“In fact I was at all times along with the men,” Martha Cannary Burke records in her brief 1896 autobiographical pamphlet, “when there was excitement or adventure to be had.” The words are straightforward and plain, like the rest of her narrative, with little room left for rhetorical flourish. This is probably due to the fact that Burke, otherwise known as Calamity Jane, was reportedly illiterate. The transcription of her story was meant to be an advertisement for her exhibition by “museum men” to cities on the East Coast (thus bringing into question much of its veracity). Much like her acquaintance or friend, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane was a living legend at the end of the nineteenth century. She was, however, as a woman who fought alongside men in the “Wild West,” an even greater oddity.
Martha Jane Cannary, known as Calamity Jane (1852–1903), was a notorious American frontier woman in the days of the Wild West. As unconventional and wild as the territory she roamed, she has become a legend.
The most likely date of Jane Cannary’s birth is May 1, 1852, probably at Princeton, Mo. When she was 12 or 13, the family headed west along the Overland Route, reaching Virginia City, Mont., 5 months later. En route Jane learned to be a teamster and to snap 30-foot bullwhackers. Her father died in 1866 and her mother died a year later. Late in 1867 Jane was in Salt Lake City.
Until the early 1870s nothing more is known of Jane. Then she appeared at Rawlins, Wyo., where she dressed and acted like a man and hired out as a mule skinner, bullwhacker, and railroad worker. “Calamity” became part of her name; she was proud of it.
In 1875 Calamity went with Gen. George Crook’s expedition against the Sioux, probably as a bullwhacker. While swimming in the nude, her sex was discovered and she was sent back. Excitement and wild adventure lured Calamity, whether it meant joining “her boys” at the bar or fighting with Native Americans. She was adept at using a six-shooter.
In Deadwood, Dakota Territory, in 1876 Calamity found a home. It was an outlaw town, so her escapades and drinking bouts did not seem out of place. One day she accompanied Wild Bill Hickok into town; apparently they had met before. Whether they were ever married, or lovers, may never be known. Jane later did have a daughter, but that she was fathered by Hickok (as the daughter claimed in 1941) is questionable. On August 2 Jack McCall shot and killed Hickok. Calamity took no revenge, as she later claimed, and McCall was legally hanged.
Yet this flamboyant woman was kind, and many remembered only her virtues. During the 1878 Deadwood smallpox epidemic Calamity stayed in the log pesthouse and nursed the patients.
Calamity Jane left Deadwood in 1880 and drifted around the Dakotas and Montana. She next appeared in California and married E. M. Burke in 1885, and her daughter was born sometime before or after this. Alone again in the later 1880s and the 1890s, she wandered through Wyoming and Montana towns, drinking, brawling, and working, even in brothels. Her fame began to grow. In 1896 she joined the Palace Museum and toured Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City; she was fired for drunkenness. Calamity came back to Deadwood in 1899, searching for funds for her daughter’s education. A successful benefit was held at the Old Opera House. In 1900 Calamity appeared briefly at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., as a Western attraction, but she was homesick for the West and soon went back. In poor health, in July 1903 she arrived at the Calloway Hotel in Terry, near Deadwood, where she died on August 1 or 2. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok.