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.