Calamity Jane

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Martha Jane Canary
Calamity Jane by CE Finn, c1880s-crop.jpg
Calamity Jane, c. 1880
Martha Jane Cannary

(1852-05-01)May 1, 1852
DiedAugust 1, 1903(1903-08-01) (aged 51)
NationalityUnited States
OccupationArmy scout, explorer, performer, dance-hall girl, prostitute, frontier woman
Spouse(s)Clinton Burke
William P Steers
RelativesFive siblings

Martha Jane Canary or Cannary (May 1, 1852 – August 1, 1903), better known as Calamity Jane, was an American frontierswoman and professional scout known for being an acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok's. Late in her life, she appeared in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. She is said to have exhibited compassion to others, especially to the sick and needy. This facet of her character contrasted with her daredevil ways and helped to make her a noted frontier figure.[1] She was also known for her habit of wearing men's attire.[2] Much of what she claimed to have witnessed and participated in could not be proven. She did not have a formal education and suffered from alcoholism.

Early life[edit]

Marker east of Princeton indicating the most widely believed location of her birth. The site was later occupied by a Premium Standard Farms hog farm.

Much of the information about the early years of Calamity Jane's life comes from the autobiographical booklet which she dictated in 1896, written for publicity purposes. She was about to begin a tour in which she appeared in dime museums around the United States, and it was intended to help attract audiences. Some of the information in the pamphlet is exaggerated or even completely inaccurate.[3]

Calamity Jane was born on May 1, 1852, as Martha Jane Canary (or Cannary)[a] in Princeton, within Mercer County, Missouri. Her parents were listed in the 1860 census as living about 7 miles (11 km) northeast of Princeton in Ravanna. Her father Robert Wilson Cannary had a gambling problem, and her mother Charlotte M. Cannary had spent time working as a prostitute. Jane was the eldest of six children, and had two brothers and three sisters.

In 1865, Robert and his family moved by wagon train from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana. In 1866, Charlotte died of pneumonia along the way, in Blackfoot, Montana. After arriving in Virginia City in the spring of 1866, Robert took his six children on to Salt Lake City, Utah. They arrived in the summer, and Robert supposedly started farming on 40 acres (16 ha) of land. The family had only been in Salt Lake City for a year when he died in 1867. At age 14, Martha Jane took charge of her five younger siblings, loaded up their wagon once more, and took the family to Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory, where they arrived in May 1868. From there, they traveled on the Union Pacific Railroad to Piedmont, Wyoming.

In Piedmont, Jane took whatever jobs she could find to provide for her large family. She worked as a dishwasher, cook, waitress, dance hall girl, nurse, and ox team driver.[7] Finally, in 1874, she claimed she found work as a scout at Fort Russell. During that time, she also began her on-and-off employment as a prostitute at the Fort Laramie Three-Mile Hog Ranch.[7] She moved on to a rougher, mostly outdoor and adventurous life on the Great Plains.

Acquiring the nickname[edit]

1885 photos of Calamity Jane[8]

Jane was involved in several campaigns in the long-running military conflicts with Native Americans. Her claim was that:

It was during this campaign [in 1872–73] that I was christened Calamity Jane. It was on Goose Creek, Wyoming where the town of Sheridan is now located. Capt. Egan was in command of the Post. We were ordered out to quell an uprising of the Indians, and were out for several days, had numerous skirmishes during which six of the soldiers were killed and several severely wounded. When on returning to the Post we were ambushed about a mile and a half from our destination. When fired upon, Capt. Egan was shot. I was riding in advance and on hearing the firing turned in my saddle and saw the Captain reeling in his saddle as though about to fall. I turned my horse and galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling. I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Capt. Egan, on recovering, laughingly said: "I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains." I have borne that name up to the present time.[9]

Captain Jack Crawford served under Generals Wesley Merritt and George Crook. According to the Montana Anaconda Standard of April 19, 1904, he stated that Calamity Jane "never saw service in any capacity under either General Crook or General Miles. She never saw a lynching and never was in an Indian fight. She was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish, but possessed a generous streak which made her popular."

