Martha "Calamity" Jane Canary - Misc. Characters

Martha "Calamity" 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 Gibson



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” (p. 6).
“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” (p.22, p.29).

What about her place of birth?
“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” (p.18).

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 Calamity?
“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 Calamity Jane?
“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 Trails
J. Leonard Jennewein
Dakota West Books, Rapid City, SD
Copyright 1953, 1958, 1965, 1991

Submitted by Paul Hubbeling, J. Leonard Jennewein’s grandson.