The Legendary Calamity Jane by Sarah J. McNeal
Most of us think of Calamity Jane as a funny character in the movies. We’ve come to believe she was Wild Bill Hickok’s sidekick and maybe even his love interest, but not everything we’ve heard or seen in the movies was quite the way it really was.
Jane was born , the eldest of six children in Princeton, Missouri May 1, 1852. Her parents were Martha Jane Canary Robert and . They moved by wagon train from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana. Charlotte Canary Charlotte died of pneumonia along the way in Black Foot, Montana. In 1866 they moved to Salt Lake City, Utah where Robert bought a forty acre farm, but he died a year later and Jane took over as head of the household. In 1868, she moved her siblings to Fort Bridger, Wyoming then took the Union Pacific Railroad to Piedmont, Wyoming.
For a few years she worked at many different jobs including a nurse, cook, dance hall girl, dish washer and ox team driver until she became a scout at Fort Russell in 1874. It is also said that she became a part time prostitute at Fort Laramie Three-Mile Hog Ranch. She was considered pretty, but she had very little education and was illiterate. In 1885 she was involved in several military campaigns against Native Americans. It was during these campaigns that she became known as Calamity Jane. She loved to tell the story about how they were ambushed returning to their post when
Captain became wounded. She caught him before he fell from his horse and, according to Egan Jane, he supposedly said, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.” In 1904 Captain Jack Crawford disclaimed Jane’s story by saying Calamity Jane "...never saw service in any capacity under either General Crook or General . She never saw a lynching and never was in an Indian fight. She was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish, but possessed a generous streak which made her popular." Miles
One story about Calamity Jane was, however, verified as true. In 1875
Jane’s detachment was ordered to the Big Horn River under General . With important dispatches in her care, she swam the Platte River and traveled Crook 90 miles at top speed though wet and cold to deliver them. She became ill afterwards. After a few weeks of recuperation, she rode to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and later, in July 1876, she joined a wagon train headed north, which is where she first met Wild Bill Hickok, contrary to her later claims.
Jane accompanied the into the Black Hills in 1875, along with California Joe and Valentine McGillycuddy. By this time, her youthful good looks were gone; her skin had become leathery and tanned from the elements of sun and wind, she had grown muscular and unfeminine, and her hair was stringy and seldom washed. Newton-Jenny Party
In 1876, Calamity Jane settled in the area of Deadwood, South Dakota in the Black Hills. She became friends with
who was the leading madam of the area and worked for Dora DuFran Dora on occasion. She became friendly with Wild Bill Hickok and after she traveled with them to Deadwood in Utter's wagon train. Charlie Utter Jane greatly admired Hickok, in fact it was said that she was infatuated with him. After Hickok was killed during a poker game in which he held a hand of two aces and two eights on August 2, 1876, Calamity Jane claimed to have been married to Hickok and that Hickok was the father of her child she named Jean, who she said was born on September 25, 1873, and whom she later put up for adoption by Jim O'Neil and his wife. Of course, there are no records to prove the birth of a child, and the romantic relationship was most likely another of Jane’s fabrications. On September 6, 1941, the U.S. Department of Public Welfare granted old age assistance to a Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick, who claimed to be the legal offspring of Martha Jane Canary and James Butler Hickok, after being presented with evidence that Calamity Jane and Wild Bill had married at Benson's Landing, Montana Territory, on September 25, 1873, documentation being written in a Bible which was supposedly signed by two ministers and numerous witnesses. However, McCormick's claim has been vigorously challenged because of a variety of discrepancies.
Hickok’s death Jane claimed that she went after his murderer, with a meat cleaver, but her story is unsubstantiated. Following McCall's eventual hanging, Jack McCall Jane continued living in the Deadwood area for some time, and at one point she did help save several passengers in an overland stagecoach by diverting several Plains Indians who were in pursuit of the stage. The stagecoach driver, , was killed and John Slaughter Jane took over the reins and drove the stage on to its destination at Deadwood. Also in late 1876, Jane nursed the victims of a smallpox epidemic in the Deadwood area. It seems the more we learn of Calamity Jane, the more difficult it becomes to know the truth from the lie. It was said of Wild Bill that he found Calamity loud and obnoxious and wanted nothing to do with her. Before his death, he had married Agnes Lake Thatcher.
In 1881, she bought a ranch west of Miles City, Montana along the Yellowstone River where she kept an inn. After marrying the Texan Clinton Burke, she moved to Boulder and had a daughter,
Jane, who was given to foster parents. Calamity Jane didn’t appear to be interested in being a parent.
In 1893, Calamity Jane joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show as a storyteller. She also participated in the 1901 Pan-American Exposition. She was often depressed and had become an alcoholic.
Jane’s addiction to liquor was evident even in her younger years. One story of her alcohol driven exploits took place on June 10, 1876 when she rented a horse and buggy in Cheyenne for a mile-or-so joy ride to Fort Russell and back. Calamity was so drunk that she passed right by her destination without noticing it and finally ended up about 90 miles away at Fort Laramie.
Jane was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery in South Dakota next to Wild Bill Hickok. The four men who planned her funeral, Albert Malter, Frank Ankeney, Jim Carson, and , later stated that since Wild Bill Hickok had “absolutely no use” for Anson Higby Jane while he was alive, they decided to play a posthumous joke on Wild Bill Hickok by giving Calamity an eternal resting place by his side. It seems an unkind joke for both Wild Bill and Calamity Jane. Other accounts state she requested to be buried beside Wild Bill, “the only man I ever loved.” Like most of her life, the truth lies hidden somewhere between the falsehoods.
Historians have had a difficult time of sorting out the real facts of Calamity Jane’s life and adventures.
Jane told tall tales of her escapades, most of them unsubstantiated, but there is no doubt that her adventures were colorful and that she was well liked for her generosity and kindness. Though she was addicted to alcohol and wanderlust, she was always willing to face hardship and danger for the sake of others.
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