Calamity Jane: The hardscrabble life that didn’t make the musical

Some were good, some were bad and some were, well, not pretty. This could be said for one of the Wild West’s most famous characters, Martha Jane Canary, better known as ‘Calamity Jane,’ famously portrayed by Doris Day in the 1952 film. Much of the information about her life is from her autobiographical booklet dictated in 1896 to promote her tour of ‘dime museums’. Some of what she said may not be all that accurate.

She was born on 1 May according to differing accounts in 1852 or 1853, in Princeton, Missouri, the eldest of six children to Robert and Charlotte Canary. The family moved in 1865 to Virginia City in Montana. Sadly Charlotte died in Blackfoot, Montana in 1866 from what was called ‘washtub pneumonia’, quite common amongst women who worked in laundries in coal mining camps. The family ended up in Salt Lake City where Robert was said to have started farming there, but this was short-lived and he died in 1867, leaving young Martha in charge of her siblings. Once again, the family was on the move, this time to Fort Bridger, Wyoming, arriving there in 1868, and from there to Piedmont.

Martha was employed in several capacities: cook, dishwasher, nurse, waitress, nurse, dancehall-girl, ox-team driver, worked for the Pony Express, and also as a part time prostitute. She preferred to wear ‘manly’ buckskins and could shoot like a cowboy, and could also be a handful for any man who dared to tackle her.


In 1870, she became a scout and took to wearing a soldier’s uniform although there seems to be no evidence she actually enlisted. During this time she lost contact with her remaining family. Her life at this time appears to become more colourful, but historians believe that she had a talent for exaggerations about her ‘adventures’.

Her nickname ‘Calamity’ seems to have two origins. One was after she rescued a Captain Egan from Indians at Goose Creek in Wyoming in 1872. On his recovery he laughingly said:

“I name you ‘Calamity Jane’, the heroine of the plains.’

Another version claims she acquired it by telling men that if they offended her, they would ‘court calamity!’

A story believed to be true was that in 1875, under the command of General Crook, Martha, carrying important despatches, went with her detachment to the Big Horn River. She swam, crossing the Platte River, and then some ninety miles by horse to deliver the despatches. She had to recuperate for a few weeks after this and then she was off again, this time to Fort Laramie in Wyoming and then in July 1876, she went north with a wagon train. Soon she would meet up with ‘the love of her life’ the famous Wild Bill Hickok.

Settling in the Black Hills in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876, her ‘career’ now turned to occasional prostitution and also a return to cooking and as a laundress working for ‘Madam’ Dora Du Fran. At this time she got to know the legendary Wild Bill Hickok. There seems, however, to be some speculation as to when she did actually meet Hickok for the first time.

Jane pictured in 1895

After the murder of Hickok during a poker game on 2 August 1876, Calamity Jane claimed they had married sometime before. She also claimed that Hickok was the father of her little girl born some three years earlier and had been put up for adoption, however no evidence exists to support this. She was said to have married twice more and had another child and even toured with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show some years later.

Jane returned to the Black Hills during the spring of 1903 and worked at the old brothel in Belle Fourche doing the usual chores. In the summer of 1903 she went by train to the small town of Terry. She had been a heavy drinker during her short life and it finally got to her. She became very ill on the train and was carried to the Calloway Hotel where she died on 1 August 1903 from inflammation of the bowels and pneumonia. She was 50 to 51 years old, depending on the differing accounts of her actual year of birth.

Her final resting place is next to Wild Bill Hickok at Mount Moriah Cemetery, South Dakota. The burial next to Wild Bill might not have happened but for four men who organised it as a practical joke on the late Hickok. Hickok had once cruelly stated that he had “absolutely no use” for Jane whilst alive. The men obviously thought it was a great joke, but did they consider what Jane might have thought of their ‘graveyard‘ humour ?

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