The sun dropped below the rim of the mountains surrounding a canvas-covered arena set up in the heart of the business district in Denver, Colorado. The ringing notes of a six-piece band playing “Camptown Races” washed over the packed crowd. It was 1875 and an eager audience was on its feet cheering when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show entourage paraded into the stadium. Behind the menagerie of animals came the most famous vehicle of the time – the Deadwood stage.
Built in 1863 in New York, the Deadwood stage transported numerous passengers and millions in gold along a rugged route in South Dakota. It had survived many holdups and Indian attacks during its service and had been abandoned all together after being overrun by a party of warring Sioux. Cody had salvaged the stage and proudly featured the wagon in every show.
On several occasions a frontier woman stage driver overshadowed the popular ride and brought spectators to their feet in a spontaneous ovation. Calamity Jane had once sat behind the reins of the coach, risking life and limb to make sure the stage made it over the dangerous Deadwood route.
Her skill as sharpshooter and horsewoman were well known. The whistles and applause that greeted her were proof that she was a respected and loved figure – the epitome of the free western female.
She was born Martha Jane Cannary on May 1, 1852, in Princeton, Missouri. Martha Jane was the oldest of six children and took over as head of the house after her parents died relocating the family to Montana. She provided for her brothers and sisters working as a wash-woman for miners, but eventually gave that up to dig for gold herself.
Martha Jane was unconventional in attitude and dress. She took on jobs women never did and wore men’s clothing while doing them. Once her siblings were taken care of, she struck out on her own. She used her talent for tracking and riding to get hired on by the U. S. Cavalry. Stationed at Fort Russell, Wyoming, and serving under General George Crook, she worked as a scout. She helped to located warring Native American tribes throughout the Southwest. It was a job she thoroughly enjoyed.
According to Martha Jane she acquired the name Calamity Jane in the fall of 1873. She was twenty years old and traveling with soldiers from Fort Sanders, Wyoming. Among them were General Mills, Terry Crook, and Custer.
It was on Goose Creek, Wyoming, where the town of Sheridan is now located. Captain Egan was in command of the Post. We were ordered out to quell an uprising of the Indians, and were out for several days, had numerous skirmishes during which six of the soldiers were killed and several severely wounded. When on returning to the Post, we were ambushed about a mile and a half from our destinations. When fired upon, Captain Egan was shot. I was riding in advance and, on hearing the firing, turned in my saddle and saw the Captain reeling in his saddle as though about to fall.
I turned my horse and galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling. I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Captain Egan, on recovering, laughingly said: ‘I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.’ I have borne that name up to the present time.
Calamity Jane – 1873
It was during this Indian campaign that Calamity Jane met William Cody. Cody too was a scout of some note, and Calamity Jane was appointed to work under him. In his memoirs he recalled she had “many friends and just as many positive opinions of the things that a girl could enjoy.”
While working as a scout…her life was pretty lively all the time. She had uninvited nerve and entered into the work with enthusiasm, doing good service on a number of occasions.
William Cody – 1898
Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane’s paths did not cross again for many years, well after the pair had left military service. During that time Calamity Jane continued making a name for herself as the “heroine of the plains” and forging lasting friendships with other famous westerners like Wild Bill Hickok.
Buffalo Bill invited the bawdy horsewoman and sharpshooter to join his Wild West Show in 1899. She was billed as the Famous Woman Scout of the Wild West, the Heroine of a Thousand Thrilling Adventures.
Biographers note that Calamity Jane had a drinking problem that often interfered with her ability to perform in the Wild West programs. Living up to a promise to cast and crew to “never go to bed with a nickel in her pocket or sober” led to her firing in 1901.
The Wild West Show was held over in New York at the time Calamity Jane was dismissed. Cody loaned the broke woman money to get back to her home in Deadwood. She died two years after arriving in South Dakota. At her request she was laid to rest beside Wild Bill Hickok.
“He was the only man I ever loved,” she reportedly admitted.