Calamity Jane

calamity2.jpgDo you love stories and films about real Western characters?  I do.  One of my favorites is Calamity Jane, whose outrageous lifestyle and genuine courage made her a frontier legend.

The record of Calamity Jane’s life is a mixture of fact and fiction.  Much of that fiction was invented by Calamity herself.We do know that her real name was Martha Jane Cannary, and that she was born in Missouri in 1852. In 1866 her family emigrated to Montana.  Her mother died on the trail, and her father passed away the following year.  Martha Jane became the head of the family and eventually struck out on her own.           

By the time she was 13, Martha Jane could cuss like a man and had learned to like whiskey.  She was a fearless rider and a dead shot.  In 1870 she became a scout in the campaign against the Indians.  At this time she began dressing in men’s clothes.  Sometimes she even passed as a man.  Her heart was warm and womanly.  But men’s clothes suited the rough work she did.  Her appearance also made it easier for her male associates to accept her as an equal.           

 Around the same time, she acquired her nickname.  Calamity claimed it was given to her by an officer she rescued from an Indian attack.  More likely it came from her way of drawing trouble wherever she went.  As one old-timer said, “If she sat on a fence rail, it would rare up and buck her off.”           

 Calamity remained with the army until the mid-1870’s.  Then she met James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock and rode with him and his friends to Deadwood, South Dakota.  In Deadwood she worked as a pony express rider carrying the U.S. mail through dangerous country.           

Legend has it that Calamity and Wild Bill were lovers.  She was almost certainly in love with Bill, but he was married to a girl back East and had no romantic interest in Calamity.  After Bill was shot dead during a poker game, Calamity chased down his killer.  The man got away but was eventually recaptured and hanged.Calamity remained in Deadwood for a time.  During the winter of 1878 she helped nurse residents through a smallpox epidemic.  After that she returned to the army for a time, drove freight wagons, tried ranching, and finally drifted to Texas.           

In 1885, at the age of 33, Calamity married Clinton Burke and later gave birth to a daughter.  No one knows for sure what became of the child.            

By now Calamity Jane was a legend.  Friends persuaded her to cash in on her fame.  She toured and made many public appearances, some of them with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.  But hard living had taken its toll.  She returned to South Dakota where she died in 1903, at the age of 51.  At her own request, she was buried next to Wild Bill, “the only man I ever loved.”           

I’ve always wished someone would make a good, historically accurate movie about the life of this amazing woman (the Doris Day musical, delightful as it was, doesn’t count).  How about you?  What actress would you cast as Calamity?  Who are some of your favorite real-life Western characters?  Don’t forget to sign up for our contest!  We have some great prizes.               

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I'm an internationally published romance author, coming up on 40 novels and novellas. Most of my stories have been Westerns for Harlequin Historicals, but I set stories in other times and places as well. I'll also be writing contemporary stories for Harlequin Desire, with the first release in January 2013. You can learn more on my web site.

32 thoughts on “Calamity Jane”

  1. I can’t remember the name of the actress who portrayed Calamity Jane in the Wild Bill Hickock move starring Jeff Bridges, but she did a good job. She was a little too attractive for that part, IMHO, even though they tried to make her look a little rough around the edges. Shoot, what’s her name? It’s on the tip of my tongue. lol

    Actually, now that I think about it, whoever it was that played Calamity Jane in HBO’s Deadwood did a great job.

  2. Yep, I agree with Carol that the actress who protrayed her on Deadwood did a great job. My stepson just joined Cub Scouts and one of the things they are studying is Tall Tales and Calamity is one of them. Of course her possibly sexual relationship with Wild Bill would need to be left out of the storytelling for an 8 year old, but the rest would be wonderfully insightful for my stepson.

    I would like to know the true history on her as well. She was a spitfire from the tales, but it would still be great to know the true Calamity Jane.

    As for my favorite real-life western characters, I love to learn more about Wild Bill, Billy the Kid, and Jesse James.

  3. Good morning (yawn, hey I live in the West). What great comments. I watched the first couple of episodes of “Deadwood” before getting burned out on the dialogue. I agree, the actress who played Calamity was excellent, probably closer to the real character than anything else I’ve seen on screen.
    Larry McMurtry wrote a wonderful short novel on the last years of her life, with flashbacks. That book would make a great movie. Anybody remember the name of it? (Maybe I will after I go for coffee). 🙂

  4. I also wasn’t aware of the Larry McMurtry novel. I will check it out. Have read other books by him that were very good. I love reading about the west and the people that settled it.

  5. Found it, Carol. It’s called BUFFALO GIRLS. According to a note on Amazon, it was made into a CBS movie. Did anybody see it?
    Anyway, the book is excellent, as is most of McMurtry’s work.

  6. Can you imagine how hard her life must have been for her to turn to scouting for the army. Both parents dead in the unforgiving west at age 14. I wonder if there were younger brothers and sisters. You said she became ‘the head of the household’ after her father’s death.
    A fourteen year old is nearly old enough back then to marry, certainly within a year or two. So why didn’t she? Women were pretty rare in the west back then and you’d think she’d have had chances.
    What prompted her to make such a radical anti-gender specific choice with her life in an age when doing that was almost earthshaking.
    Trying to imagine the fires that forged her is such great mental exercise for a writer…her backstory, her motivation.

  7. You really have to wonder, don’t you? She did have younger brothers and sisters. In my brief research for the blog I couldn’t find what happened to them. Maybe other people took them in. According to accounts, she was a pretty young girl. Maybe something traumatic happened to her, like a rape. Or maybe she was just a wild spirit.
    There are some great stories that I didn’t include in the blog. During the smallpox outbreak, they put eight sick miners in a cabin, pretty much to die. Calamity volunteered to go in and nurse them. No one else would go near. A couple of them did die, and she buried them. She pulled the rest of them through. I say, What a woman!

