The Woman Called Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane is a name that will forever stay in the history of the American West. When anyone now brings up the name Calamity Jane the real question is who exactly was this woman called Calamity Jane? What was she famous for? Why does her name still come up today?

The exploits of Calamity Jane were many and her life paints a vivid picture of surviving in the old west, and surviving as a woman.

calamity jane

martha Jane Canary aka "Calamity Jane"

Great Western Trip Stops

Before going into the colorful and amazing life of this famous frontierswoman, there are several excellent venues to learn more about her and the old west frontier in general.These include the Dakota Discovery Museum located in Mitchell, SD. Lots of interesting information and exhibits about the western frontier and about Calamity Jane. Mitchell id located about 74 miles west of Sioux Falls.

Another interesting stop is the Yellowstone Gateway Museum in Livingston Montana. Here you’ll find good information about Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill Cody and others. Livingston is located about 28 miles east of Bozeman.

If your trip takes you to Deadwood South Dakota you may want to visit the final resting site of both Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery can be reached by bus with tour guides from Main Street in Deadwood. This is a a very old cemetery and offers a good reflection of Deadwood and the Black Hills area history during the very early years.

In Princeton Missouri, the birthplace of Calamity Jane, you can enjoy the Calamity Jane Days Fall Festival which is held each September. Princeton is about 115 miles north/northeast of Kansas City.

black hills south dakota

The Black Hills of South Dakota

A Woman Named Martha Jane Canary

Who history knows as Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Canary in 1852 in Princeton, Missouri. In 1865 the family moved west to Virginia City, Montana, a growing gold mining town in the outer reaches of the frontier. Keep in mind that this was some eleven years prior to Custer’s Battle of the Little Bighorn.

To arrive in Montana one had to traverse usually hostile Sioux Indian territory. Not always easy. When you head out on a western road trip today you can take along a travel guide. During the mid 1800’s your only trip adviser were your instincts.

Young Martha’s Trip West

The overland trip took five months and during this time the young Martha Jane learned to hunt for food with the male members of the traveling party. Her mother unfortunately died shortly after their arrival in Montana. The family was on the move once again, this time to Utah.

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Fort Bridger circa 1850's

The tale was that Martha’s father died shortly after their arrival in Utah and she took her siblings back to Wyoming and settled at Fort Bridger. To support her siblings Martha took a variety of jobs, everything from dishwasher, ox team driver, dance hall girl, cook, nurse and waitress. Some stories claim she even became a prostitute. This accusation came from the later years she spent in Deadwood.

Martha gained a reputation as a tough frontier woman wearing men’s clothing, chewing tobacco, drinking like a frontier man and she became an excellent shot with her guns. Her life travels took her from Montana all the way to Arizona and then back north again..

A Cavalry Scout

In 1870 Martha became a scout for George Armstrong Custer in Wyoming and wore a soldiers uniform. Her Arizona travels was with the army in their quest to put the Indians back on their reservations. During the 1870’s Calamity Jane was very much involved with the U.S. Army in several Indian campaigns in the Wyoming and Montana areas. She worked with Generals Terry and Crook around the Powder River area which was the hotbed of Sioux Indian activity.

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Deadwood Dakota Territory, 1876

A Move to Deadwood

After Martha’s involvement with the army ended she moved to Deadwood Dakota Territory, at that time a large mining center in the Black Hills area. Her adventurous life their took another turn, this time as a pony express rider delivering mail between Deadwood and the town of Custer some fifty miles away. Deadwood was also a town that Bill Hickok, Martha’s friend, spent a good deal of time at.

Becoming Calamity Jane

If you’re reading about the exploits of Calamity Jane, at some point you will want to know how she took on that name. The story is that during the Indian Wars Martha came to the rescue of a Captain Egan near Goose Creek, Wyoming (now Sheridan, WY) who was ambushed by Indians and himself shot while losing a good amount of his troops.

Martha heard the gunfire, turned to see Captain Egan shot and reeling in his saddle. She galloped to his aid, took him on her horse before he fell, and rode away with him to the safety of the fort. At that point in the tale, Captain Egan proclaimed her “Calamity Jane“.

Like many old west tales, there was a bit of disagreement as to whether the story was true. Some claimed it was not. Some say she simply was given the name because of her rowdiness and that men had to beware of her so as to avoid a “calamity“. Others of course disagree with that version.

calamity jane and wild bill hickok in deadwood

Wild Bill Hickok

If the tales are true then Martha Jane Canary no doubt was a very talented frontier woman. If she was a scout for the army then she would have to have been an outstanding horseman and shot. She would have to have had tremendous survival instincts.

See the Trips Into History articles on the links below…

A Visit to Fort Apache Historic Park

Robbers Roost and Canyonlands National Park

The Great Western Cattle Trail

An excellent book about the life of Calamity Jane is, Calamity Jane : The Woman and the Legend by James D. McLaird.

