Martha Jane Canary was born in Princeton, Mo., in 1852. From an early age she preferred to run with the boys and roam the countryside on her horse. In 1864, the Canary family joined up with a wagon train to seek their fortune out West in the Montana gold fields (though some say it was to escape legal troubles), and settled in Virginia City, Mont.
Martha Jane was 13 years old when her parents died, and as the eldest of six siblings, she was left to care for the family. In 1867 she moved her brothers and sisters to Fort Bridger, Wyo., where she kept them fed by taking on whatever jobs she could: dishwasher, waitress, dancehall girl, nurse, ox-team driver, laundress, and prostitute. In 1870, Martha Jane drifted across the Wyoming territory and ended up in Fort Russell, where she traded on the tracking and hunting skills she had developed as a child and reportedly signed on as a scout for General George Custer.
By this time, she had taken to wearing men’s clothing, complete with long underwear and boots, and sported a pair of six-shooters on her hips. And the guns were not just for show. According to O.W. Coursey’s Beautiful Black Hills (Educator Supply Company, 1926), Martha Jane once chastised a wagon driver who was abusing his mule. In retaliation, the driver knocked her hat off with his whip, to which she pulled her revolver “quicker than a flash” and ordered the man: “Put that hat where you got it.” He obliged.
Martha Jane’s unusual style and ability to master jobs traditionally done by men made her a popular Western character and earned her the handle that became legend: Calamity Jane. Tales of her adventures found their way into dime novels published in the East and helped make her a household name across the country.
Though she kept company with various men (and even married once), her heart belonged to James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, who she met in Deadwood, S.D. Wild Bill maintained they were only friends, but Calamity Jane insisted they were more. Whatever their relationship might have been, she grieved for months after he was killed on August 2, 1876.
Calamity Jane continued to lead an adventurous life. William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody invited her to appear as a storyteller in his Wild West, which she did in 1893. And in 1901, she participated in the Pan-American Exposition.
Calamity Jane passed away from pneumonia on August 1, 1903. Her body was returned to Deadwood, where the town undertaker outfitted her in a white cotton dress. According to the Black Hills Dakota Times, Calamity Jane’s funeral was “one of the largest Deadwood had ever seen.” Mourners paraded past her casket, and one resident, who felt the once-feisty woman did not look natural in a white dress, placed a pair of six-shooters in each of her hands.
Honoring her last wishes, Calamity Jane was buried beside Wild Bill at the Mount Moriah Cemetery. Allegedly, her final words were, “Bury me beside Wild Bill, the only man I ever loved.”
Author and screenwriter Chris Enss has written more than 20 books on the subject of women in the Old West. Read more at www.chrisenss.com/