Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Calamity Jane: the story of a survivor

by | March 7, 2013 | 6 comments

422px-Calamity_janePopular legend casts Calamity Jane as a tough character who chose to live her life more as a man than a woman. The question is why and the truth is much more nuanced.

Martha Jane Cannary was born in 1852 to Missouri farming parents. She would become the eldest of six siblings. When Martha Jane was thirteen, her parents moved the family to Virginia City, Montana via wagon train. Unfortunately, Martha Jane’s mother died shortly after their arrival and, tragically, her father died a year later in 1866. Left as the sole support for her brothers and sisters, unschooled, illiterate, and still in her adolescence, Jane moved her siblings to Piedmont, Wyoming. Piedmont was a “new” town in 1867, a tent town, which sprang up to provide the Union Pacific Railroad with railroad ties and services for those laying the tracks. Jane obviously realized that a new town would have many more employment opportunities without requiring much experience.

Jane scrambled to survive, providing for her siblings by taking jobs as dishwasher, cook, waitress, dance-hall girl, and ox team driver. Having never had any formal schooling, she had to survive by her wits. Her hunting skills, learned on the trip West with her parents, enabled her to put meat on her family’s table and, as a matter of survival, she became quite good at tracking and hunting.

Still with the bloom of youth, Jane was described as “pretty dark-eyed girl” and “extremely attractive.” Sometime in the early 1870’s Jane began to disguise herself as a man, perhaps to get scouting jobs, which invariably paid better. She is reported to have scouted for Fort Russell, Fort Sanders and Fort Laramie. The “Women in History” web site reports:

Stories have arisen that Martha Jane was attempting to disguise her gender and was found out on occasion. With the work she did with the army, the uniform would have been necessary not only to best perform her duties, but also to be accepted. One rumor does state that, while driving in a wagon train, “her sex was discovered,” writes biographer Roberta Sollid, “when the wagon-master noted she did not cuss her mules with the enthusiasm to be expected from a graduate of Patrick and Saulsbury’s Black Hills Stage line, as she had represented herself to be.”

But the demands of survival also found Jane doing whatever was necessary and it is reported that at Fort Laramie she had become a prostitute on occasion.

Disguising herself as a man allowed Jane to be considered for more “respectable” jobs, and ones that paid better than most female oriented positions. As Jane worked outdoors like a man, dressed like a man, acted like a man, cussed like a man, and drank like a man, she began to lose her looks as her skin became leathery, she let her hair go unwashed, and she didn’t seem to mind the dirt and dust of the trail. She also had become addicted to alcohol, though during this time, people would have simply referred to her as a drunk, with no judgment attached to that label.

 Jane was in survival mode. Few skills meant few choices. Acting the role of a man opened up more options, and options in things she was good at like hunting and tracking and that also paid better than “female” work. And, because she acted like a man, and perhaps because she was also a very likeable oddity with a good heart, she got to hang with men who accepted her as “one of the guys”, even though most knew her real gender by then.  As a hard-living scout, she belonged to a select group of hard living characters who judged her on her skill with a gun and her ability to track, not her gender.

In her autobiography, criticized for exaggeration and tall tales, Jane writes about how she got her moniker, Calamity Jane:

“It was on Goose Creek, Wyoming, where the town of Sheridan is now located. Captain 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, Captain 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. Captain 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.”

At Fort Laramie in 1876, Jane met Wild Bill Hickok and followed him and his party to Deadwood. It is said she became infatuated with him but there is no indication Wild Bill returned her feelings.  At the time, Bill was fifteen years Jane’s senior and had been married in March of 1876 to a woman more than ten years his senior. Jane describes her time in Deadwood: “During the month of June, I acted as a pony express rider carrying the U.S. mail between Deadwood and Custer, a distance of fifty miles, over one of the roughest trails in the Black Hills country. As many of the riders before me had been held up and robbed of their packages, mail and money that they carried, for that was the only means of getting mail and money between these points. It was considered the most dangerous route in the Hills, but as my reputation as a rider and quick shot was well known, I was molested very little, for the toll gatherers looked on me as being a good fellow, and they knew that I never missed my mark. I made the round trip every two days which was considered pretty good riding in that country. Remained around Deadwood all that summer visiting all the camps within an area of one hundred miles. My friend, Wild Bill, remained in Deadwood during the summer with the exception of occasional visits to the camps.”

Jane had become a heavy drinker, perhaps to fit in more with the “boys” and to show she was one of them. She was also known for her cussing, again probably a ploy to fit in. Being part of the scouting and gunslinger crowd meant decent paying jobs and a chance to use her hard-earned skills. In short, it meant survival. She even appeared in dime store novels of the time.