Calamity Jane’s Latter Years

We do know that in 1893, Calamity Jane joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West as a horseback rider and trick shooter. In later years she settled at a ranch in Montana and tried her luck as an innkeeper. She was married along the way to a Texan and then moved to a ranch in Colorado.

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The Gem Theater in Deadwood, 1878

Martha had a daughter named Jane who ended up with foster parents. She was later reported depressed and had a drinking problem which most felt had it’s origins in her earlier wild life on the frontier and in Deadwood. Eventually she returned to Deadwood and took on cooking and housekeeping duties at the brothel she was earlier connected with.

Calamity Jane died in 1903 at the age of 51 in Deadwood. She is buried next to her friend Wild Bill Hickok in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, SD.

(Article copyright Trips Into History. Photos and images in the public domain)


Searching For Old Pioneer Wagon Trail Ruts

A fun and educational experience on your western road trip is to view old wagon ruts from the boom days of the Overland Trail and the Santa Fe Trail. Searching for old pioneer wagon ruts through the western U.S. and learning of the history about that era can be a fun vacation experience for the entire family.

Even today, reminders of the pioneer emigration westward are still visible in many sections of these historic routes. Some sections of course are today on private land but a good many are preserved in national and state parks throughout the west.

Two popular sites to view pioneer wagon ruts are Lake Guernsey State Park in Wyoming and Fort Union in northeastern New Mexico.

guernsey state park wyoming

Guernsey State Park Museum, Wyoming

Wyoming’s Lake Guernsey State Park

This site is a must see during your Wyoming vacation. If you’re just traveling through Wyoming, this is one of the finest side trips you can add to your itinerary.

Inside Lake Guernsey State Park is a separate National Historic Landmark named the Oregon Trail Ruts.The best examples of wagon wheel ruts put there by wagon trains, many made by wagons weighing  2,500 pounds, are a few miles to the south of Guernsey in southeastern Wyoming. This area of Wyoming was crossed by the 1841-1869 era Oregon Trail. Today, in several parts of Wyoming, remnants of The Oregon Trail can still be seen. Some of the best examples are the ones located around Guernsey Wyoming.

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Conestoga Wagon

Guernsey Lake State Park also offers numerous exhibits about the Civilian Conservation Corp and buildings from the era. The buildings were constructed of timbers and hand-forged iron by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930’s. The park which contains the Guernsey Reservoir on the North Platte River  was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1996.

The historic Guernsey Lake State Park is located northwest of Guernsey Wyoming about 100 miles north of Cheyenne.

Fort Union National Monument New Mexico

Fort Union National Monument is located between the cities of Raton and Las Vegas New Mexico, a bit closer to Las Vegas and just to the west of Interstate 25. The partial ruins of the adobe structures that were built at this important fort have been saved and restored and are fascinating.

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Santa Fe Trail markings within Fort Union

Fort Union was a crucial western fort for several reasons. The fort was located at a point where two segments of the old Santa Fe Trail intersected. The fort was an important supply base for travelers on the trail and also offered a degree of protection. The railroad would not come through the area until 1879 therefore the Santa Fe Trail was a major trade route. Between 1821 and 1880, the Santa Fe Trail was literally a commercial highway connecting Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Spain was not warm to the idea of settlers from the east traveling to Santa Fe. In fact they regarded the lands south of the Arkansas River as part of their territory and prohibited trade with the Americans to the east. The Mexican government formed after Spain was ousted from North America in the early 1820’s took the opposite approach and encouraged the trade the Santa Fe Trail made possible.

The historic Buffalo Soldiers also had a presence for years at Fort Union. This included the 9th and 10th cavalry units and the 24th and 25th infantry units.


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Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts outside Fort Union National Monument

Fort Union would also be key during the Civil War years when Confederate troops tried unsuccessfully to reach and attack it.

The Confederates made a move to the north and occupied  Old Town Albuquerque for about thirty-nine days. They made an advance northward to the east of Santa Fe in an effort to cut off Union supplies and forces on the Santa Fe Trail. The result was a battle at Glorieta Pass, just about twenty miles east of Santa Fe along what is now Interstate 25. Union forces from Fort Union and Colorado Volunteers defeated the Confederate troops at the Battle of Glorieta Pass.

The wagon ruts at Fort Union can be seen within the National Monument itself and are marked. Ruts are also very visible outside the park between it and Interstate 25.

More Trips Into History articles you may enjoy are found on the links below…

Re-Riding the Old Pony Express Trail

The Black Canyon Arizona Stagecoach Route

The National Ranching Heritage Center / A Texas Treasure

wyoming oregon trail wagon ruts

A section of Oregon Trail through Wyoming

More Sites to Add to Your Trip Planner

Additional trail sections where 1800’s pioneer wagon ruts can be viewed include the 350 acre Rock Creek Station Historical Park. The park is about a 123 mile drive southwest of Omaha Nebraska near the town of Fairbury.

Another good site that takes in the Santa Fe Trail is the Cimarron National Grassland. The Cimarron National Grassland is located in Morton County Kansas with a small part in Stevens County. The grassland includes twenty-three miles of the old Santa Fe Trail and wagon train ruts are clearly visible. The Cimarron National Grassland is located about 112 miles southwest of Dodge City Kansas.