It may be that she exaggerated this story, or even completely fabricated it. Even during her lifetime, not everyone accepted her version as true. A popular belief is that she instead acquired it as a result of her warnings to men that to offend her was to "court calamity". It is possible that "Jane" was not part of her name until the nickname was coined for her.[5] It is certain, however, that she was known by that nickname by 1876, because the arrival of the Hickok wagon train was reported in Deadwood's newspaper, the Black Hills Pioneer, on July 15, 1876, with the headline: "Calamity Jane has arrived!"[10]

Another unverified story in her autobiographical pamphlet is that her detachment was ordered to the Big Horn River under General Crook in 1875. She swam the Platte River and travelled 90 miles (140 km) at top speed while wet and cold in order to deliver important dispatches. She became ill afterwards and spent a few weeks recuperating. She then rode to Fort Laramie in Wyoming and joined a wagon train headed north in July 1876. The second part of her story is verified. She was at Fort Laramie in July 1876, and she did join a wagon train that included Wild Bill Hickok. That was where she first met Hickok, contrary to her later claims, and that was how she happened to come to Deadwood.[11]

Deadwood and Wild Bill Hickok[edit]

Calamity Jane accompanied the Newton–Jenney Party into Rapid City in 1875, along with California Joe and Valentine McGillycuddy. In 1876, Calamity Jane settled in the area of Deadwood, South Dakota in the Black Hills. There she became friends with Dora DuFran, the Black Hills' leading madam, and was occasionally employed by her. Jane also became friendly with Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter, having traveled with them to Deadwood in Utter's wagon train.

McCormick claim[edit]

On September 6, 1941, the U.S. Department of Public Welfare granted old age assistance to a Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick who claimed to be the legal offspring of Martha Jane Cannary and James Butler Hickok. She presented evidence that Calamity Jane and Wild Bill had married at Benson's Landing, Montana Territory (now Livingston, Montana) on September 25, 1873. The documentation was written in a Bible and presumably signed by two ministers and numerous witnesses. However, McCormick's claim has been vigorously challenged because of a variety of discrepancies.[6][12]

McCormick later published a book with letters purported to be from Calamity Jane to her daughter. In them, Calamity Jane says she had been married to Hickok and that Hickok was the father of McCormick, who was born September 25, 1873, and was given up for adoption to a Captain Jim O'Neil and his wife.[13] During the period when the alleged child was born, Calamity Jane was allegedly working as a scout for the army,[14] and at the time of Hickok's death, he had recently married Agnes Lake Thatcher.[citation needed]

Calamity Jane does seem to have had two daughters, although the father's identity is unknown. In the late 1880s, Jane returned to Deadwood with a child whom she claimed was her daughter. At Jane's request, a benefit was held in one of the theaters to raise money for her daughter's education in St. Martin's Academy at Sturgis, South Dakota, a nearby Catholic boarding school. The benefit raised a large sum; Jane got drunk and spent a considerable portion of the money that same night and left with the child the next day.

Estelline Bennett was living in Deadwood at that time and had spoken briefly with Jane a few days before the benefit. She thought that Jane honestly wanted her daughter to have an education and that the drunken binge was just an example of her inability to curb her impulses and carry through long-range plans (which Bennett saw as typical of Jane's class). Bennett later heard that Jane's daughter did "get an education, and grew up and married well".[15]

After the death of Wild Bill Hickok[edit]

Jane also claimed that, following Hickok's death, she went after his murderer Jack McCall with a meat cleaver, since she had left her guns at her residence. Following McCall's execution for the crime, Jane continued living in the Deadwood area for some time, and at one point she helped save numerous passengers in an overland stagecoach by diverting several Plains Indians who were in pursuit of the vehicle. 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.[16]

In late 1876 or 1878, Jane nursed the victims of a smallpox epidemic in the Deadwood area.[17]

Final years[edit]

Calamity Jane at Wild Bill Hickok's Gravesite, Deadwood, Dakota Territory.

