Who Was Calamity Jane?

Jennifer Uhlarik

Hi everyone. I’m celebrating this month! June 1 marked the release of Cameo Courtships, a 4-in-1 novella collection which I am part of. My story in the collection is Taming Petra, and my heroine goes by the name of “Buckskin Pete Hollingsworth.” Buckskin Pete is a buckskin-wearing, gun-toting, tomahawk-throwing tomboy, loosely modeled after Old West icon Calamity Jane.

If you’re like me, you know of Calamity Jane, but only in the most general way. So who was Calamity Jane?

She was born Martha Jane Cannary, on May 1, 1852, the eldest child of a gambler father and a prostitute mother. She had two brothers and three sisters. As the family traveled from Martha Jane’s birthplace in Missouri to Virginia City, Montana, her mother fell ill with pneumonia and died. A year later, her father also succumbed to death, leaving Martha Jane, who was just fourteen years old at the time, to take charge of her five younger siblings and support her family. The six siblings settled in Piedmont, Wyoming, where Martha Jane took whatever jobs she could find—from dishwasher, to waitress, to nurse, to ox-team driver, to sometimes prostitute.


As her younger siblings grew up and moved on, it freed Martha Jane to strike out on her own as well. In the 1870s, she is said to have acted as scout for the Army, an Indian fighter, as well as displaying excellent aim as a sharpshooter.

Calamity in a dress

When asked how she came to be called “Calamity,” she told the following story in a short biographical pamphlet. While working with the Army near Goose Creek, Wyoming, they were sent out to subdue an Indian uprising. On the way back to the post, they were ambushed about a mile and a half out. As she charged through the fray, being fired upon, she turned in time to see Captain Egan struck and reeling in his saddle. Jane turned back to help, caught the officer before he fell, and pulled him onto her own horse in front of her. Once safely back at the post and the captain recovering, he jokingly stated that he would dub her Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains, and she proudly wore the name from that point forward.

While the story is an entertaining one, several details call its credibility into question. For one, Calamity Jane was functionally illiterate, so she would have had to dictate such a story to someone else for the pamphlet. It’s possible she did just that. But in the story itself, she claims to have singlehandedly pulled a wounded and reeling man from him horse onto her own and held him in the saddle until they reached the safety of the army post. The likelihood of such feats of strength do cause one to question the story. Another alternative for how she came to be known as Calamity Jane is that she would warn any man who crossed her that he was “courting calamity” by doing so.

She is known to have had a kind and generous side. In Deadwood, S.D., she is rumored to have nursed the sick during an outbreak of smallpox. And she was also known to have helped those in need, providing food she’d hunted herself or given money to those unable to provide for themselves.

Calamity Jane at Wild Bill Hickok’s gravesite

Rumors link Calamity Jane to another well-known Western icon—James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Some rumors state they were friends. Others tout the pair were lovers. Calamity Jane herself stated that she and Wild Bill were married in 1873 and had a daughter, who was later adopted by another family. No marriage license has been found to support a legal union between the two characters. Of course, Wild Bill died by a shooter’s bullet in 1876, so any romance that may have existed lasted only briefly.

The later years of Calamity Jane’s life saw her become a hard-drinking alcoholic, often down on her luck, living life mostly alone. For a brief time, she performed with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show as a storyteller and sharpshooter, but otherwise, she drifted from town to town. She died of pneumonia on August 1, 1903, at the age of 51. She and Wild Bill Hickok are buried next to each other in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.

My heroine, Buckskin Pete Hollingsworth, is loosely based on Calamity Jane—in their shared propensity to wear men’s buckskin trousers, their ability to scout and track, and their soft sides that enabled both to help those in need. Do you enjoy reading fictional characters you know are based on a true person from history, or do you prefer purely fictional characters that are wholly original? Why or why not? Leave your thoughts to be entered in a drawing for an autographed paperback copy of Cameo Courtships.

Jennifer Uhlarik discovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list numerous times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children. Check out her website and Facebook page or follow her on Twitter or Pinterest.



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35 thoughts on “Who Was Calamity Jane?”

  1. Hi Jennifer. I love these stories of characters from the old west. It’s so hard to separate truth from fiction because of the tall tales that grew up around them.

    Thanks for the profile of Calamity Jane. Raising all those little brothers and sisters makes her a hero no matter what else she did.

