Western Trips

Western Trips

Friday, June 17, 2011

Who Was Calamity Jane? / An Old West Legend With Many Identities

Most people familiar with the old west have heard of Calamity Jane. Pictured at left holding a rifle, Calamity Jane had many public faces. Who was she? What was she famous for? Who did she associate with? Why is her name still a household word among old west historians? The questions are many.

The Real Calamity Jane

Among other things, Calamity Jane was a frontiersman or frontier woman at a time in the latter 1800's when there were not any. She was also a scout which was at that time primarily a man's profession. Indians were scouts but usually not female. She was an Indian fighter when Indian fighters were considered to be the U.S. Cavalry.

Who history knows as Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Canary in 1852 in Princeton, Missouri. In 1865 the family moved west to Virginia City, Montana, a growing gold mining town in the outer reaches of the frontier. Keep in mind that this was some eleven years prior to Custer's Battle of the Little Bighorn. To arrive in Montana one had to traverse usually hostile Sioux Indian territory.Not always easy. When you head out on a western road trip today you can take along a travel guide. During the mid 1800's your only trip adviser was your instincts.

Young Martha's Trip West

The overland trip took five months and during this time the young Martha Jane learned to hunt for food with the male members of the traveling party. Her mother unfortunately died shortly after their arrival in Montana. The family moved again, this time to Utah.

The story was that Martha's father died shortly after their arrival in Utah and she took her siblings back to Wyoming and settled at Fort Bridger. To support her siblings Martha took a variety of jobs, everything from dishwasher, ox team driver, dance hall girl, cook, nurse and waitress. Some stories claim she even became a prostitute. This accusation came from the later years she spent in Deadwood, SD. She gained a reputation as a tough frontier woman wearing men's clothing, chewing tobacco, drinking like a frontier man and also became an excellent shot with her guns. Her life travels took her from Montana to Arizona and back.

A Cavalry Scout

In 1870 Martha became a scout for George Armstrong Custer in Wyoming and wore a soldiers uniform. Her Arizona travels was with the army in their quest to put the Indians back on their reservations. During the 1870's Calamity Jane was very much involved with the U.S. Army in several Indian campaigns in the Wyoming and Montana areas. She worked with Generals Terry and Crook around the Powder River area which was the hotbed of Sioux Indian activity. It was believed that during this period Martha became acquainted with Wild Bill Hickok pictured below right.

A Move to Deadwood

After Martha's involvement with the army she moved to Deadwood Dakota Territory, at that time a large mining center in the Black Hills area. Her adventurous life their took another turn, this time as a pony express rider delivering mail between Deadwood and the town of Custer some fifty miles away. Deadwood was also a town that Hickok, Martha's friend, spent alot of time at. Below left is a picture of Deadwood, SD in 1876.

Becoming Calamity Jane

If you're reading about the exploits of Calamity Jane, at some point you will want to know how she was given that name. The story is that during the Indian Wars, Martha came to the rescue of a Captain Egan near Goose Creek, Wyoming (now Sheridan, WY) who was ambushed by Indians and himself shot while losing many of his troops.

Martha heard the gunfire, turned to see Captain Egan shot and reeling in his saddle. She galloped to his aid, took him on her horse before he fell, and rode away with him to the safety of the fort. At that point in the story, Captain Egan proclaimed her "Calamity Jane".

Like many old west tales, there was a bit of controversy as to whether the story was true. Some claimed it was not. Some say she simply was given the name because of her rowdiness and that men had to beware of her so as to avoid a "calamity". Others of course disagree.



If the tales are true then Martha Jane Canary no doubt was a very talented frontier woman. If she was a scout for the army then she would have to have been an outstanding horseman and shot. She would have to have had tremendous survival instincts.

We do know that in 1893, Calamity Jane joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West as a horseback rider and trick shooter. In later years she settled at a ranch in Montana and tried her luck as an innkeeper. She was married along the way to a Texan and then moved to a ranch in Colorado. She had a daughter named Jane who ended up with foster parents. She was later reported depressed and had a drinking problem which most felt had it's origins in her earlier wild life on the frontier. Eventually she returned to Deadwood and took on cooking and housekeeping duties at the brothel she was earlier connected with.

Calamity Jane died in 1903 at the age of 51. She is buried next to her friend Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, SD. The image at right is the grave site of both Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok in Mount Moriah Cemetery.

The Making of Western Legends

Old west legends sometime take on a life of their own. You may also be interested in the story of Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill's Wild West. Often legends grow as years pass and many historians believe this was the case with Calamity Jane.

Beyond a doubt she was acquainted with many of the colorful figures during the era. It seems that the issue to be debated is the extent of her exploits. Regardless, the fact remains that Martha Jane Canary was a woman much involved with the frontier life and we can assume she was quite talented with a horse and a gun. The wild west was considered a male dominated society and the fact that Calamity Jane put herself in the middle of a man's frontier world, even if some tales were embellished, is more than enough to justify her being a unique figure in western culture. You may also be interested in the story of the first female stagecoach robber in Arizona.


So if you find yourself on a western U.S. road trip and you want to learn a bit more about Calamity Jane
and her era, one excellent stop is at the Dakota Discovery Museum located in Mitchell, SD. Lots of interesting information about the frontier and about Calamity Jane. Their website is www.dakotadiscovery.com


Another good stop is at the Fort Bridger State Historic Site in western Wyoming. Their website is
www.wyomingtourism.org/overview/Fort-Bridger-State-Historic-Site/31823

Always a good stop on your western vacation is the town of Deadwood, SD. Their website is www.deadwood.org

(Article copyright Western Trips. Photos and images in the public domain)

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