In 1881, Jane bought a ranch west of Miles City, Montana along the Yellowstone River, where she kept an inn. She later married Clinton Burke from Texas and moved to Boulder, where she once again made an attempt in the inn business. In 1887, she gave birth to a daughter, Jesse, who was adopted by foster parents.[citation needed]

In 1893, Calamity Jane started to appear in Buffalo Bill's Wild West show as a storyteller. She also participated in the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. At that time, she was depressed and an alcoholic.

Her addiction to liquor was evident even in her younger years. For example, on June 10, 1876, she rented a horse and buggy in Cheyenne for a one-mile joy ride to Fort Russell and back, but she was so drunk that she passed right by her destination without noticing it and finally ended up about 90 miles (140 km) away at Fort Laramie.[18]


Jane returned to the Black Hills in the spring of 1903, and brothel owner Madame Dora DuFran was still running her business. For the next few months, Jane earned her keep by cooking and doing the laundry for Dora's brothel girls in Belle Fourche. In late July, Jane travelled by ore train to Terry, South Dakota, a small mining village near Deadwood, and stayed at the Calloway Hotel. She died at the age of 51.[6] It was reported that she had been drinking heavily while on board the train and had become sick to her stomach. The conductor, S.G. Tillett, carried her off the train,[19] a bartender secured a room for her at the Calloway Hotel, and a doctor was summoned. Jane died almost immediately afterwards on Saturday, August 1, 1903, from inflammation of the bowels and pneumonia.[6]

A bundle of unsent letters to her daughter was allegedly found among Jane's few belongings. The 20th-century composer Libby Larsen set some of these letters to music in an art song cycle called Songs From Letters. Those letters were first made public by Jean McCormick as part of her claim to be the daughter of Jane and Hickok, but their authenticity is not accepted by some, largely because there is ample evidence that Jane was functionally illiterate.[12]

Calamity Jane was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery, South Dakota, next to Wild Bill Hickok.[20] Four of the men who planned her funeral[21] later stated that Wild Bill Hickok had "absolutely no use" for Jane while he was alive, so they decided to play a posthumous joke on him by giving her a resting place by his side.[22] Another account states: "in compliance with Jane's dying requests, the Society of Black Hills Pioneers took charge of her funeral and burial in Mount Moriah Cemetery beside Wild Bill. Not just old friends, but the morbidly curious and many who would not have acknowledged Calamity Jane when she was alive, overflowed the First Methodist Church for the funeral services on August 4 and followed the hearse up the steep winding road to Deadwood’s boot hill".[6]

Major media representations[edit]


The Plainsman is a 1936 film starring Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok and Jean Arthur as Calamity Jane. In Young Bill Hickok with Roy Rogers (1940), she was portrayed by Sally Payne. Calamity Jane was played by Frances Farmer in the 1941 Western The Badlands of Dakota. Calamity Jane was played by Jane Russell in the 1948 comedy The Paleface. Calamity Jane and Sam Bass was a 1949 film; Calamity was played by Yvonne De Carlo, Sam Bass by Howard Duff, with both characters heavily fictionalized.

Calamity Jane is a 1953 musical-Western film from Warner Bros. starring Doris Day and Howard Keel as Wild Bill Hickok. The plot of the film is almost entirely fictional and bears little resemblance to the actual lives of the protagonists. It won the Best Song Oscar for "Secret Love", by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster.

In the 1984 made-for-TV film, Calamity Jane, she was portrayed by Jane Alexander. In the 1995 Disney movie Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill she was portrayed by Catherine O'Hara as a mythic figure, acquainted with Paul Bunyan and John Henry, and as Pecos Bill's jilted sweetheart and as a sheriff or deputy of some sort.

In the 1995 film Wild Bill, Calamity Jane was portrayed by Ellen Barkin. In the 1995 film Buffalo Girls, Calamity Jane was portrayed by Anjelica Huston. In the 2009 French movie Lucky Luke, Jane was portrayed by Sylvie Testud.

