Calamity Jane was a larger-than-life character of the Old West. She told exaggerated accounts of her own exploits and left history with the impossible task of separating fact from fiction.
The reason for her nickname forms part of the mystery. She herself told the story that one Captain Egan, whom she had allegedly just rescued from an Indian ambush in Wyoming and carried back to the fort on her own horse, on recovery said to her:
“I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.”
But why the word ‘calamity’ which has negative connotations? In any case, the story has all the hallmarks of her usual spin-doctoring. A more plausible explanation is that she used to tell men that if they offended her they would ‘court Calamity’. Jane was her middle name.
Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Cannary in 1852. Her toughness and resilience arose out of her childhood as the eldest of six children with a father who gambled and a mother who worked as a prostitute. When her parents died, she took charge of her younger siblings and worked hard in a range of jobs including prostitution, which was better paid than the others, in order to support them.
When she wasn’t working as a prostitute, she began dressing as a man and adopting the persona of a man which was easy with her powerful build provided she kept her clothes on. In 1875, on General Crook’s expedition against the Sioux as a bullwhacker (she could snap thirty-foot whips), she happened to swim naked in a river and so her sex was discovered; she was sent back.
After wandering for a while, associating with miners, railroad workers and soldiers, drinking heavily and being frequently arrested, Calamity Jane took up residence in 1876 in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Deadwood was an outlaw town, hard-drinking and hard-gambling, which suited her personality. Here she met various other characters, including Wild Bill Hickok whom some sources say she married and even had a daughter with, but there is no hard evidence for this, any more than there is evidence for her having gone after Hickok’s murderer with a meat cleaver as she claimed.
She was most definitely a show-woman. She is supposed to have performed as a sharpshooter astride a horse in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, although other sources claim she just came on stage in her cowboy outfit and told stories. One time she was watching a play and didn’t like the denouement. She stood up and let fly with a stream of tobacco juice which hit the leading lady in the eye. The audience was delighted.
One thing seems to be certain in the midst of all the legends and wild boasting and that is that there was a very likeable side to Calamity Jane. She was helpful, generous, and even willing to risk danger on behalf of other people. In 1877 she rescued a stagecoach which was being pursued by Indians. The driver had an arrow in him so she took over and drove them all to safety. In 1878 there was a smallpox epidemic in Deadwood and she stayed in the log pesthouse at great personal risk in order to nurse the patients.
Calamity Jane died, probably of alcoholism, in 1903. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok most likely at her request. She had been rowdy, self-glorifying, frequently drunk and most definitely unladylike, but people flocked to her funeral. As one well-wisher commented:
“Her vices were the wide-open sins of a wide-open country – the sort that never carried a hurt”.