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.

fort bridger wyoming
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.

deadwood dakota territory
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.

gem theater deadwood dakota territory
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)