The American West has given us some of history's greatest legends, icons, and heroes... and while most were men (Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy, and more), there was a place for women to make their mark on the "anything goes" frontier, too. Few were as notorious as Calamity Jane, famed frontierswoman, Army scout, and occasional prostitute. While we don't know much about her, and what we do know, came from a pamphlet she wrote ("wrote" meaning, dictated it to someone because she was illiterate) and sold about her own life. But hey, sometimes the embellished story is more exciting than the real deal, so here's the story of Calamity Jane.
Calamity Jane was born Martha Jane Canary on May 1st, 1852 near Princeton, Missouri. Her father was a gambling addict and her mother was a former prostitute. She was the oldest of six children. The family didn't stay in Missouri for very long; her father moved the kids to Virginia City Montana, then Salt Lake City, where he died, leaving 14-year-old Martha in charge. She loaded up her siblings and headed to Fort Bridger.
It was near Fort Laramie that she found work as a scout and a prostitute. It was from her scouting that she got her nickname; as she tells it, she was serving under a Captain named Egan when her unit went out to quell an Indian raid. According to her story, the captain was shot and fell from his saddle... but she caught him and pulled him onto her horse, and he declared her Calamity Jane, heroine of the plains. While there was no doubt that she was a fearless rider, a good shot, and she knew her way around the Great Plains, the story is most likely very embellished. Others think a more likely origin of the nickname is that it was said that "to offend her was to court calamity". Either way, totally badass nickname, and however it came about, that's the name she was going by when she rolled into Deadwood, South Dakota.
She arrived in Deadwood alongside Wild Bill Hickok after having met him on a wagon train in 1876. She occasionally worked for Dora DuFran, the region's most respected brothel madam, and was still doing some scouting work as well. She was muscular and had tanned, windburned skin and a drinking problem, and often wore men's clothes. Most traces of the "pretty, dark-eyed girl" she once had been were gone. She did appear to have two daughters (and there's a story that she had a child with Wild Bill that she gave up, although according to most reports, her infatuation with the legend was mostly one-sided). A popular story tells that she once asked Deadwood to hold a fundraiser so she could afford to send one daughter to a private school nearby; a large sum of money was raised, but Jane got drunk and spent most of it in one night, despite appearing to have genuine intentions.
Her later years were spent performing in Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show and at other exhibitions and dime museums, and to draw in crowds, she continued to embellish stories-- and Jane was known for her profanity in telling them, too. She claimed that after Jack McCall shot Wild Bill over a hand of poker in Deadwood's notorious Saloon No. 10, she confronted McCall with a meat cleaver, having forgotten her guns at home. Of course, that was probably not true, but Jane did do a lot of incredible stuff in Deadwood. Once, she saved an overland stagecoach filled with passengers by diverting an Indian attack, and then taking the reins and driving the coach to safety after the driver was killed. She was most famed for her charitable streak, despite her character flaws; Jane was especially beloved for the work she did treating patients during a smallpox breakout in Deadwood.
Jane died in 1903, when she was in her 50s, while in Terry, South Dakota. Her body was interred at Deadwood's Mount Moriah Cemetery, next to Wild Bill Hickok's. Some say that this was her dying wish, while others suspect it was a posthumous prank played on Bill by his friends, as some people say that Wild Bill "had no use for her when he was alive". Either way, her funeral was widely attended, by both her friends and the "morbidly curious", and her life has gone down in history as one that exemplifies the wild and rowdy, but still exciting life of the Western frontier.
It doesn't matter where the truth ends and the fiction begins with Calamity Jane, because so much of the American West was about the stories. The fact that anything could happen on the plains and in the boom towns was where the real appeal of the Wild West laid, and Calamity Jane knew that, and knew it well.