The popular history of Martha “Calamity Jane” Cannary contains a smattering of facts interwoven with half-truths and outright lies. She was probably born in Missouri in 1852. As the Civil War was ending, her family moved to Montana where her father hoped to make his fortune in the mining boom. By 1868 both of her parents were dead, leaving Martha and her siblings (how many is anyone’s guess) orphans.
By the early 1870s, Martha’s siblings had vanished from recorded history. Dusty rumors say Martha spent her teenage years bouncing between Wyoming’s railroad and mining camps, and that she consorted with soldiers at Fort Bridger. She is said to have been coarse-featured but tall, with blue eyes and dark brown hair. By mid decade she had acquired the nickname Calamity Jane. It is also likely that her virtue had been repeatedly compromised.
Most biographers claim she journeyed to the Black Hills with Professor Walter Jenny’s 1875 geological survey, probably disguised as a man. Stories report that she scouted for General Crook on his epic “mud march” against the Sioux in 1876; instead, she accompanied the relief column that went to Crook’s assistance.
How and when Calamity met James Butler Hickok varies with the teller. During the summer of 1876, she joined Wild Bill and a bevy of miners who were heading from Wyoming to Deadwood. The party entered the mining town in “spectacular” fashion, with Calamity no doubt doing her best to be one of the boys. Whether she and Wild Bill were lovers is doubtful, despite spurious claims that they were secretly married. If they did dally with each other, it was a brief romance, for Jack McCall murdered Wild Bill Hickok on August 2.
Perhaps because of Calamity’s association with Wild Bill, she gained the notice of hack writers who boosted her to fame in dime novels. Her literary persona in no way matched her real life. Rather than being the dashing heroine of the printed page, Calamity Jane was loudmouthed and often drunk. When sober enough to hold a job, she gravitated toward bullwhacking.
Although she made claim to several marriages, she may never have had a legal husband. Some biographers argue that Calamity had a daughter by Clinton Burke (or Burk) and that Calamity and he married in 1891 in El Paso, Texas, but others think the girl was Burke’s alone. Burke soon deserted his family in Deadwood. Not wanting the responsibility of a child, Calamity persuaded her friends to donate money at a benefit ball for the girl’s education. The event ended with the intoxicated Calamity blowing all the funds to buy drinks for the guests. The girl eventually made it into St. Martin’s Convent in Sturgis, South Dakota, but with little help from Calamity.
In 1896 Calamity’s growing literary reputation catapulted her into the Kohl-Middleton Palace Museum Wild West show in Minneapolis. But her attachment to alcohol caused her stint to be short-lived. Five years later, she played a frontier heroine in Buffalo, New York, at the Pan-American Exposition. Once more she allowed whiskey to cut short her career in show business.
During the next two years Calamity so abused herself with alcohol that one wag said she looked like “a busted bale of hay.” On August 1, 1903, Calamity Jane died in Terry, South Dakota. Perhaps because she had boasted of being Hickok’s widow, she was buried beside him in Deadwood’s Mt. Moriah Cemetery.
In the years since her death, Hollywood and novelists have continued the fiction that Calamity was a good-natured, hell-raising heroine, but in truth, she was a lying, drunken whore.