Will The Real Calamity Jane Please Stand Up?

WORLD HISTORY | February 1, 2019

Portrait of Calamity Jane (May 1, 1852 – August 1, 1903) sitting on her horse. She was a frontierswoman who supposedly scouted for General Custer, and later traveled with Wild Bill Hickok. Source: (CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Martha Jane Cannary

Calamity Jane was born in 1852 in Missouri. She was the oldest of six children. Even as a child she liked being outdoors rather than helping with housework. In 1865, her family joined a wagon train, headed west. Her mother passed away while going to Virginia City, Montana. Her father then moved the family to Salt Lake City, Utah. Unfortunately, her father passed away shortly after arriving. Martha was left to care for her siblings. She did not want to stay in Utah so she moved them all to Wyoming. She took any job she could to make ends meet. She claimed she worked in restaurants, as a saloon girl, and ox team driver. There are reports she even worked as a prostitute in Fort Laramie, Wyoming.

Martha Canary, shown here on a visit to Deadwood in 1895. Source: patrickmurfin.blogspot.com

Did Calamity Jane Really Fight With Custer?

This question has a complicated answer. Calamity Jane was known for exaggerating her tales, however, others have corroborated that she did work as a scout for the United States Army. This was quite an adventurous life for a woman of those times. She claims to have been given the name ‘Calamity Jane’ during a fight against the Native Americans. According to Calamity Jane, she saved the life of the captain of the unit and he gave her the name to describe her heroism. As far as serving with and fighting alongside Custer, she made this claim after his death. There is one opportunity that she could have met General Custer. She was attached to the “Nursey Pursey Indian Outbreak” campaign which involved General Custer as well as others, but it has never been confirmed that Calamity Jane ever spoke to him.

Custer's Last Stand, War Cemetery, Montana. Source: commons.wikimedia.org

A Verified Claim to Fame

The one heroic story about Calamity Jane that can be verified happened in 1875. Her Army detachment was sent to the Big Horn River. She was ordered to deliver important and secret dispatches. She swam and rode nearly ninety miles to deliver them and arrived soaking wet.

Deadwood, South Dakota. Source: (mpinetwork.wordpress.com)

Calamity Jane’s Deadwood Adventures

When Calamity Jane could no longer be a scout for the Army, she traveled along with Charlie Utter’s wagon train to Deadwood, South Dakota. She worked for the famous Madam Dora DuFran as a cook and laundress, as well as a prostitute. Wild Bill Hickok was a friend of Charlie Utter’s which is how she met him. Jane was infatuated with Bill Hickok, another wild storyteller. Jane herself joined his Wild West Show as a storyteller.

Wild Bill Hickok. Source: (pinterest.com)

Calamity Jane and Wild Bill

It was no secret that Calamity Jane was head over heels for Bill Hickok. Most reports state that he had no use for her but she claimed that they had been secretly married. Of course, she made this claim after Wild Bill was murdered during a poker game. Jane also claimed to have given birth to their child. There are no records to corroborate the marriage or child. When Wild Bill was killed, he was a newlywed and not to Jane! To muddy the waters even more, in 1941, a woman named Jean Hickok claimed to be the legal daughter of Calamity Jane and Bill Hickok. She provided a bible that had documentation of the marriage written in it and signed by two ministers and witnesses. We will never know the truth to this story!

Calamity Jane, standing by the grave of Wild Bill Hickok in Mt. Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, South Dakota. Source: picryl.com

Calamity Jane’s Later Years

While it is difficult to sort out fact from fiction when it comes to Calamity Jane’s life, it is known that she had a heart for helping others. During a smallpox outbreak in Deadwood, she helped nurse several victims. While she had a helping heart, she also loved attention. She continued working by telling her stories on stage, but other than that she had a tough time holding a job. This was mostly due to her alcoholism. At the end of her days, she was drunk and working as a cleaning lady in a Montana whorehouse. She died in 1903 at the age of fifty-one. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok in Terry, South Dakota. Once again accounts differ on this topic. Some say that Bill’s friends put her there as a joke on Wild Bill. The claim was that Bill had once said he “had absolutely no use” for Jane. The other account claims it was Jane’s dying request. ‘The Society Of Black Hills Pioneers’ took over her funeral and buried her next to Bill. Either way, they are buried next to each other, which is probably just the way Calamity Jane wanted it. Maybe.

Tags: Wild Bill Hickok, 1800s, Calamity Jane, Martha Jane Cannary, General Custer

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Rebeka Knott


Rebeka grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s and has always subscribed to the theory that a positive attitude will take you far! She is a wife and mother of 3 with a fun-loving spirit, believing that family and relationships are invaluable.