When Calamity Jane ‘rides on’

Martha (or Marthy) Jane Cannary was the oldest of six children, having two brothers and three sisters, born to Robert and Charlotte Cannary. Both of her parents were born in Ohio. In 1865, the family emigrated over five months with a wagon train from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana. Her mother died along the way in Black Foot, Montana, in 1866.

Shortly after arriving in Virginia City, the family left in the spring of 1866 for Utah, arriving at Salt Lake City in the summer. They remained there a year, until her father died in 1867. As the oldest child, Martha Jane took over as head of the family and took them to Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory, arriving in May 1868. From there, they traveled to Piedmont, Wyoming, on the Union Pacific Railroad.

Portrait of Calamity Jane by Cassia Lupo

As a young child, she loved adventure and the outdoors and became an expert rider at a young age. On her family’s emigration trip, while 13 years old, Martha Jane apparently could already “cuss as fiercely as any man” and had “learned to like the taste of whiskey,” writes biographer Doris Faber. As Martha Jane wrote in her brief autobiography in 1896:

“While on the way, the greater portion of my time was spent in hunting along with the men and hunters of the party; in fact, I was at all times with the men when there was excitement and adventures to be had. By the time we reached Virginia City, I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age. I remember many occurrences on the journey from Missouri to Montana. 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.”

Martha Jane’s mother helped supplement the family income by taking in washing from nearby mining camps. She died from an ailment called “washtub pneumonia.” After both parents had passed away, she went to Wyoming Territory: first to Fort Bridger, arriving May 1, 1868; then to Piedmont by the Union Pacific Railroad (which was still being built). According to some observers at that time, Martha Jane attracted some attention — described by one as “extremely attractive” and another as a “pretty, dark-eyed girl.”

Next she went to Fort Russell in 1870 where, she says, she joined General George Custer as a scout and went to Arizona “for the Indian Campaign.” (With the West still vastly wild territory, white settlers and Native Americans were often having conflicts, so U.S. soldiers were sent to subdue the tribes, using scouts who knew the terrain.) However, no evidence exists that Custer was ever at Fort Russell; another source states it is more likely that she served with General George Crook, who was stationed at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming.

General George Custer

Stories have arisen that Martha Jane was attempting to disguise her gender and was found out on occasion. With the work she did with the army, the uniform would have been necessary not only to best perform her duties, but also to be accepted. One rumor does state that, while driving in a wagon train, “her sex was discovered,” writes biographer Roberta Sollid, “when the wagon-master noted she did not cuss her mules with the enthusiasm to be expected from a graduate of Patrick and Saulsbury’s Black Hills Stage line, as she had represented herself to be.”

Deadwood vintage postcard

While in Arizona, in the winter of 1871, Martha Jane was having “a great many adventures with the Indians, for as a scout I had a great many dangerous missions to perform and, while I was in many close places, always succeeded in getting away safely, for by this time I was considered the most reckless and daring rider and one of the best shots in the western country.”

After that campaign, Martha Jane returned to Fort Sanders, Wyoming, remaining until the spring of 1872, “when we were ordered out to the Muscle Shell or Nursey Pursey Indian outbreak.” Generals Custer, Miles, Terry and Crook were all engaged in this campaign, which lasted until the fall of 1873. It was during this campaign, at the age of 20, that she says she obtained her nickname:

“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 destination. 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.”

William Cody, “Buffalo Bill”

Not everyone, even back then, accepts Jane’s version of how her nickname began. One old-timer said, “If she sat on a fence rail, it would rare up and buck her off.” The St. Paul Dispatch wrote: “She got her name from a faculty she has had of producing a ruction at any time and place and on short notice.” Apparently, around this time, she met William Cody, later known as “Buffalo Bill.”

After that campaign, the regiment was ordered to Fort Custer, where Custer city is now, arriving in the spring of 1874. They stayed there until returning to Fort Russell that fall. The next spring, they were ordered to the Black Hills in the South Dakota Territory to protect miners and settlers. They stayed there until fall of 1875 and spent the winter at Fort Laramie. The next spring, they were ordered to the Big Horn River along with General Crook, to join Generals Miles, Terry and Custer again. During this march to the Big Horn, Jane swam the Platte River at Fort Fetterman bearing “important dispatches.” It was a 90-mile ride, both wet and cold, and she became severely ill.