 There are many stories of Jane tying one on and then having to sleep it off. The madam of the Black Hills, Dora DeFran, became her friend and often gave Jane a place to stay as she recovered from her many benders. When Wild Bill Hickok was killed, Jane was devastated, and took to drinking even more.

Jane did have her sober moments and when she was sober, she was capable, generous, and kind to those who needed her as when she nursed the townspeople during the outbreak of small pox in Deadwood. In 1880 she started a ranch and an inn in Wyoming. She soon left ranching, however, and traveled to California and then to El Paso, Texas. While the dates are in dispute, Jane met and, according to her autobiography, married Texan Clinton Burk, a hack driver and, gave birth to a baby girl. But both the husband and the girl disappear from Jane’s life by the late 1890s and it was posited that Jane sent the baby to be raised by foster parents after her marriage broke up.

Where was Jane to go now? What was she to do? The West was changing and tolerance of a woman who dressed and acted like a man was becoming less and less. Jane often found herself in trouble with the law over her drinking. She also recorded several liaisons with various men between Wyoming and Texas.

Towards the end of the century, Jane toured briefly with Buffalo Bill Cody’s shows and appeared at the Pan-American exposition, but her drinking and cussing, now ingrained habits, soon made her unfit as an entertainer for the strait-laced Eastern audiences. Jane was finding, much to her dismay, that there was no place where she fit anymore. The West was getting tamer and the men she used to call her friends were either dead or settling down.

At the age of 50 she decamped to a little mining town in South Dakota and on August 1, 1903 she passed away from pneumonia. She asked to be buried next to Wild Bill Hickok, a request that was granted.

Yes, Calamity Jane was unconventional. But being forced to survive with no education and little skills, beyond hunting and tracking, called for unconventional actions. Jane saw a path to work if she could fool people into believing she was a man. That path also opened a door into a man’s world. Once there, Jane never sought to go back. And when it was discovered she was a woman, she tried even harder to show them that she was “one of the boys.” Drinking was one way of proving that. Tall tales was another way. And her penchant for exaggeration is why, despite all she wrote about herself, we still don’t know very much about the real Calamity Jane.

What is your impression of Calamity Jane?





Photo: From en.wiki: 21:35, 4 Aug 2003 . . Branko (17317 bytes) (Picture taken in 1895 by H.R. Locke. This copy from the Library of Congress website.) {{PD-old}} [[Category:P Public Domain in the United States.

Anne Carrole writes about cowboys who have grit, integrity and little romance on their mind and the women who love them. Check out her contemporary novella, Falling for a Cowboy, and her western historical novella, Saving Cole Turner at Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com or Kobobooks.com. Or find her at  www.facebook.com/annecarrole, www.facebook.com/lovewesternromances or www.annecarrole.com



  1. Jaye Garland

    Hi Anne, good job relaying the facts. Your post grabbed me from the start because I’m originally from South Dakota, graduated from college in Spearfish (the northern end of the Black Hills), and lived in Wyoming for several years. Everything you said was spot-on. Your research paid off splendidly! Having spent so many years in the Black Hills area, I have to say that Jane’s ride from Deadwood to Custer in a two-day round trip means she was really moving. Even with paved roads in an automobile, it’s quite a trip, but very beautiful. In her day, it was quite dangerous. During the summers, I enjoyed playing bit parts in the re-enactments of Jack McCall’s shooting of Wild Bill in Deadwood. Yeah, I had a lot of fun up there. After college, I lived in Sheridan and know about the Goose Creek story. Thanks for a well-researched article. Enjoyed it!
    Jaye, now down here in much warmer territory. Houston 🙂

  2. Ella Quinn

    She had to be been so very brave to have lived the life she did. Great post. I tweeted.

  3. Angelyn

    I can see the opportunities she had to exaggerate her prowess, but even if you discount most of that, her life was truly remarkable. MOre of a testament to overcoming barriers than anything else. Nice post.

  4. Anne Carrole

    How wonderful to have lived so close to where history was made Jaye. I love researching history, especially about women who challenged the West. And thanks Ella for stopping by and the tweet:).

  5. Nancy

    What an amazing woman! I knew very little about her, other than her time in Deadwood. If she did send her child away, I wonder if the girl ever knew who her mother was … wouldn’t THAT be a story 🙂

    Thanks for sharing, Anne. Very informative.


  6. Kirsten

    Love this post, Anne! Calamity Jane has always been one of my favorite historical figures. One of the first vacations I remember was to the Deadwood. Dad told us the story of Jane and Wild Bill then we visited their grave sites. She was quite the character. 🙂




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