  2. Thank you for sharing your great post! I enjoy reading a fictional story based on a true character or event.

  3. I love reading fictional characters based on real people because usually the author lets the reader know and tells about the history of the real person.
    That was very interesting about Calamity Jane. I believe there was a lot of exaggeration going on about Calamity being able to help a full grown man from a horse and hold him in the saddle. Haha!
    I did learn a few things about her also. Thanks for sharing the pictures too.

  4. Jennifer- Wow, what an amazing blog. I’ve read many other’s account of Calamity Jane, but none as detailed as yours. You gave me a whole new respect for this lady.
    I love reading characters based on true lives of others. I also love when an author includes true historical facts and towns in their books. Even if the main characters are fictional, to include true history or real characters as a brief guest in a book really fuels my love of reading. Thanks for visiting and sharing your blog.

  5. Great blog. I had forgotten who Calamity Jane was so thank you for sharing all this information. I love both types of books. I love books that include factual events, real places, and real characters from history. However, I love a good completely fictional book too. I have been taught more by HWR writers than I ever learned in a classroom. I’d love the opportunity to read your book. A giveaway is an awesome way to find a new author to add to my go-to author’s list.

    • I love reading both types of stories. It’s great when the authors add in real places and add the history of those places into it. Thanks for sharing about Calamity Jane!

      • Hi Joy, thank you so much for stopping by! My first full-length novel, Sand Creek Serenade, was one where I took real people, places, and history and gave a fictional account. That takes a lot of work, but it is also the story I am most proud of. Taming Petra is far more fictional than that, but still a fun story with the hints of a Calamity Jane-type character in it.

    • Thank you for stopping by, Stephanie. Glad you enjoyed the post. While my story here uses Calamity Jane just as a jumping off point–someone larger-than-life to model my character after–I do enjoy the research of historical people and places and weaving the real history into stories!

  6. Great post. I love historical fiction where the Author puts all the real historical facts in the story. Just the fact the Calamity raised her younger siblings shows her strong personality. Thanks for your post.

  7. Oops! Didn’t mean to reply to the other person’s comment!

    I love reading both types of stories. It’s great when the authors add in real places and add the history of those places into it. Thanks for sharing about Calamity Jane!

  8. Interesting post I loved reading about Calamity Jane it kind of nice to see where she got her name. Looking forward to reading your book sounds really good.

  9. Welcome. I cant wait to read this book. Hmmm I think I like both depending on my mood at the time. This is an interesting post. I didnt know a lot of this. Thanks for sharing. I have always looked at her as a lovely lady in buckskins. The real pictures really change that idea.

      • I was talking about appearances. My sisters only daughter has never really looked like her or her husband. No one we could figure. But she is a lovely lady now. Well my husband has been playing around with Ancestry.com and he came across a photo of a lady who would be my great great aunt. Oh my goodness, her and my niece are the spitting image, I got goosebumps when I first saw it. So uncanny.

  10. Thank you … thank you … for broadening my horizons! I loved reading this post with the pictures and history so vividly detailed. I look forward to getting to know you as an author! Glad you could write this interesting blog for us to enjoy.

  11. Whenever I hear the name Calamity Jane, I think of the movie starring Debbie Reynolds, which had the usual Hollywood ending. I knew nothing of the real Calamity until reading your post. I agree with Mary; taking care of her young siblings makes her a real hero. I hope the part about her and Wild Bill is true.

    Your story sounds intriguing. Can’t wait to read it!

    • HI Margaret, I’m glad I could share new information with you. Calamity Jane was a character, that’s for sure! And you and Mary are so right–caring for her family after her parents’ deaths should make her a hero in anyone’s book!

  12. I love to read/learn as much as possible about historical figures, especially from the Old West. Thank you so much for sharing this information on Calamity Jane.

  13. Hi Jennifer, welcome to P&P! It’s great to have you. I’ve been to Calamity Jane’s grave in Deadwood. I’ve always thought it odd that she insisted on being buried next to Wild Bill. It might’ve been one-sided, but she was definitely in love with him. I hope she found happiness in the afterlife. Cameo Courtships looks full of interesting stories.

    • Hi Linda, I hope to get out to Deadwood one day and see their graves. That would be such a fun trip, I think. From the research I’ve done on her, it sure does seem that she loved him, even if he didn’t return the feelings. I agree with you–I hope she found happiness!

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