There are a lot of myths surrounding Calamity Jane. In truth, like a lot people from the Old West, she has a lot of untruths surrounding her life. Like so many, she has become a legend, made so by television shows and movies, to the point where some of today’s youth might not know that she was actually a real person. In fact her most famous, recent, adaptation on the screen is on HBO’s Deadwood, one of the most popular shows HBO has ever produced.
But she was real. Martha Jane Canary (also spelled Cannary) was born May 1, 1852 in Princeton, Missouri. Some of the reason why we don’t really know that much about her real life is that most of the information we have comes from her own autobiography, which she published in 1896.
So, the question is, who was Calamity Jane?
After her death and throughout the 20th century, historians have tried to answer that question. There are rumors of her holding many different positions during her life, from a dishwasher at Fort Bridger, a military scout for General Custer, a railroader, and many other professions.
It isn’t even really known how she got the name Calamity Jane. What we do know is that age 13, she and her parents moved to Montana during a gold rush. She liked to wear men’s clothing and shoot guns, and she liked to spend her time in the company of powerful men.
By the 1870s, she either moved away from her parents, or they were killed, as the history is vague in this area. Most of the next ten years or so were spent in different organizations, usually as a laundress. In the late 1870s and the 1880s, during yet another gold rush, she settled in the town of Deadwood, South Dakota.
As noted, a lot of the information we have about Calamity Jane came from her own writings, and according to historians, she wasn’t that accurate about her life. She was known to drink, and have adventures that gave her a small amount of fame. She used her writings to bolster that fame in hopes of fortune.
Even in the late 19th century, the Wild West was still a spectacle for a lot of Americans. Calamity Jane supposedly played on this aspect of American culture. She was a performer at heart, and put on shows. She was known to pass out copies of her autobiography, which sold her image as a wild woman living in a wild environment.
Other rumors say that she married Wild Bill Hickok, one of the more famous gunslingers of the Old West. Historians aren’t sure about that, as there is no record of such a marriage. She may have given birth to a daughter, but if Hickok was the father, no one has been able to prove it.
Calamity Jane died in 1903 at age 51, most likely because of alcohol abuse. No matter what her actual life entailed, we know that as a performer, not many people from that time period were able to have their life story continued to be studied the way Calamity Jane has. Her reputation has endured, and that is probably exactly what she wanted.