Robin Weigert plays Calamity Jane in the HBO series Deadwood, for three seasons, as well as in the HBO movie Deadwood, released in May 2019.


Calamity Jane: Wild West Legend, directed by Gregory Monro (2014).


In the Facebook application FrontierVille there is a suitlike outfit for female characters called the "Calamity Jane Outfit." She appeared as a side character in the computer RPG Worlds of Ultima: Martian Dreams (1991). In the KingsIsle Entertainment game Pirate 101 Calamity Jane is one of the Magnificent 7.[23] A character named after Calamity Jane appeared as a side character in the videogame Wild Arms (1996).

Calamity Jane was data-mined as a possible Archer-Class Servant in the 2015 mobile online game "Fate/Grand Order", she has yet to be implemented in the game. In the RPG game Fallout 3 Calamity Jane is referenced by the Lone Wanderer in a dialogue option when first talking to Megaton sheriff and mayor, Lucas Simms. A character in a card board game BANG! - Calamity Janet. In Season 6 of Fortnite Battle Royale, one of the main skins of the season is a gunslinger and cowgirl named "Calamity". The game "Calamity the Natural World", a line of educational games made in the 90's for the PlayStation by Lightspan Adventures, stars Calamity Jane.


Productions: Calamity Jane the Play by Catherine Ann Jones: Empire State Theatre, Albany, New York; Promenade Theatre, New York, NY, with Estelle Parsons; Santa Paula Theatre, Santa Paula, CA; Wimberley Players, Wimberley, Texas; Plaza Playhouse, Carpenteria, CA. Calamity Jane the Musical by Catherine Ann Jones: South Jersey Regional Theatre, Somers Point, New Jersey; Ojai Arts Theatre, Ojai, CA; Camino Real Theatre, San Juan Capistrano, CA; One Eyed Man Productions, a touring production (2017–18), Various Cities, Australia, with Virginia Gay.



Calamity Jane was an important fictional character in the Deadwood Dick series of dime novels beginning with the first appearance of Deadwood Dick in Beadle's Half-Dime Library issue #1 in 1877. This series, written by Edward Wheeler, established her with a reputation as a Wild West heroine and probably did more to enhance her familiarity to the public than any of her real life exploits. (There is no evidence that she was consulted by Wheeler or approved the Deadwood Dick stories, so the character in the stories was entirely fictitious – as were the events described, but the fictional adventures were muddled in the public mind with the real Jane.[citation needed]) Calamity Jane was the title character in a serial published in New York's Street & Smith's Weekly (1882) under the title, Calamity Jane: Queen of the Plains, by the author "Reckless Ralph".

The science fiction writer A. Bertram Chandler included a character named Calamity Jane Arlen in his far future novels set on the frontier Rim Worlds, a space analogue of the Old West.[24]

A fictitious fight between Calamity Jane and an impostor is depicted in Thomas Berger's novel Little Big Man (1964). Jane is the central character in Larry McMurtry's book Buffalo Girls: A Novel (1990). Jane is a central character in Pete Dexter's novel Deadwood (1986).

J. T. Edson features Calamity Jane as a character in a number of his books, as a stand-alone character (in Cold Deck, Hot Lead, Calamity Spells Trouble, Trouble Trail, The Bull Whip Breed, The Cow Thieves, The Whip And The War Lance and The Big Hunt) and as a romantic interest of the character Mark Counter (in The Wildcats, The Bad Bunch, Guns In The Night and others).

An alternative universe version of Jane is a character in the short story "Deadwood" in Corsets and Clockwork (2011), a steampunk anthology. The story also features Jesse James. In Calamity's Wake (2013), a novel of historical fiction written by Natalee Caple, Martha, or Calamity Jane, is one of two main narrators; the other is Jane's daughter Miette.[25] Calamity Jane, légende de l'Ouest, written by Gregory Monro (2010), is the only French biography to this day. Calamity Jane appears in Michael Crichton's novel Dragon Teeth (2017).


Calamity Jane figures as a main character in an album of the same name of the Franco-Belgian comics series Lucky Luke, created by Morris and René Goscinny. Also, she features in the album Ghosthunt, created by Morris and Lo Hartog van Banda.