  8. Hi Elizabeth!

    I’ve always loved this legend, as well — although I must admit that I loved the Doris Day musical — even though it was a far stretch from the actual history of the thing. Don’t know much about actresses of today, but it if were a 30’s film, my vote would be for Katherine Hepburn. Great post!

  9. Calamity Jane is one of my favs — thanks for the info about her!

    I adore history, and have begun devouring western romances again. This site is awesome, and the info/ blogs are such fun! I’ll be back here a lot!

  10. Elizabeth – I agree with you about Deadwood. I tried and couldn’t get past the language, so I stopped watching it. Calamity led such a colorful life. I wonder how she was accepted by women back then? Was she such an oddity that they discounted her womanhood or did many of them scorn her? I think her love of Wild Bill is romantic — and such a tragedy at the same time.

  11. What a wonderful post, Elizabeth. Calamity Jane is one of my favorite real-life characters from the Old West. Yes, I would like to see someone make a movie of her life and include more of the facts about this remarkable woman.

  12. OK!! I just found the movie “Buffalo Girls” on Netflix. It was made in 1995. Angelica Huston is Calamity (not a bad choice). Sam Elliot is Wild Bill(yummy!). Also features Melanie Griffith and some other excellent actors. Where was I when this came out? Has anybody seen it?

    On another note, according to some sources, Bill didn’t even like Calamity. When she died his “friends” buried her next to him as a sort of black joke. Again, who knows what’s true?

  13. Another great blog and fun-to-read posts. ALways a good start to my West Coast day (I’m not a real early bird).. Wyatt Earp and Josephine always stir my heart and I do like those bad boys Jesse and Frank…did any of you watch a Western TV show a while back The Young Riders about the Pony Express…one rider, a girl, hid her gender, and the guy she had a crush on could never understand why he was drawn to her. Oh that one was full of a bunch of cuties…

  14. Hi Elizabeth, great post today! I love the story about Calamity Jane. When my husband and I visited South Dakota and Deadwood, I saw both Calamity and Wild Bill’s graves. Have pictures. Their story/relationship is so full of mystery and lots of unanswered questions. Sure wish we could bring these people to life for just a few moments and ask questions. I’m sure her reason for doing the things she did made perfect sense to her. But I think she was a sad person deep down.

    Renee Zelweiger (not sure if I spelled it right) immediately comes to mind when I think of Calamity. Renee has that roughness that hides the soft heart beneath. Loved her in Cold Mountain.

  15. Elizabeth, I read your post earlier today then got busy here at work. Wouldn’t you know, Calamity Jane has been on my mind. Your story about her was so intriguing and full of mystery! Makes you wonder if she was ever truly happy from not being able to have Wild Bill forever. And that little girl of hers–would love to know about her, too!

    Great post!

  16. Calamity Jane is definitely one of the most intersting real-life Western characters. When I was a kid I first read about Calamity Jane and about many other real-life Western characters in the French comic Lucky Luke.

  17. Calamity Jane is a great inspiration for heroines with a will of their own and grit.

    I’m going to get Buffalo Girls either in book or video.

    Great blog, Elizabeth!

  18. Hi, Elizabeth! Chiming in late again. Oh, and wanted to tell you that I just finished “The Stranger” and loved it! I’m not going to say anything to spoil it for anyone who’s yet to read it, but I have to mention that for a while I through you were going to put a bit of paranormal into it. Raised the hair on my arms, I can tell ya! :o)

    Next up is Pam’s “Untamed Cowboy,” which is lying here atop my desk. Yes, I’m always behind in my reading.

    My vote goes to Rene Zelweger (sp.?) to play Calamity, too. Only actress that came to mind.

    I’ve always been fascinated with John Wesley Hardin and have often wondered why no one has done his story in a movie. Yes, he was a real bad hombre, but his entire story is the stuff of myth. For instance, when he was only 15, he doubled back on a company of Rangers who were after him, bushwhacked them, and sent them all packing. Many other incredible thing, too. Then late in life, after prison, he became a lawyer. Was finally shot in the back by someone trying to make a name for themselves.

    Great blog!

    Devon

  19. Thanks for all your comments. I’ve been away for a while and am now back. After so many good responses to Calamity’s story, I’m thinking of doing Wild Bill when next I blog–unless someone else beats me to him.
    Thanks again, all of you.

  20. Linda, I agree about Renee Z but also nominate Ellen Barkin. She was great in the Big Easy and can picture her as Calamity.

  21. I have been doing some serious research on Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. Calmity Jane would have been a mere 18 when she met Wild Bill and only 24 when he died in 1876. I beleive that she was married to HIckok, and I would bet due to his noteriaty she was kept secret. Most pictures depict her in her later years, as a young girl she was very attractive when she was young. I think history has not been kind to her.

  22. Amazing–I never knew that. As you see from the blog, my research didn’t go into that much depth. Thanks so much for adding this information. Agree with you that history hasn’t been kind to her.

  23. I read somewhere that the character “Lou” (re: Louise) from “The Young Riders” was loosely based on Calamity Jane — a girl dressing as a man and living a man’s life. Just discovered all three seasons uploaded on Youtube for anyone interested in watching.

  24. See above. She was officially married to Clinton Burke in 1885, at the age of 33. I’m not aware of any other legal marriages, although she did have relationships with other men.
    Hope this helps, Terry.

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