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Calamity Jane

aka Martha Jane Cannary Burke

By

Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane

Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane by H. R. Locke, 1895

Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Calamity Jane Grave

Mount Moriah Cemetery,or "Boot Hill," in Deadwood, South Dakota

Patti McConville / Getty Images

Dates: (May 1, 1852 (?) - August 1, 1903)

Also known as: Martha Jane Cannary Burke

About Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Cannary about 1852 in Princeton, Missouri -- she sometimes claimed Illinois or Wyoming. Her father, Robert Cannary or Canary, was a farmer, and the farm inherited from his grandfather.  Jane was the oldest of five siblings. Robert took the family to Montana during an 1865 Gold Rush -- a story which Jane told in her biography with considerable relish, enjoying the land journey and learning to drive the wagons herself.

Her mother, Charlotte, died the next year, and the family moved to Salt Lake City. Then her father died the following year.  (She told the story that she was born in Wyoming and the Indians killed and scalped her parents when she was very young.)

Jane moved to Wyoming, and began her independent adventures, moving around mining towns and railroad camps and the occasional military fort. No Victorian delicate woman, she wore men's clothes and did menial jobs and jobs usually reserved for men -- on the railroad, as a mule skinner -- to eke out a living. She may have worked occasionally as a prostitute. She may have disguised herself as a man to accompany soldiers on expeditions, including the 1875 expedition of Gen. George Crook against the Sioux.  She developed a reputation for hanging out with the miners, railroad workers and soldiers, enjoying a lot of alcohol with them, and was with some frequency arrested for drunkkenness or disturbing the peace.

She spent quite a bit of time in Deadwood, Dakota, including during the Black Hills gold rush of 1876, including being seen often with James Hickok, "Wild Bill" Hickok; she'd been traveling with him and others for several years.  After his August murder, she claimed that he was the father of her child and that they'd been married. (The child, if it existed, was said to have been born September 25, 1873, and given up for adoption at a South Dakota Catholic school.)  Historians do not accept that either the marriage or the child existed.  A diary supposedly by her has been demonstrated clearly to be fraudulent.

Calamity Jane nursed victims of a smallpox epidemic in 1878, also dressed as a man. She was something of a local legend because the Sioux Indians left her alone (as well as because of her other eccentricities).  

Edward L. Wheeler featured Calamity Jane in his popular dime Westerns in 1877 and 1878, adding to her reputation.

In her autobiography, Calamity Jane said that she had married Clinton Burke in 1885 and that they lived together for at least six years. Again, the marriage is not documented and historians doubt its existence.  She used the name Burke in later years.  A woman later claimed to have been a daugher of that marriage, but may have been Jane's by some other man or Burke's by another woman.  When and why Clinton Burke left Jane's life is not known.

Later Years of Calamity Jane

In her later years, Calamity Jane appeared in Wild West shows, including the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show, around the country, featuring her riding and shooting skills.In 1887, Mrs. William Loring wrote a novel named Calamity Jane.  The stories in this and other fiction were often conflated with her actual life experiences. Jane published her autobiography in 1896, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane by Herself, to cash in on her own fame, and much of it is quite clearly fictional or exaggerated.  In 1899, she was in Deadwood again, raising money for her daughter's education. She appeared at the Buffalo, New York, Pan-American Exposition in 1901, again on the road in exhibitions and shows.

But her chronic drunkenness and fighting caused many problems, and after she was fired in 1901, she retired to Deadwood. She died in a hotel in nearby Terry in 1903.  Different sources give different causes of death: pneumonia, "inflammation of the bowels" or alcoholism.

Calamity Jane was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood's Mount Mariah Cemetery.  The funeral was large, her reputation still quite large.

Her legend continued in movies, books and television Westerns.

Calamity Jane - Why Calamity?

Why "Calamity"? That's what Calamity Jane would threaten to any man who bothered her -- a calamity.She claimed it was given to her because she was good to have around in a calamity.  Or perhaps it was due to her heroic efforts during the smallpox epidemic. Or to the result of not respecting her shooting skills. Or maybe it was a description of a very hard and tough life.  Like much in her life, it's not certain.

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