Graphic novel Calamity Jane - The Calamitous Life of Martha Jane Cannary, 1852-1903 (IDW Publishing, 2017) by Christian Perrissin [fr] and Matthieu Blanchin [fr] is a biography of Calamity Jane, mostly based on Calamity Jane's Letters to Her Daughter.


Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok are featured in the song "Deadwood Mountain" by the country duo Big & Rich. Some of her purported letters were set to music in an art-song cycle by 20th-century composer Libby Larsen, called "Songs From Letters". Soprano Dora Ohrenstein commissioned five pieces compiled under the title Urban Diva, the second piece, Ben Johnston's Calamity Jane to Her Daughter is a theatrical setting of selected letters. "Calamity Jane" is a song by Grant-Lee Phillips on "Virginia Creeper" (2004). "Calamity Jane" is a song by Kiya Heartwood on Wishing Chair's Underdog CD (2005).

Alain Bashung, Chloé Mons, Rodolphe Burger released the album La Ballade de Calamity Jane (2006) based on Jane's letters to her daughter. "Kalamity Jane" is a song by Czech rock band Kabát. "Calamity Jane" is a song by Chris Anderson on his album "The Crown" (2004). The 1953 movie "Calamity Jane" with Doris Day and Howard Keel features the song, "My Secret Love" which won the 1954 Academy Award for "Best Music Original Song". Calamity Jane is mentioned in the 2016 song "The Lighter" by the French pop-rock band Superbus, from the album "Sixtape".


The name "Calamity" is given to the children's character played by Nancy Gilbert in the 1955–1956 syndicated television series, Buffalo Bill, Jr., with Dick Jones as the fictitious Buffalo Bill, Jr., and Harry Cheshire as Judge Ben "Fair and Square" Wiley.

In the episode "Calamity" (December 13, 1959) of the ABC/Warner Brothers western series, Colt .45, Dody Heath is cast as Calamity Jane and Joan Taylor as a woman doctor, Ellen McGraw. In the story line, series character Christopher Colt, played by Wayde Preston, hires Calamity Jane to drive the stagecoach containing Dr. McGraw and the vaccine needed for the smallpox outbreak in Deadwood. Colt is unsure if Calamity can handle the job because miners and Indians seek to steal the valuable medication.[26]

Season 5 of Have Gun, Will Travel included an episode called "The Cure" (first broadcast on May 20, 1961) with an alcoholic Jane (Norma Crane as "Martha Jane Conroy") seeking revenge on a promoter who had replaced the "real" Jane with a younger woman.

In an episode of Bonanza, "Calamity Over the Comstock" (1963), Stefanie Powers plays Calamity Jane, who visits Virginia City along with Doc Holliday. In this primarily comedic episode, she is rescued by Little Joe, who at first thinks she is a male. She becomes infatuated with him, and he receives threats from Doc, who covets Jane for himself. At her urging (and threat), Doc demurs from facing down Joe, and Jane and Doc exit town. No official or unofficial documentation exists suggesting that Doc Holliday and Jane ever met during their lifetimes. It is highly unlikely that they met considering the geographical distances between them during their lives.

In an episode of the television show Death Valley Days, "A Calamity Named Jane", Fay Spain plays Calamity Jane as she joins Wild Bill Hickok's (Rhodes Reasons) show. Her uncouth behavior causes Bill to think he made a mistake, and when Bill tells her she should "act like a lady" he soon realizes he made a bigger mistake.

The television movie Calamity Jane (1984) featured her life story, including her alleged marriage to Wild Bill Hickok and the daughter she purportedly gave up. Actress Jane Alexander portrayed Calamity and was nominated for an Emmy in 1985 for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Special. The show also featured an early performance of Sara Gilbert as Calamity's daughter, Jean, at age 7.

Jane is the central character in Larry McMurtry's book Buffalo Girls: A Novel (1990), and in the 1995 TV adaptation of the same name, Jane is played by Anjelica Huston, with Sam Elliott as Wild Bill Hickok.

