She was born Martha Jane Canary; there are numerous tales of how she got her nickname but no one knows for sure. She was a tough cookie and dressed like a man, in buckskins. By the time she was 18, after moving to Salt Lake City with her parents after the Civil War, Jane had been a nurse, a dishwasher, a waitress, a cook and an ox-team driver. She was a frontierswoman and professional scout most well-known for being a close friend of Wild Bill Hickok’s, but also having gained fame fighting American Indians.
She had a reputation for being able to handle a man, shoot like a cowboy, skills that took her into Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show where she performed sharpshooting astride her horse. The love of her life was Wild Bill Hickok. They allegedly were secretly married in 1870 and he supposedly took off after the birth of their daughter three years later. During the 1870’s, Jane was the subject of some dime novels which brought her national fame. She is buried in Deadwood near Wild Bill Hickok.
She was born in Princeton, Missouri, the eldest of six children, having two brothers and three sisters. Her mother died in 1866 of “washtub pneumonia”, and her father died in 1867 in Salt Lake City, Utah. She lived for a time in Virginia City, Montana. She received little, if any, formal education but was literate. In 1868 at age 16, she took on the role as head of her household and moved her family to Fort Bridger then onto Piedmont, Wyoming. Accounts from this period described Canary as being attractive, with light blue eyes.
She moved on to an outdoors and rougher more adventurous life on the Great Plains. In 1870, she signed on as a scout and adopted the uniform of a soldier. It is unclear whether she was actually enlisted in the United States Army at the time. From then on she mostly lost touch with her siblings. She did live a very colorful and eventful life from that point on, but historians revealed that she was prone to exaggerations and lies about her exploits.
Calamity Jane often claimed associations or friendships with famous figures of the Old West, almost always posthumously. Years after the death of General George Armstrong Custer, she claimed that she served under him during her initial enlistment at Fort Russell, and that she also served under him during the Indian Campaigns in Arizona. However, no records exist to show that Custer was assigned to Fort Russell, nor did he take an active part in the Arizona Indian Campaigns; he was instead subjugating the Plains Indians. It is more likely that she served under General George Crook at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming.
She did serve in one campaign in which General Custer (and 3 other generals) was involved, following the spring of 1872 near present day Sheridan, Wyoming. It was the “Muscle Shell Indian Outbreak”, also referred to as the “Nursey Pursey Indian Outbreak”. This is the only confirmed opportunity Calamity had to meet Custer. Following that campaign, in 1874, her detachment was ordered to Fort Custer, where they remained until the following spring. During this campaign (and others involving Custer and Crook together), she was not attached to Custer’s command. She was involved in several other campaigns in the long-running military conflicts with American Indians.
One story, told by her, has her acquiring the nickname “Calamity Jane” in 1872 by rescuing her superior, Captain Egan, from an ambush near Sheridan, Wyoming, in an area known then as Goose Creek, Wyoming. However, even back then not everyone accepted her version, and in another story it is said that she acquired it as a result of her warnings to men that to offend her was to “court calamity”.
One verified story about her is that in 1875 her detachment was ordered to the Big Horn River, under General Crook. Bearing important dispatches, she swam the Platte River and traveled 90 miles (145 km) at top speed while wet and cold to deliver them. Afterwards, she became ill. After recuperating for a few weeks, she rode to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and later, in July 1876, she joined a wagon train headed north, which is where she first met Bill Hickok, contrary to her later claims.
Deadwood and Wild Bill Hickok
In 1876, Calamity Jane settled in the area of Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills. She worked, on occasion, as a prostitute for Madam Dora DuFran, and later worked as a cook and in the laundry, also for DuFran. She became friendly with Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter, having travelled with them to Deadwood in Utter’s wagon train. Jane greatly admired Hickok and she was obsessed with his personality and life.
After Hickok was killed during a poker game on August 2, 1876, Calamity claimed to have been married to Hickok and that Hickok was the father of her child (Jane), who she said was born September 25, 1873, and who she later put up for adoption by Jim O’Neil and his wife. There are no records to prove the birth of a child and the romantic slant to the relationship may have been a fabrication. During the period that the alleged child was born, she was working as a scout for the Army. At the time of his death, Hickok was newly married to Agnes Lake Thatcher, formerly of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
On September 6, 1941, the U.S. Department of Public Welfare did grant old age assistance to a Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick (name of her 3rd husband), who claimed to be the legal offspring of Martha Jane Canary and James Butler Hickok, after being presented with evidence that Calamity Jane and Wild Bill had married at Benson’s Landing, Montana Territory, on September 25, 1873, documentation being written in a Bible and presumably signed by two reverends and numerous witnesses.
Jane also claimed that following Hickok’s death, she went after Jack McCall, his murderer, with a meat cleaver, having left her guns at her residence in the excitement of the moment. However, she never confronted McCall. Following McCall’s eventual hanging for the offense, Jane continued living in the Deadwood area for some time, and at one point she did help save several passengers of an overland stagecoach by diverting several Plains Indians who were in pursuit of the stage. The stagecoach driver, John Slaughter, was killed during the pursuit, and Jane took over the reins and drove the stage on to its destination at Deadwood. Also in late 1876, Jane nursed the victims of a smallpox epidemic in the Deadwood area.
Wild West Show
In 1884, Jane moved to El Paso, Texas, where she met Clinton Burke. They married in August 1885 and had a daughter in 1887. The marriage, however, did not last, and by 1895 they were officially separated.
In 1896, Calamity Jane began touring with Wild West shows, which she continued to do for the rest of her life. Throughout this period, she claimed to have been one of Hickok’s closest friends, a story that over time became the version history most often remembered as fact.
Jane died from complications of pneumonia in 1903. In accordance with what was said to be her dying wish, she was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok in Mount Moriah Cemetery, overlooking the city of Deadwood. There, her “Letters to my daughter” stayed in a museum until its closure in 1951, after the death of her daughter, and then were kept by a lady until their recent discovery by a Frenchman (Gregory Monro) interested in History, who had them reprinted.