Jane Canary 1852-1903
Calamity Jane was born
Martha Jane Cannary. She was born at Princeton, Missouri. Her real birth
date is not known but is thought to be 1844. She claimed her birthday
was May 1, 1852. Her father was a farm boy, who married her mother, "to
reform her." Evidently it didn't work. In 1865, her family moved
to Virginia City, Montana. Her mother died a year later. After that she
went to Wyoming. In 1870, she met James B. Hickok near Abilene, Texas.
They were married later that year. The marriage vows were written on a
page torn out of a Bible and two reverends read them. She always considered
the marriage as legal. In 1873 she gave birth to a daughter in Missouri.
She named her Jean Hickok. She soon gave the child up for adoption and
went on her merry way.
By that time she was known as a camp follower. She frequently hung around
army posts or anywhere were large numbers of men hung around. In 1875,
Professor Walter P. Jenny, was getting ready for an expedition to the
Black Hills of South Dakota. He was a geologist who would explore the
gold potential in the area. U.S. Army troops would ride along to protect
the civilian expedition. While Jenny was getting ready for the trip at
Fort Laramie, Jane was inspecting the troops. One Sergeant Frank Siechrist
caught her eye. He decided he would like to bring her along. She already
wore buckskins and leather chaps. She wore a slouch hat and chewed tobacco.
She drank heavily and cursed frequently. He figured she would blend right
in. He got a soldier's uniform for her to wear on the trail. The cat was
out of the bag one night, when the soldiers were bathing after a dusty
trail drive. Evidently no one had bothered with bathing suits. She was
sent back to Fort Laramie.
That short stint with the army is, as far as is known, the closest she
ever came to being an army scout. Many stories that circulated about her
claimed that she was. Many of those rumors she started herself. One of
them was a rumor about how she got her nickname. She made up the story
herself and called herself Calamity. She claimed she got the nickname
during the Indian outbreak of 1872. She was attached to a force led by
Captain Egan, near the present town of Sheridan, Wyoming. They were sent
out to put down an Indian disturbance. When they returned to the post
they were ambushed. She turned in her saddle just in time to see Egan
falling out of his. She caught him just before he fell and rode him back
to the fort. Upon recovering he supposedly said to her, "I name you
Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains."
After being "discharged" from the Army, Jane supposedly returned
to Deadwood, South Dakota, so that she could grant Wild Bill the divorce
he wanted. He wanted to marry Agnes Lake. Even after their marriage, Jane
continued to hang around. Then on August 2, 1876, Hickok was killed while
playing poker, shot in the back. She mourned him for quite some time.
She stayed in the area and frequently doctored the sick. A smallpox epidemic
broke out in 1878 and Jane often tended the sick. There were few women
in the area at the time and her nursing was greatly appreciated.
After that she was hired as a teamster. She drove a big wagon from Rapid
City to Fort Pierre. Other than her occasional habit of wandering off
and getting drunk, she was a competent driver. Apparently she also spent
time in Green River, Wyoming, and Blackfoot, Montana, as a prostitute.
She married Charles Burke in El Paso in 1885. Two years later she had
a daughter. But the marriage didn't last. She left him long before they
were officially separated in 1895. She wandered her way around the west,
resorting to her profession. In August of 1893, she joined Buffalo Bill's
Wild West Show an toured the East Coast and England. He later kicked her
out for excessive drinking. But the show biz bug had bitten and she started
performing for the Palace Museum Show. Her act consisted of a monologue
in which she described her life and especially her rescue of Wild Bill
. She started writing her autobiography during that time, but was soon
kicked out of the show for drunkenness.
She was found sick and drunk in the poorhouse of Bozeman, Montana, in
1901. By that time she had started selling copies of her autobiography
(only a pamphlet really) to support her drinking habit. She got sick and
delirious, but recovered. She started performing with the Pan American
Exposition for a short time. She was arrested in a barroom brawl in which
two policemen were injured. She was dismissed from the show. Later that
year she shot up a bar in Billings, Montana.
On August 3, 1903 she died at Terry, South Dakota, of pneumonia. She was
52 years old. A funeral was held in the First Methodist Church. A large
crowd was on hand. Her last wish was to be buried next to Wild Bill. Her
friends arranged for her to be buried within twenty feet of him. They
changed the date of her death to August 2, to match his, then the 27th
anniversary of his murder.
