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Wild Women Of The West: Calamity Jane

She wore men’s clothing, used colorful language, and drank to excess with male cohorts, beneath the rough exterior was the tender heart of a woman...

February 11, 2020

The town of Deadwood, South Dakota Territory, in 1876, was a mixture of makeshift-tents erected by enthusiastic gold seekers, timber collectors, freight wagon owners, and owners of bawdy houses operated by some of the area’s most notorious madams. Ribbed by thick, tree-filled mountain chains and bleak valleys, the popular mining camp was the ideal destination for eager prospectors hoping to find the mother lode.

Shacks and lean-tos lined the muddy thoroughfare leading in and out of town.  Livestock, including hogs and cattle, slogged through the muck and mire standing in the middle of Main Street.  It was a primitive, unsanitary setting. Infrastructures and smooth roadways would come after gold was played out.  Residents were more interested in finding a strike than building an orderly community.

The Black Hills District of Dakota, where Deadwood was located, was the last major gold field to be developed.  In late 1875 prospectors had invaded the area and found rich placer diggings. The discovery was well publicized and started a stampede which brought hordes of miners into the region.

Well-known western figures arrived on the scene hoping to capitalize on the lucrative gold business.  Wild Bill Hickok, the most famous personality at the time, rode into town in July 1876 followed by an entourage that consisted of trappers, guides, gamblers and prospectors, Charlie “Colorado” Utter, his brother Steve, and noted plainswoman, Calamity Jane.  Hickok was immediately recognized by the residents in the mining burg. His long hair, stallion-tail mustache, and more than six-foot- tall frame drew attention. His enormous cream-white Stetson crowned his flowing locks just right, and the butts of the revolvers he had tucked into a red sash tied around his waist gleamed in the lava-like sun.

All of those riding with him were dressed in buckskin, including Calamity Jane.  Miners roared with boisterous delight as the pageant slowly came to a stop in front of a saloon.  Calamity Jane hopped off her mount and greeted the cheering crowd awaiting them. She shook hands with the prospectors and businessmen at the entrance of the saloon in a tough independent manner.  Hickok hadn’t known her long, but he knew she was in her element. She preferred the company of men and liked to drink a lot. Calamity Jane was more comfortable wearing the garb of a frontiersman and working occupations reserved for men.

Wild Bill Hickok was amused by her unconventionalities, but her lack of femininity made it impossible for him to see her as anything other than one of the men that traveled with him.  Calamity Jane on the other hand was completely taken by Hickok. Although she wore men’s clothing, used colorful language, and drank to excess with male cohorts, beneath the rough exterior was the tender heart of a woman who ached to be in Hickok’s constant presence.  The fact that Hickok had married circus performer Agnes Lake in March 1876 and was deeply in love with his wife did not discourage Calamity Jane. In the weeks leading up to his death she rarely left his side.

Calamity Jane was born in Princeton, Missouri, on May 1, 1852.  She was the eldest of six children born to James and Charolette Cannary and was given the name of Martha Jane.  Shortly after Jane turned thirteen in 1865, her father moved the family to Virginia City, Montana, and began prospecting for gold.  The trip west was difficult for the Cannarys. The country was unsettled in many parts, and the only food available to the family was what they hunted and gathered for themselves.  On this long journey, Calamity Jane learned how to become an expert horsewoman and to shoot game from atop her ride. She developed a love for the outdoor sport and the open range. By the time the Cannarys arrived in Montana she was a master with a rifle and could drive a team of mules pulling a wagon.

Within a few months of arriving in Virginia City, Calamity Jane’s mother passed away.  Unable to deal with the traumatic loss so far from the home the couple knew, Jane’s father decided to return to Missouri.  James became ill in Salt Lake City, Utah, and died, leaving Calamity Jane and her brothers and sister to fend for themselves.

Calamity Jane found work on a ranch at Fort Bridger, Wyoming, and for a while managed to care for her siblings.  Due to the kind of job she was given to do she became even more proficient with a weapon and riding. Her reputation in that line of work grew throughout the territory.  After a brief stay at Fort Bridger, Calamity Jane moved her family to Piedmont, Wyoming where she was employed in a variety of odd jobs in order to support her siblings.  She worked as a dishwasher, a cook, a waitress, a dancehall girl, nurse, and prostitute. Several months passed before Jane managed to find an occupation that she enjoyed above all others, that of an ox-team driver.

