Hollywood has had its fun with the character of Calamity Jane – perhaps Doris Day’s 1953 performance as the cowgirl is the most famous. But Day’s portrayal does little to teach us about the real Martha Jane Cannary – and the truth is much wilder than you might think.
Of course, Hollywood’s just one place where Calamity Jane’s story has been told. Plenty of rumors surround the legendary figure of the Wild West – some of them she even wrote herself. It makes sense that there’s so much mystery, then, considering how much of her life story is unconfirmed. But experts have their theories as to who she was and what kind of trouble she really got into.
As time has gone on, historians have been able to confirm some of the major moments of Calamity Jane’s life. Their findings paint a clearer picture of her existence beyond the tall tales and the film renditions of her exploits. So, who really was Calamity Jane? It’s time for the world to find out.
Hollywood has long relied on the character of Calamity Jane to make bright, romantic movies about the Wild West. There’s perhaps no greater example than Doris Day, who starred in the aforementioned 1953 flick that shared the cowgirl’s name. In it, Day portrays Jane as a tomboy – The Independent’s David Thomson memorably wrote in 2004 that the actress “walks as if she’s still on a horse” in the movie.
Throughout the flick, Day’s Calamity Jane comes to feel that she should start acting more like a lady. She ditches her loose-fitting wardrobe for more feminine attire. She re-styles her hair and re-decorates her home. And she admits to her buddy Wild Bill Hickok that she’s in love with him. The movie concludes with a double-wedding – Calamity Jane gets her happy ending.
Eventually, though, these saccharine portrayals of Calamity Jane and everyone else in the Wild West started to bore moviegoers. As Thomson put it, “That was a kind of bogusness that audiences learned to mistrust.” Come the 1960s, the damage was done. He continued, “The classic Western had been exposed not just as a pack of lies but as a terrible obstacle to understanding American history.”
Nowadays, filmmakers have begun to do their legwork prior to writing and producing Westerns. Thomson put it simply, stating, “The history of the West now employs proper research.” That’s only a relatively recent development, though – and the way people see Calamity Jane has more to do with her past on-screen portrayals and the legend surrounding her than her real story.
Perhaps the murkiness surrounding Calamity Jane’s true identity is due to the fact that much of her biography is unsubstantiated – indeed, there are more legends than verified stories about her. Most historians agree that she came into the world as Martha Jane Cannary in Princeton, Missouri, in 1852. Her parents, Robert and Charlotte, potentially had six children in total, and Jane was certainly the oldest.
Calamity Jane’s parents apparently didn’t have great reputations in their hometown. They reportedly often partook in petty crimes, in fact, which likely went hand-in-hand with them having very little money. When Jane was 11, the family packed up and relocated from Missouri to Montana, probably in an attempt to strike it rich in the state’s gold rush.
However, tragedy struck during the journey to Montana, when Jane’s mom, Charlotte, died from pneumonia while on the wagon trail. The rest of the family made it to their intended destination of Virginia City, but they didn’t stay there for long. Jane’s dad Robert loaded up the wagon once more to move them all to Salt Lake City, Utah.
The Cannary family likely reached Salt Lake City in the middle of 1866, and Robert got to work right away to provide for his family. His property may have extended across as many as 40 acres of land, which he farmed himself – but for just one year. That’s because in 1867 Jane’s father died suddenly, too, leaving her – aged just 14 – to care for her younger brothers and sisters. Some accounts state that she was even younger when she was orphaned.
In the aftermath of her father’s death, Calamity Jane decided that she and her siblings should leave Utah. They subsequently headed for Wyoming, landing in Piedmont, which has since been abandoned by human settlers. Jane was employed in range of positions as she stepped into the role of provider for her siblings. Her lengthy resume included stints as a waitress, dishwasher, cook, dancer and ranch worker.
Despite her difficult situation, Calamity Jane did at least have some useful attributes when she took on an adult role at such a young age. According to Biography.com, “She had grown up tall and powerfully built with many male characteristics.” On top of that, the teen often wore male clothes, which apparently helped her to get work that typically went to male applicants. She was able to shoot and ride, too.
But Calamity Jane relied on her femininity in at least one way – working as a prostitute reportedly proved the most lucrative of her Wild West jobs. She connected with customers through her occasional stints in the Fort Laramie Three-Mile Hog Ranch. Eventually, though, the Great Plains called Jane – she wanted a much more adventurous existence than the one she had in Piedmont.
It was around this time that some accounts claim Calamity Jane received her nickname. According to Biography.com, she earned the descriptor of “Calamity” while she worked as a prostitute. Meanwhile, History.com notes that other reports state that she received the moniker after losing both of her parents at such a young age.
In addition, further sources say that Calamity Jane earned her nickname after she left Piedmont for greener pastures. What experts do seem to agree on, though, is that she went on an 1875 expedition with the U.S. Army. She likely took care of the troops’ laundry, however, rather than driving animals. Regardless, the job had her working in South Dakota’s Black Hills, just in time for the area’s gold rush.
In fact, Calamity Jane herself claimed that she earned her nickname on a separate military mission, this time when U.S. forces clashed with Native Americans. She shared the details in her short autobiography, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane. In her version of events, in 1872 and 1873 she fought alongside soldiers who were responding to a tribal revolt.
On the way back from that battle, Calamity Jane wrote, her group was ambushed. Jane noticed that their captain had suffered a gunshot wound. She claimed, “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.”
With that, Calamity Jane supposedly sprung into action. “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,” her account continued. “I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort.” And, with that, her nickname was born. She concluded that after recuperating from his wounds, the captain said, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.”