Wild Bill Hickok

After recuperating at Fort Fetterman for two weeks, she rode to Fort Laramie, where she met James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Together, with Colorado Charles Otter, his brother Steve, and Kittie Arnold, they rode to Deadwood, South Dakota, arriving “about June” 1876.

Legend states that she and Wild Bill were involved during the gold mining years in Deadwood; however, there is no evidence supporting this theory, although it seems she wanted a relationship with him but he did not feel the same. Hickok had just married Agnes Lake Thatcher of Cheyenne, Wyoming, in March of that same year, and was writing letters home to her in Ohio. He was trying to make quick money in the boomtown, not by gold mining but by gambling — and it proved to be his downfall.

Jane remained in the Deadwood area locating claims and going from camp to camp. One morning in the spring of 1877, she rode toward Crook city. She had gone about 12 miles out when she met the overland mail running from Cheyenne to Deadwood:

“Upon looking closely I saw they were pursued by Indians. The horses ran to the barn as was their custom. As the horses stopped I rode along side of the coach and found the driver John Slaughter, lying face downwards in the boot of the stage, he having been shot by the Indians. When the stage got to the station the Indians hid in the bushes. I immediately removed all baggage from the coach except the mail. I then took the driver’s seat and with all haste drove to Deadwood, carrying six passengers and the dead driver.”

In 1878, a smallpox epidemic hit Deadwood. Eight men were quarantined in a little shack in the mountain area called “White Rocks.” According to Dora DeFran, a notorious madam of brothels in the Black Hills, Jane volunteered to care for them — with only epsom salts and cream of tartar. Three of the men died and, as she buried them, she recited the prayer “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep.” DeFran wrote that “her good nursing brought five of these men out of the shadow of death, and many more later on, before the disease died out.” Interestingly, Jane wrote nothing of this in her memoirs.

Shortly afterwards, Jane wrote that she left Deadwood and went to Bear Butte Creek with the Seventh Cavalry. They built Fort Meade and the town of Sturgis that fall and winter. The next year, she went to Rapid city and spent a year prospecting for gold. After that, she went to Fort Pierre, driving wagon trains from Rapid city to the fort, and from Fort Pierce to Sturgis. “This teaming was done with oxen as they were better fitted for the work than horses, owing to the rough nature of the country,” she wrote. Apparently she was so good at this driving, one observer wrote, that she bet she could “knock a fly off an ox’s ear with a sixteen-foot whip-lash three times out of five.”

Deadwood 1876

In 1881, Jane went to Wyoming; returning to Miles city in 1882 and starting a ranch on “the Yellow Stone” raising stock and cattle. She also kept “a way side inn, where the weary traveler could be accommodated with food, drink, or trouble if he looked for it.” She left that in 1883, travelling west and reaching Ogden, California, in late 1883, then San Francisco in 1884. That summer, she left for Texas, reaching El Paso in the fall.

Biographers tend to think Jane’s marriage occurred sometime in the 1890s; one source dates it at September 25, 1891. While she did not write of any other men, or children, evidence exists that she was involved with a Robert Dorsett in the 1880s. And a court record from November 1888 states that “Charles Townley, an unmarried man, and Jane Doe, alias Calamity Jane, an unmarried woman, [did at times] unlawfully bed, cohabit and live together … without being then and there married.” Apparently she also had relationships with a Wyoming rancher named King and a William Steers. Nothing more is written anywhere of her baby girl, or her name, even in Jane’s memoirs.

Wild Bill Hickok grave

In 1901, Jane did appear at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. She was also selling copies of her pamphlet autobiography. Apparently her drinking got her into trouble with the police there and Buffalo Bill had to loan her money to get back home. He later said:  “I expect she was no more tired of Buffalo than the Buffalo police were of her,  for her sorrows seemed to need a good deal of drowning.”

Now 51 years old, Jane returned to Deadwood, visiting Wild Bill’s grave in Mt. Moriah Cemetery, and even posing for a picture there. In July, she travelled to Terry, South Dakota, a small mining town, and stayed in the Calloway Hotel, where several old friends visited her. On August 1, 1903, at 5:00 p.m. she died. She had requested her funeral to be conducted by the Black Hills Pioneer Society, and supposedly said, “Bury me beside Wild Bill — the only man I ever loved.” And so she was.