According to her autobiography, Calamity Jane believed the time spent on the journey west helped set the stage for her unconventional way of earning a living. “The trip west took five months to make, and I was at all times with men where there was excitement and adventure to be had…,” Jane recalled.  “I remember many occurrences on the journey. Many times, in crossing the mountains, the conditions of the trail were so bad that we frequently had to lower the wagons over ledges by hand with ropes, for they were so rough and rugged that horses were of no use. We also had many exciting times fording streams, for many of the streams in our way were noted for quicksand and boggy places, where, unless we were very careful, we would have lost horse and all.  Then we had many dangers to encounter in the way of swelling streams on account of heavy rains. On occasions of that kind, the men would usually select the best places to cross the streams; myself on more than one occasion, have mounted my pony and swam across the stream several times merely to amuse myself, and have had many narrow escapes from both myself and pony washed away to certain death….”

By the time Calamity Jane turned sixteen, the responsibility of caring for her brothers and sister had become too much for her to handle.  Once she made sure her family had homes to go to, she set off on her own. The Union Pacific Railroad extended throughout the Wyoming territory enabling adventurous pioneers to travel easily from military camp to the next.  Believing there would be great job opportunities for her on the trail driving ox-teams along the same route as the trains, Calamity Jane decided to visit the individual posts and the stops in between. She introduced herself and let everyone know she was a driver for hire.  She looked forward to meeting new people at the posts, particularly men.

Calamity Jane felt taking long rides over the plains and mountains, hunting, sleeping under the stars, drinking, smoking, playing cards, swimming in ponds and creeks, and cursing were easier to do with men than with prim and proper females who deemed such behavior unladylike.  She was enchanted by men. Biographer Duncan Aikman noted that Calamity Jane always wanted men around and that “simply the distillation of their thronging maleness gave her exaltation.”

Adorned in buckskins and boots, Calamity Jane learned how to use a bullwhip and drove freight wagons loaded with timber from Fort Bridger to Fort Laramie.  She hired on with hunting parties to acquire game for railroad workers and tried her hand at prospecting. The majority of men and women who came in contact with Calamity Jane were fascinated by her unique manner of dress and daring.  Stories of the tough talking, rowdy lady had made their way around western communities and camps. Some tales reached as far east as New York. Proper women, ladies who conformed to the conventional roles as wives and mothers, were horrified and angered by her outrageous behavior.

By 1870, Jane had moved from Wyoming to Montana.  The population of men had increased substantially in the area of Virginia City due to talks of gold being discovered in the area.  As Jane preferred men over women she decided to relocate. Wyoming had become too civilized for her tastes, overrun by women, children, and families who had finally joined their pioneering patriarchs.  Virginia City was rowdy, and saloon keepers and patrons there had no objection to Calamity Jane making herself comfortable at the bar and ordering drinks.

It’s hard to know how long Calamity Jane was in Virginia City and just where she ventured after her stay in the lawless mining camp.  Newspaper records from the time note that she traveled back to Wyoming and on to Fort Russell. She had heard that General Armstrong Custer was at the post, and she wanted to meet him and persuade him to let her join him on his campaign against the Apache Indians in Arizona.14 Some accounts have her reporting to General Crook at Fort Russell and hiring on as a scout.15 Calamity Jane had a tendency to exaggerate her accomplishments and experiences and often got dates for certain events confused, making what actually happened and when difficult to decipher.  Stretching the truth was another characteristic she shared with several men who frequented the same watering holes she did. Many historians agree that Calamity Jane was most likely in Deadwood, South Dakota, where she worked briefly as a bartender.  She claimed there was an attempt to run her out of town by “the good virtuous women” of the community for maintaining such employment. They objected not only to a woman with that occupation but also to Jane’s overall, unkempt appearance. “They came into the saloon with a horsewhip and shears to cut off my hair,” she recalled in her autobiography.  “I jumped off the bar into their midst and before they could say ‘sicken’ I had them running.”

Calamity Jane drifted from the Dakotas back to Wyoming and followed Army General George R. Crook’s men from Fort Russell to Arizona.  According to the Steubenville Herald newspaper, Calamity Jane did serve as a scout for Crook during his time battling the Apache in Yavapai, Arizona, in 1872.  Later she was transferred to a garrison near Goose Creek, Wyoming, and worked for Captain John Egan. It was while she was working as a scout that she received the name Calamity.  Captain Egan’s troops had been dispatched to deal with an uprising of Native Americans on their way back to camp. While en route, the soldiers were ambushed by the Indians. Captain Egan was shot and thrown from his ride.  Calamity Jane noticed what had happened and without hesitating hurried out to rescue the officer. She pulled him onto her horse and brought him back to safety. Once the Captain had recovered from the ordeal, he told her, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.”