-Copyright 2001 by Beth
Here is another point of
view about Calamity Jane from J. Leonard Jennewein and it is presented
in here with the permission of his grandson Paul Hubbeling.
Submitters note: This is
not a book review or academic paper. The following are excerpts from a
book my grandfather wrote called Calamity Jane of the Western Trails.
My grandfather was J. Leonard Jennewein. He also wrote Black Hills Booktrails,
Prelude to Barbed Wire, Dakota Square Dance Book and Instructors Manual,
and co-authored Dakota Panorama with Jane Boorman. He was a professor
of History and English at Dakota Wesleyan University, and curator of the
Friends of the Middle Border Museum in Mitchell, SD. In 1978 he was inducted
into the South Dakota Hall of Fame.
Excerpts from Calamity
Jane of the Western Trails
By J. Leonard Jennewein
“She followed the
man-trails of the old West, the railroad gangs, the miners, the soldiers,
the bull-whackers. Cheyenne and Deadwood, Ft. Laramie and Livingston,
Billings and Bozeman and Belle Fourche and the long trails that lay between.
The creak of saddle leather, the early morning crack of the bull whip;
the long columns of marching men, the roistering, roaring men. The shouts
and laughter of a thousand honky-tonks; the long bars dimly lit, the feverish
braggadocio of simmering masculinity.
And then there was the falling apart. The ill-timed crudities; the goings
and comings and no more the laughter. The bewildering, incomprehensible
disintegration. The stale beer.
There was a spark of the unforgettable, a flair for the spectacular, an
urgency for action, a jigger of Old Nick, a touch of the bitters”
“We are talking about the lady who died in Terry, South Dakota,
August 1, 1903, who was buried in Mt. Moriah cemetery in Deadwood on August
4, and upon whose tombstone is engraved these words, ‘Calamity Jane,
Mrs. M. E. Burke. Died August 1, 1903. Age 53 yrs.’” (p. 8).
“Considerable is said in favor of not saying anything about Calamity.
She was a disreputable old harridan, a disgrace to womankind. Instead
of further commemorating the name of the notorious Calamity, why not write
about a good person, someone like Annie Talent, for instance? Suffice
it to say that had that formula been followed some very interesting folks
would be missing from literature, including the Devil himself.
Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets of Coventry and thereby gained
everlasting fame. She did a spectacular thing. She performed in a manner
not in keeping with the established custom of the day.
Calamity Jane, well liquored up, once rode a bull through the streets
of Rapid City. She had her clothes on. No one was struck blind, but it
was a sight to see.
In an elementary fashion the same reason accounts for the fame or notoriety,
whichever you prefer, of both the English Lady and Calamity Jane. She
dressed like a man; she cavorted with men in a manner not usual for her
kind. She drank whiskey in saloons with men, before such practice was
socially acceptable. She wore a gun, she swore, she chewed tobacco; she
traveled with bull trains and knew how to crack the whip. To do this at
all, set her apart, made people talk about her; but she did it with flair,
with exuberance, with native sense of showmanship. Calamity Jane operated
down the middle of the road with the throttle wide open. She attracted
attention in a dramatic manner, in episodes calculated to remain in the
memory of the witnesses” (p.6-7).
“We may as well pause to settle any arguments about the date of
her death. The written record of the life of Calamity Jane is a maze of
contradictions, errors, and suppositions, but there is no excuse for incorrect
reporting of the date of her death, a mistake which has been made by such
writers as Brininstool, Brown and Willard, Casey, Mumey, Bennett, Williams,
Holbrook, Coursey, Crawford, Young, and Aikman, all of whom say she died
on August 2nd. McPherrin says she died August 2, 1906. We do not propose
in this little pamphlet to solve any of the major problems in connection
with the life of Calamity Jane; let us however, insist upon just one little
fact: she died August 1, 1903. There is no question about it. We did take
the trouble to read an old newspaper or two; we checked the date against
all local sources. The date on her tombstone is correct; McClintock reports
it correctly and so does Paine in his later work.
