizarre behavior cost her job. She tried exhibiting herself on the vaudeville circuit, but here act, telling stories, failed to win many bookings due to her drinking. She was frequently in trouble. Cody tried briefly to employ her in his show, but could not keep her on.
In 1901 she was appearing at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York where Cody’s Wild West Show was also an attraction. She was arrested for fighting and disorderly conduct. Cody bailed her out and paid her fare back to Deadwood. He later said, “I expect she was no more tired of Buffalo than the Buffalo police were of her, for her sorrows seemed to need a good deal of drowning.”
It was pretty much her last hurrah. Two years later she was dead. At least in the ground in Deadwood she made a more reliable and less troublesome tourist attraction.