Calamity Jane’s fearlessness won her the respect of many men, but very few found her physically appealing.  An intriguing description by one of her contemporaries goes: “Calamity had a shape like a hogshead with laigs [sic], and her face, which she seldom washed, was homely to the point of being plain revolting.”  A prospector acquaintance from Deadwood recorded in his memoirs that Calamity Jane’s figure reminded him of a “busted bale of hay.” Still another associate of the legend claimed that “a six-gun was served with each bottle of Red-Eye, for use if and when Calamity Jane began to look attractive.”

Calamity Jane’s appreciation for the opposite sex did not waiver with any insults she might have heard.  No amount of criticism could persuade her to abandon the adventures she embarked on from Dodge City to Deadwood.  According to the May 14, 1950, edition of the Hutchinson News Herald, “She lived life to the full and was known to Ellsworth, Abilene, Hays City, and all the army camps in Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota.”

Calamity Jane was the epitome of the free western female.  She was independent and completely uninhibited. Proof of her openness was exhibited in 1873 while in the company of a detachment of federal troops in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  Dressed in an oversized army uniform, she accompanied troops on patrol. The party camped beside a stream one evening, and the soldiers decided to take a swim before turning in for the night.  One of the officers strolling by the stream to watch the enlisted men paddling happily in the water got the jolt of his life. A naked Calamity Jane was in the water with the men. When the officer recovered from shock, Calamity was sent back to Fort Laramie where the expedition originated.  A strenuous effort was made to keep the incident quiet, but Calamity Jane was too proud of herself to not brag about the experience.

Any man who assumed Jane was so unfeminine that one could make suggestive remarks to her in public was quickly corrected.  She might have worn leather pants and a man’s pullover, woolen shirt and carried a pocket rifle, but that was no reason to think she wasn’t a lady.  Cowboy ballad singer Darling Bob Mackay learned that lesson the hard way one evening during a performance at the Comique Theatre in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1872.

Calamity was in the audience enjoying the show with a group of soldiers from a nearby fort when Darling Bob spotted Jane in the crowd.  Bob had a talent for being risqué and decided to approach Calamity Jane with his daring act and put her on the spot. Loud enough for all to hear he asked her an intimate question about her lingerie.  She was stunned and her voice filled the air with a shrill, obscene remark for his nerve, and she riddled the sombrero he was wearing for a costume with bullets. Calamity Jane then quickly left the performance demanding at gun point that her military escorts leave with her.

Calamity Jane had acquired a taste for alcohol early in her life.  It was not unusual for her to drink to excess, sing at the top of her lungs, pick fights with whoever was getting on her nerves, chew tobacco, and gamble.  She was often jailed for drunk and disorderly conduct, and, according to Sunset Magazine reporter Lewis Freeman, she could seldom remember what transpired after such events.

Few documented details exist on Calamity Jane’s attempts at marriage, but she is rumored to have had more than one husband. Road agent and stage robber, Duncan Blackburn was suspected as being one of them.  South Dakota historians believe Jane helped him hold up three stages traveling from Cheyenne, Wyoming, to Deadwood. They are reported to have had a son together as well.

Her desire to serve in the army, combined with the fact that she was “man crazy”, as the Hutchinson News Herald reported in May 1950, continually drove Calamity Jane back to military posts in Wyoming and South Dakota.  In early July 1876, after spending the night behind bars for drunk and disorderly conduct in Cheyenne, Calamity headed to Fort Russell. The only thing she carried with her when she rode out of town was a bottle of whiskey.  By the time she reached the post she was so blind drunk she couldn’t see the place and rode right by it.

Thinking the fort had been moved north of its original location, Calamity Jane continued riding on.  She didn’t stop until she reached the town of Chugwater, fifty miles away from Fort Russell. She decided to stay the night at a trading post and backtrack the following day.