However, not everyone believed Calamity Jane’s version of events, then or now. Some of her contemporaries have in fact said that she neither enlisted in the military nor fought alongside U.S. Army soldiers. But the timeline of her story does align with a newspaper clipping from 1876 in which the writer called her by her nickname.
That newspaper clipping came from Deadwood, South Dakota, and had the headline, “Calamity Jane has arrived!” Indeed, the now-legendary figure decided to stay in the area after her forays into the grasslands, regardless of whether or not she truly fought in military conflicts while there. And once she settled in, her fame only grew.
Calamity Jane’s life certainly created plenty of raucous, drunken anecdotes. For example, the public knew her for riding on the back of a bull down a town’s main street. As time wore on, and the Wild West became tamer, audiences seemed to be drawn her stories more strongly than ever, perhaps as she had become a kind of relic of bygone days.
That’s likely one reason why so many mistruths and tall tales about Calamity Jane exist. Of course, she played into them with her potentially embellished memoirs. One of the major rumors at the time – and a storyline that features in most movies about the cowgirl – was that Calamity Jane fell in love with Wild Bill Hickok.
In fact, Wild Bill’s story reads much like Calamity Jane’s. He became a legendary figure of the American West, but many of the most famous stories about his life came directly from his own mouth. He did wear many hats – for example, he worked as a wagon-master, fought as a soldier and performed as a showman.
It’s certainly true that Calamity Jane knew Wild Bill – indeed, she may have met him on her ride into Deadwood. But the rumor that the two had a romantic relationship was likely just that. Nonetheless, the cowgirl herself pushed the claim in her autobiography, even alleging that she’d wed the Wild West hero.
Historians haven’t found any record of Calamity Jane’s supposed union with Wild Bill Hickok, however. In the 1940s a woman named Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick claimed to be the secret child of the two fabled figures. But her supposed birth certificate apparently contained a number of inconsistencies, so experts have tended not believe to her.
Although she spread the Wild Bill rumor herself, Calamity Jane faced down many more tales about her love life. Authors took their liberties, too, weaving stories of her romances. Indeed, according to Biography.com, her “private life is even more fabled” than her pursuits on the battlefield.
Still, it does seem that Calamity Jane may have married once, exchanging vows around 1885. It appears that her husband’s name was either Clinton or Edward, and Burke was his surname. Moreover, the pair may have had a daughter together – some witnesses from the time describe Jane traveling around the Wild West with a little one in tow.
For example, according to a Deadwood resident named Estelline Bennett, Calamity Jane did come to town towards the end of the 1880s with a little girl she introduced as her own child. The Wild West legend apparently wanted the girl to have a good education, so she asked for help in organizing a fundraiser to pay for the child to go to boarding school.
In Bennett’s 1928 book Old Deadwood Days, she described the night in question – and Calamity Jane’s fundraiser reportedly proved a huge success. However, the cowgirl proceeded to fritter away a good chunk of her daughter’s school money on getting drunk later in the night. And the next day, Jane and her daughter left town.
Bennett did say in her book that she’d spoken to Calamity Jane prior to the fundraiser, and that the cowgirl seemed genuine in her hope of providing her daughter with a good education. However, the author also noted that it seemed that Jane could not control her urge to drink – a habit that haunted her for most of her life.
In one Calamity Jane drinking tale, she supposedly took a ride on a horse and cart in the summer of 1876. However, such was her advanced state of inebriation that when she got behind the reins she fell asleep at the helm. When she came to, she realized that she’d missed her destination – and ridden close to 100 miles while she was unconscious.
Despite her intemperate lifestyle, people still liked Calamity Jane for her big personality and unselfish nature. For instance, a smallpox epidemic swept through Deadwood in the 1870s. Rather than prioritizing her own health and fleeing, though, Jane instead stuck around and served as a nurse to those struggling with the infectious disease.
Indeed, Calamity Jane stayed in Deadwood for much of her adult life, which gave her many chances to impress the community around her. Once, she supposedly staved off Native Americans who were attacking a stagecoach, thus rescuing the people aboard the wagon. And in the wake of her friend Wild Bill Hickok’s death, Jane claimed she chased after his killer Jack McCall even though she had no firearms on her person at the time – this is less likely to have been true, though.
In her later years, experts tend to agree more about what Calamity Jane did to fill her time. In the 1890s, for instance, she became part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. She put on a sharp-shooter act while riding a horse and also told stories to the enraptured crowds. The gig had her traveling across the Midwest to perform, and it made her more well-known than ever.
However, Calamity Jane didn’t thrive behind the scenes of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Instead, she drank heavily and often played up. When she was able to put on her act, though, Jane did her best to peddle copies of her autobiography to the audiences who came to see her.
After that, Calamity Jane went on to perform at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. The excitement of the event did little to boost her spirits, though – she continued to suffer from depression and alcoholism at this point in her life. And that eventually took its toll.
Two years later, Calamity Jane made her way home to the Black Hills, where she started working as a laundress and cook in a brothel. One weekend, she took the train from there to Terry, South Dakota, and checked into the Calloway Hotel – but she’d never check out.
Once again, the story of Calamity’s death is enshrouded in rumor. But the Wild West show performer supposedly hit the bottle hard on her train journey, which made her feel very unwell. She had to be carried off the train, and a medic was called to her room at the hotel in Terry. By the time the doctor arrived, however, Jane had already passed away due to pneumonia and inflammation of the bowels.
Nonetheless, Calamity Jane’s legacy as a spirited and brave woman of the Wild West has long outlived her 51 years of life. And, as it turned out, she had one final detail to weave into her ever-alluring story – she supposedly requested that she be buried in South Dakota’s Mount Moriah Cemetery right beside none other than Wild Bill Hickok.