In 1997 a cartoon series on Kids' WB, The Legend of Calamity Jane, depicted a young Jane (voiced by Barbara Weber Scaff).

Robin Weigert portrayed Calamity Jane in the HBO series Deadwood (2004-2006) and in the HBO sequel Deadwood: The Movie (2019).

In the 1966 Batman series, one of the villains in series one was "Calamity Jan" (played by Dina Merrill)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Calamity She was functionally illiterate, and the promotional pamphlet she dictated spelled her surname "Cannary" (with two Ns) and repeatedly misspelled "Missourri". It also got her birth date wrong, making her about six years too old. There is ample evidence that her surname was probably spelled with only one N, including the census report of her parents when she was 4 years old.[4] It is also questioned[by whom?] whether she received her middle name Jane at birth or sometime later.[5][6]


  1. ^ Griske 2005, pp. 83+88.
  2. ^ Etulain, Richard (2014). The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane. Norman, Oklahoma: The Oklahoma Western Biographers. pp. 42, 202. ISBN 978-0-8061-4632-4.
  3. ^ Jucovy 2012, pp. 47–49.
  4. ^ McLaird 2005, p. 7.
  5. ^ a b Walker 2004, pp. 200–201.
  6. ^ a b c d e "Girls of the Gulch: Calamity Jane was part of the overhead". Deadwood Magazine. Summer 2001. Archived from the original on August 25, 2018. Retrieved March 1, 2012.
  7. ^ a b Griske 2005, pp. 84–86.
  8. ^ Freeman, Lewis R. (1992). Down The Yellowstone. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company.
  9. ^ "Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane, by Martha Cannary Burk; Life And Adventures Of Calamity Jane Page 2". Retrieved May 1, 2018.
  10. ^ McLaird 2005, p. 58.
  11. ^ Jucovy 2012, p. 23.
  12. ^ a b McLaird, James D. (Autumn–Winter 1995). "Calamity Jane's Diary and Letters: Story of a Fraud". Montana: The Magazine of Western History. 45, nr. 4: 20–35.
  13. ^ McCormick, Jean Hickok, ed. (c. 1949). Copies of Calamity Jane's Diary and Letters, Taken From the Originals Now on Exhibit at the Western Trails Museum, Billings, Montana. Western Trails Museum.
  14. ^ Etulain, Richard (2014). The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane. Normon, Oklahoma: The Oklahoma Western Biographies. pp. 50–51. ISBN 978-0-8061-4632-4.
  15. ^ Estelline Bennet, Old Deadwood Days, p. 229-32, 240–42. Quote from p. 242. Lincoln Nebraska & London: Bison Books, University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Reprint of J. H. Sears edition (New York), 1928.
  16. ^ "Martha Jane 'Calamity Jane' Canary biography". Archived from the original on September 2, 2006. Retrieved July 18, 2008.
  17. ^ Bennett, Estelline (1982). Old Deadwood Days. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 222–24.
  18. ^ Griske 2005, pp. 87–88.
  19. ^ S.G. Tillet Letter, 1929. "Historically Yours Podcast Ep. 6: Calamity Jane's Death". University of Iowa Special Collections Blog. Retrieved July 28, 2017.
  20. ^ Straub, Patrick (November 10, 2009). It Happened in South Dakota: Remarkable Events That Shaped History. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-7627-6171-5.
  21. ^ Frank Ankeney, Jim Carson, Anson Higby, and Albert Malter
  22. ^ Griske 2005, pp. 89.
  23. ^ "Reviews: Review 244: Pirate101 (P101), KingsIsle Entertainment".
  24. ^ "The Rim of Space by A. Bertram Chandler". WOWIO. Retrieved August 25, 2013.
  25. ^ Caple, Natalee (2013). In Calamity's Wake. Bloomsbury.
  26. ^ "Colt .45". Archived from the original on May 4, 2012. Retrieved December 22, 2012.


External links[edit]

Media related to Calamity Jane at Wikimedia Commons