After unloading her bedroll and unsaddling her horse, she made her way to a nearby saloon and proceeded to drink copious amounts of liquor.  Calamity Jane remained at the bar until dawn. Before she left the saloon, the bartender refilled the whiskey bottle she’d brought with her the previous evening and warned her to “watch out for her scalp.” She told the bartender that the “Indian who tried to get her scalp would never see daylight.”  Without any further word she hurried out of Chugwater in search of the missing fort.

Late that afternoon she rode up to the gate at Fort Laramie, ninety miles from Cheyenne.  The bottle of whiskey she’d been carrying with her was empty, and she was sober enough to realize the mistake she had made in relation to the fort.  She was not disconcerted in the least. Fort Laramie was as welcome as Fort Russell would have been as long as the post trade store had plenty of whiskey.

According to the July 27, 1876, edition of the Helena Independent, “Jane turned her horse out to grass and enjoyed camp life in her usual fashion until an officer came after her.  It is not known whether Calamity Jane met any hostile Indians during her trip or not,” the article noted. She said that she did. “A party of howling devils swooped down upon her and tried to capture her,” she told a newspaper reporter, “but she swore at them until they left.  The Sioux were probably awed by her profanity, or being exceedingly superstitious they may have taken Calamity Jane for Beelzebub himself, in the disguise of a Cheyenne beer jerker.”

Somewhere during her travels, she met Wild Bill Hickok and was instantly enamored with him.  They’d known each other only a short time before he was murdered on August 2, 1876, by Jack McCall.  Hickok’s murder was a cruel one, and Calamity Jane was determined to bring the killer to justice. She claims to have been the one who had the honor of capturing McCall.  “She did it with a butcher’s cleaver, having left her rifle at home,” the Steubenville Herald newspaper reported on February 26, 1896. “She made sure McCall passed over the great divide hanging to a limb of a cottonwood tree.”

Calamity Jane was heartbroken over Hickok’s death, but took full advantage of his position to expand on their non-existent physical relationship.  After he had attained the status of dead hero, she cultivated an act for acquiring drinks when she went into a saloon. Jane would mourn loudly for Wild Bill until the heart of the bartender was softened into giving her a couple of drinks.

Her association with Hickok, as well as her own much talked about western exploits, was the subject of a popular dime novel at the time.  In 1901, after drinking all over the west for more than twenty years, she helped write an autobiography and put into print a collection of exaggerated half-truths and outrageous boasts.

One event she did not have to exaggerate or boast about occurred in 1878.  A fearful smallpox epidemic had swept through the plains, and Calamity Jane worked night and day ministering to the ill and the dying.  She went from shack to shack in the Deadwood area tending to the sick, handing out drugs she had bought herself, and preparing the dead for burial.  Many pioneers owed Calamity Jane their lives in that year of horror in which she served as a tireless angel of mercy.

Calamity Jane’s drinking habit increased after Wild Bill was murdered.  By the time she turned forty-nine in 1901, she was an alcoholic. She managed to stay sober long enough to appear in a few Wild West shows with Buffalo Bill Cody at the Pan-American Exposition in New York.  Calamity Jane was billed as the “famous woman scout.” The drinking binges she embarked on eventually cost her any performing jobs. Homeless and destitute, Jane ended up working at a house of ill repute in Montana.  Sick and intoxicated, she spurned any attempt to help her get well. “Leave me alone and let me go to hell my own route,” she barked to well-meaning friends.

On August 1, 1903, the “Heroine of the Whoop-Up”, as the dime novels referred to her, died in Terry, South Dakota.  Those around her when she passed said she left this life calling out Bill Hickok’s name and insisting she be buried next to “the only man she ever loved.”

The remains of Calamity Jane were placed in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood beside the bones of Wild Bill Hickok.  According to the Black Hills Daily Times, Jane’s funeral was one of the largest Deadwood had ever seen. Mourners paraded past her casket, remembering with fondness Calamity Jane’s character.  One resident, who felt that the once-feisty woman lying in state dressed in a white cotton dress did not look natural, placed a pair of six-shooters in each hand. The undertaker removed the weapons and chastised viewers about disturbing the body.  His pleas went ignored and many in attendance cut locks of her hair off to keep as souvenirs. The man was finally forced to build a wire cage over the corpse in order to prevent further action.

Friends who spoke at Calamity Jane’s funeral said she was a “woman of the world with an independence of character” and “the mistress of her own destiny.”  Many of her male friends claimed she was the “original frontier terror” and swore that “her face wouldn’t have looked good on a Gila monster.”

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