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Calamity Jane

Cabinet photograph captioned in the negative
Calamity Jane, Gen. Crook's Scout. An early view of Calamity Jane wearing buckskins, with an ivory-gripped Colt Single Action Army revolver tucked in her hand-tooled holster, holding a Sharps rifle.

From the beginning Martha loved the outdoors and began riding horses at an early age. In 1865, Martha, along with her parents and five younger siblings, migrated from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana. During the five month wagon train trip, the teen-age girl spent most of her time hunting with the men in the caravan. By the time the wagon train arrived in Virginia City, she was considered a remarkably good markswoman and a fearless rider. Born in Princeton, Missouri on May 1, 1852 as Martha Cannary, she would later grow up to look and act like a man, shoot like a cowboy, drink like a fish, and exaggerate the tales of her life to any and all who would listen.

She arrived at Fort Bridger on May 1, 1868. Taking whatever job that was available in order to provide for the family, she worked as a cook, a nurse, a dance-hall girl, a dishwasher, a waitress, an ox-team driver, and according to some tales, a prostitute.

In 1870, she joined General George Armstrong Custer as a scout at Fort Russell, Wyoming, donning the uniform of a soldier. This was the beginning of Calamity Jane's habit of dressing like a man. Heading south, the campaign traveled to Arizona in their zest to put Indians on reservations. In her own words, Calamity would later say of this time, that she was the most reckless and daring rider and one of the best shots in the West.

In 1872, she returned to Fort Sanders, Wyoming, where she was ordered out to the Muscle Shell Indian outbreak. That campaign, in which Generals George Custer, Nelson Miles, George Crook were engaged, lasted until the fall of 1873. It was during this time that "Calamity Jane" reportedly earned her name.

As Calamity told the story, it happened at Goose Creek, Wyoming, where the town of Sheridan is now located. Captain Egan was in command of the Post and the troops were ordered out to quell an Indian uprising. After a couple of days, when the soldiers were heading back to camp, they were ambushed by a large group of Indians. Captain Egan was the first to be shot and fell from his horse. Calamity Jane was riding in advance, but upon hearing gunfire, she turned in her saddle and saw the Captain fall. Galloping back, she lifted him onto her horse and got him safely back to the Fort. Captain Egan on recovering, laughingly said, "I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.''

Afterward, she was ordered to Fort Custer, where she arrived in the spring of 1874. In the fall of that same year, they were ordered to Fort Russell where she remained until the spring of 1875. The troops were then ordered to the Black Hills to protect the settlers and the miners from the Sioux Indians where they remained until they arrived at Fort Laramie for the winter.

In spring of 1876, she was ordered north with General Crook to join Generals Miles, Terry and Custer at the Big Horn River. During this march, she swam the Platte river near Fort Fetterman to deliver dispatches from General Crook to a local outpost. Contracting a severe illness, she was sent back in General Crook's ambulance to Fort Fetterman where she was hospitalized for fourteen days.

When she was finally able to ride she headed to Fort Laramie where she met Wild Bill Hickok who was traveling with Charlie Utter’s wagon train to Deadwood, South Dakota. Both being outrageous exaggerators and heavy drinkers, the two hit it off immediately. Although, the two have often been said to have been romantically involved, there is little to support these stories. Jane joined the train which arrived in Deadwood in June of 1876.

During the month of June she worked as a Pony Express rider carrying the U.S. mail between Deadwood and Custer, a distance of fifty miles, over one of the roughest trails in the Black Hills country. She remained around Deadwood all that summer visiting the many camps of the area.

Calamity Jane remained in Deadwood, prospecting at the various mining camps in the area. When the smallpox plague struck Deadwood, she nursed many people back to health, with little more than a thank you. Even old Doc Babcock had to admit there was a little angel of some sort in the hardboiled woman. While tending to the children, the doctor said of her, "oh, she'd swear to beat hell at them, but it was a tender kind of cussin'."

But, still she was always up to some kind of antic. When the Lard Players were at the East Lynne Opera House, Calamity sat with her rough and ready gunslinger friend, Arkansas Tom. Jane became enraged at the denouement in the play and stood up and let fly a long stream of tobacco juice which hit the star square in the eye and dribbled down her dress. Jane's gunslinger boy friend let out a whoop at this and started to shoot out the lamps. The crowd went wild with delight. Calamity took her gun slinging friend by the arm and they marched up the aisle together to the cheers of the crowd. Tom, unfortunately, did not see Calamity again because he was cut down in a bank stick-up the following day.

Calamity left Deadwood in the fall of 1877, and traveling to Bear Butte Creek with the 7th Cavalry, where they built Fort Meade near the town of Sturgis. In 1878 she left the command and went to Rapid City where she spent the year prospecting, with little success. By early 1879 she was in Fort Pierre driving mule trains to Fort Pierre and Sturgis.

By the late 1870s Calamity Jane had captured the imagination of several magazine-feature writers who covered the colorful early days of Deadwood. One dime novel dubbed her "The White Devil of the Yellowstone." By 1882 she was in Miles City, where she bought a ranch on the Yellowstone raising stock and cattle and kept a way side inn. Ever restless, Calamity went to California in 1883, but left for Texas in 1884. While in El Paso, she met Clinton Burk, a native Texan, whom she married in August 1885. On October 28, 1887, she gave birth to a baby girl.

Having the reputation for being able to handle a horse better than most men and shoot like a cowboy, her skills took her into Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show in 1895 where she performed sharp shooting astride her horse. She toured Minneapolis, then Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City, bringing to the stage the rip-roarin' west as she had lived it. She always managed to get drunk and get fired without ceremony.

In 1900 Calamity Jane was found by a newspaper editor in a bawdy house and was nursed back to health. In 1901 she was hired by the Pan American Exposition at a good job with fine pay in Buffalo, New York. But again she got liquored up, shot out the bar glass, made Irish policemen dance the jig to her roaring guns, and then stumbled down the street cursing the whole town. She was run out.

In the summer of 1903, Calamity Jane returned to the Black Hills for the last time. In the final stages of raging alcoholism and carrying her pathetically few belongings in a dilapidated old suitcase, she found refuge at Madam Dora DuFran’s brothel in Belle Fourche. For the next few months, Jane earned her keep by cooking and doing the laundry for Dora’s brothel girls.

However, by August, Calamity Jane was dying in a frowsy little room in the Calloway Hotel in Terry, near Deadwood, South Dakota. Her last request was to give her the date - August 2, 1903 - and then requested that she be buried next to the great American gunfighter, Wild Bill Hickok, on Mt. Moriah overlooking the town of Deadwood.

Calamity Jane may have been second only to Wild Bill Hickok in exaggerating her early life exploits into something that only a dime store novelist would believe. Many of those exciting adventures came from Calamity herself, and most of them could not be corroborated by others. However her legend as a hard drinking woman, wearing men's clothing, and living a rough and raucous life continues.

Kathy Weiser. Calamity Jane. Legends of America. August, 2015.


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