Yet another excellent viewing site is just nine miles west of Dodge City Kansas on Highway 50. Here you can view the wagon ruts from a convenient boardwalk.

(Article copyright 2014 Trips Into History. Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts from Trips Into History Collection. Remainder of photos and images in the public domain)


A Very Unique New Mexico Spanish Mission

The Spanish Missions of New Mexico

Early New Mexico history is the history of Spanish exploration and colonization during the 1600’s. Today, the missions of New Mexico, just like the ones in California, tell a story of the regions earliest settlement and colonization. When the Spain colonized the southwest the missions were, for most intents and purposes, on an equal footing with the military. The effort to convert the Native population to Christianity was key in trying to secure a territory.

san francisco de asis church

San Francisco de Asis

The Spaniards had colonized New Mexico (Nuevo Mexico) long before California, which they referred to as Alta California. Santa Fe was established in 1610. Initially, churches were built during that time up until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. As a result, the Spaniards were driven out of New Mexico and not returning for twelve years. During their absence, most of the missions built were destroyed by the Pueblo Indians.

The Pueblo revolt was blamed mostly on the strict rules laid down by the early Spanish friars on the pueblo Indians. The forced building of churches, often times on the very ground that the Natives had earlier worshiped on. Also, strict punishment for those caught practicing their native spirit religion

San Francisco de Asis

One historic site you’ll want to visit if your western road trip takes you to northern New Mexico is the San Francisco de Asis Mission. This old mission church built circa 1772 is located in Rancho de Taos New Mexico, just four miles south of the Taos plaza and just east of NM 68.

adobe structures at rancho de taos

Original adobe structure at Rancho de Taos

San Francisco de Asis was built of adobe and featured twin bell towers and an arched portal entrance overlooking a courtyard. The church is over 160 feet long, 25 feet high and 90 feet wide. The church has a French style altar, retablos and altar screen completed by the finest santeros in New Mexico.

Both Taos and Rancho de Taos is a showcase of natural beauty with ancient roots. The site of this mission was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1970. The church was also designated a World Heritage Church.There are 890 sites around the world who share this designation.

This old Spanish Mission church is a piece of living history and it’s a must stop when visiting the Taos area. Many people claim that San Francisco de Asis Mission is the most photographed and painted church in the country. New Mexico’s well known artist Georgia O’Keeffe made four paintings of the church alone. The church was also photographed by Ansel Adams. The church today is an active parish.

san francisco de asis church grounds

San Francisco de Asis grounds

Surrounding the church are shops, galleries, trading posts, and restaurants. The north end of the scenic by-way, The High Road to Taos, comes out at Rancho de Taos.The High Road to Taos is a terrifically scenic drive that begins north of Santa Fe and winds itself through small villages filled with art galleries of local artisans, unique shops and restaurants. This is another excellent activity to add to your northern New Mexico vacation planner.

The Shadow of the Cross Painting

Of special interest inside San Francisco de Asis church is the painting The Shadow of the Cross by French-Canadian artist Henri Ault.

A phenomenom of this painting when viewed by some occur in darkness. When in darkness the clouds surrounding Jesus begin to glow and the silhouette of Jesus becomes three dimensional. His robe also begins to billow in the breeze and some see a halo over his head. The Catholic Church itself does not make any official explanation as to why people experience what they do when viewing The Shadow of the Cross. The church has not referred to this experience as a miracle but merely something that as of now is not understood.

taos new mexico photo

Taos New Mexico

There is a story that years ago scientists from the nearby Los Alamos laboratory tested the painting for the presence of phosphorescent minerals or even radioactivity and that their tests came back negative. Henri Ault always had denied that he did anything to the painting to cause these effects and this phenomenom is not thought to be present in any of his other work.

While there have never been claims of healing attributed to The Shadow of the Cross painting, many people have had emotional reactions to it’s viewing.

Two additional Trips Into History articles you may enjoy are on the links below…

Driving the Los Caminos Antiguos Scenic Byway

The Santa Fe Railroad and Santa Fe

A Visit to Fiesta Santa Fe

san francisco de asis mission New Mexico

Arched entranceway to the San Francisco de Asis grounds


As with all original adobe structures they deteriorate over time and San Francisco de Asis is no exception. To help preserve the church a cement coating was added during the 1960’s. Unfortunately, the cement coating didn’t allow the natural materials original to the church to breathe and expand. Cracks resulted and by 1979 the structure itself became unstable.As a result portions of the adobe walls and buttressing were replaced.  Today, to keep San Francisco de Asis in top condition an annual remudding takes place. Each year several coats of mud from south of town are applied to the exterior and this natural type of restoration works well to protect the structure from the elements.

San Francisco de Asis is a very unique New Mexico Spanish mission and is a must stop when visiting northern New Mexico.

(Article and photos copyright 2014 Trips Into History)