But this constantly repeated error serves to illustrate a point; very
little research, even of elementary nature has been applied to much of
the writing about Calamity. Writers have accepted the word of previous
authors without checking original sources. In the matter of the date of
Calamity’s death we also encounter a bit of sentiment. Wild Bill
Hickok was shot to death in a Deadwood Saloon on August 2, 1876. Fictional
writers, insisting on an attachment between Calamity Jane and Wild Bill,
preferred to postpone her death by one day in order to celebrate the anniversary
and introduce some maudlin romance. Serious authors apparently went right
along with the idea” (p.8).
The following are hypothetical
questions that can be answered using excerpts from Jennewein’s book.
So where Calamity and Wild
Bill ever a couple?
“We buy no stock in the Calamity Jane-Wild Bill corporation. We
believe that Calamity Jane and Wild Bill were never married, that they
never even suffered an attachment, that Jean Hickok McCormick was the
daughter of neither, and that the marriage certificate, the Diary, the
letters, and everything else in the package is a hoax from start to finish”
What about her place of
“We accept the proposition that Calamity lived near Princeton, Missouri,
as a child; we pass no opinion as to whether she was born in Illinois.
No one has yet proved where Calamity Jane was born” (p.15). A Princeton
Press newspaper article dated August 12, 1903 announcing the death of
Calamity Jane stated, “The maiden name of ‘Calamity Jane’
was Jane Canary, her father being Robert Canary. She was born on her father’s
farm, six miles east of Princeton [Missouri], in 1852” (p.14).
What about the reports
that she was a scout?
“We believe it to be a fact that she was with the Jenney expedition
into the Black Hills in 1875. McGillycuddy and Young provide satisfactory
evidence. She was with Crook in 1876 when he left Ft. Fetterman on his
foray into the north country but somebody objected and Calamity was sent
back to Ft. Laramie. Mills and Bourke testify to her presence on this
occasion. Was she then officially hired as a scout as the books say? Officially
the Department of the Army advises me by letter that ‘No record
has been found in this office to show that she was ever connected with
the military service or was ever employed as a civilian with the department
of the Army” (p.17-18). However, “De Barthe quotes Grouard
[one of Gen. Crook’s scouts] as saying that on Goose Creek (near
Sheridan, Wyoming) he hired several scouts including Calamity Jane”
What did she do for the
men on these excursions?
“What did Calamity do on these military excursions? Was she smuggled
along by the conniving soldiers as a prostitute? No, it is not quite that
simple. But we may as well say right here that Calamity Jane was a prostitute.
My own interviews leave no question in the matter” (p.17).
How did she get the name
“Her real name was Black. No, sorry it was White. Wrong again. It
was Burke, Dorsett, Somers, King, Hickok, Hunt, Steers, Dalton, Wilson,
Washburn, Coombs, Buck. What do we do with a mix-up like this? That’s
easy. We just give up. And let us suggest that there is no authenticated
version of how Calamity acquired the name ‘Calamity.’ The
story as given in her autobiography is known to be false. All we can say
is that she lived in an adventurous time and place and that someone tagged
her with the name ‘Calamity’ and it stuck” (p.20).
A reader might get the
feeling that you were too hard on Calamity.
“Calamity Jane was sort of a Florence Nightingale, an angel of mercy
who nursed the miners stricken with smallpox in the plaque of 1987 in
Deadwood. She did the same in Confederate Gulch; in fact smallpox seems
to have broken out wherever Calamity went. There was a time when we believed
every one of these stories; there was a time when we believed none. Now
we keep to a skeptical middle course. But there is a basic truth here;
this is the good side of Calamity Jane. We have personally talked with
too many persons who relate the good deeds of Calamity, with specific
names and places, to do any highhanded debunking” (p.31).
What led you to write on
“We have no particular desire to interfere with the legend of Calamity
Jane. Legends are important. They preserve and nourish the grain of truth
which otherwise might perish. Yet it behooves us from time to time to
shuck off the grosser husks of a frontier legend and attempt a definition
of the grain” (p.6).
How was the author able
to come to these conclusions?
That, my friends, is the rest of the story.
Calamity Jane of the Western
J. Leonard Jennewein
Dakota West Books, Rapid City, SD
Copyright 1953, 1958, 1965, 1991
Submitted by Paul Hubbeling,
J. Leonard Jennewein’s grandson.