Cannary, Martha Jane (1852–1903)

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Cannary, Martha Jane (1852–1903)

Legendary frontierswoman, known as Calamity Jane, who did exactly as she pleased in her own colorful manner, thus significantly contributing to the lore of the Wild West. Name variations: Calamity Jane; Martha Jane Burk or Burke; Marthy Jane Canary. Born Martha or Marthy Jane Cannary on May 1, 1852, in Princeton, Missouri; died in Terry, South Dakota, on August 1, 1903; daughter of Robert and Charlotte Cannary; married Clinton Burk or Burke (1885?); also had a number of common-law husbands; children: number and names are uncertain; one woman, Jane McCormick , claimed Calamity Jane as her mother, though the veracity of this is questioned.

After living in Missouri in her early years, moved to Montana (1865); mother died (1866); moved to Utah where father died (1867); moved to Wyoming (1868); went on army expeditions (1872–73); with Wild Bill Hickok, came to Deadwood, South Dakota, where Hickok was murdered by Jack McCall (1876); nursed victims of smallpox epidemic in Deadwood (1878); worked as bullwhacker or teamster between Fort Pierre and Black Hills (1879); claimed to have married Clinton Burk (1885), though marriage probably occurred sometime in the 1890s; published her autobiography (1896); appeared on stage at the Palace Museum in Minneapolis (1896); appeared at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York (1901).

Calamity Jane has become such a legendary figure that when tourists stroll through Deadwood's Mt. Moriah Cemetery in South Dakota and stumble upon her grave, they are astonished. To some, she exists only as a mythical or fictional figure like Wonder Woman. Though many of the facts and feats of her life have been fabricated, distorted, or exaggerated, thus making it difficult to determine the truth, Calamity Jane certainly existed. This uninhibited woman lived in a manner that places her in a class with Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, and Buffalo Bill. "Of all the half-legendary characters who roamed the frontier in the last quarter of the nineteenth century and whose exploits have provoked the imagination," writes her biographer Roberta Sollid , "one of the most amazing was Calamity Jane."

She was born Marthy Jane Cannary in Princeton, Missouri, on May 1, 1852, the eldest of six children of Robert and Charlotte Cannary . In frontier Missouri, young Martha Jane received little or no formal education. She grew up loving horses and became an expert rider, boasting an ability "to ride the most vicious and stubborn of horses."

In 1864, 13-year-old Cannary traveled with her family by wagon to Montana, which would become home; by this time, writes biographer Doris Faber , she could already "cuss as fiercely as any man" and had "learned to like the taste of whiskey." On the way, wrote Cannary in her autobiography, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane by Herself, the family "had many exciting times fording streams for many of the streams in our way were noted for quicksands and boggy places, where, unless we were very careful, we would have lost horses and all."

In Montana, Martha Jane's mother helped supplement the family's meager income by serving as a washerwoman in surrounding mining camps. She died in 1866 from an ailment dubbed "washtub pneumonia." Soon after, the family moved again, this time to Salt Lake City, Utah, where Cannary's father died in 1867. With both parents dead, 15-year-old Martha Jane pulled up stakes with her siblings and left for Fort Bridger, Wyoming, in the spring of 1868.

In the late 1860s, the first transcontinental railroad was being built, so Cannary headed to

Piedmont, Wyoming, where construction crews were laying track for the Union Pacific. Many of the workmen were attracted to "this wayward girl," declared one writer. That beauty exists in the eye of the beholder certainly seems true in Cannary's case. Miguel Otero, one time governor of New Mexico, boasted that at age 20 Cannary was "extremely attractive," while another observer who met her in Cheyenne, Wyoming, characterized her as a "pretty, dark-eyed girl." Sollid claims that photographs of Cannary reveal she had "dark hair and high cheek bones" and that she was slender as a young woman, more stocky later in life, but shortly before her death slimmer again. Sollid, however, concluded, "In no picture is her appearance striking or even attractive."

In the 1870s, the West was still wild, and white settlers and Native Americans were still at odds. The American government continued to send U.S. soldiers to subdue the tribes, utilizing scouts who knew the country through which the soldiers traveled. During that decade, Cannary seems to have served the army, though how and when is not always clear. In her autobiography, she states that in 1870 she joined General George Custer at Fort Russell and, working as a scout, headed for Arizona. There is no evidence, however, that Custer was ever at Fort Russell; in 1870, he was writing his memoirs at Leavenworth, Kansas. There is better evidence that she served with the soldiers of General George Crook whose headquarters were at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming.

If you scorn Martha Jane Cannary, you court calamity.

—Calamity Jane

Stories have been told concerning Cannary's attempt to disguise her gender. Up to the time she worked with the army, claims Cannary, "I had always worn the costume of my sex," but after donning the uniform of a soldier, "I soon got to be perfectly at home in men's clothes." It also seemed necessary if she were to gain acceptance. On one occasion it was rumored that one of the teamsters on a stagecoach was Calamity Jane. "Her sex was discovered," writes 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."

Cannary claims that she derived her nickname as a result of a military campaign in which she was engaged. An officer named Captain Egan, she said, was in command of a post on Goose Creek, Wyoming, which today is the site of Sheridan. When the Indians ambushed and wounded Egan and he was about to fall from his horse, Cannary "galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling." Egan made it safely to the fort; after recovering, he rechristened his protector, "Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains."

That she was called Calamity Jane is certain, though not everyone who knew Cannary accepts her version as to how her nickname was acquired. Some say she always seemed beset by calamity. As one old-timer put it, "If she sat on a fence rail, it would rare up and buck her off." The St. Paul Dispatch maintained: "She got her name from a faculty she has had of producing a ruction at any time and place and on short notice."

Sometime between mid-June and mid-July of 1876, with Deadwood gripped by gold fever, Cannary rode into town with a party that included Wild Bill Hickok, Colorado Charles Otter, his brother Steve, and Kittie Arnold . The fact that the Black Hills Pioneer reported "Calamity Jane has arrived" seems to indicate that Cannary was by then a celebrity in her own right. Thus, Cannary was in Deadwood when one of the most famous killings in the history of the Wild West occurred: the murder of Wild Bill Hickok. On August 2, 1876, Hickok sat playing poker, facing the front door of the Number Ten Saloon, when Jack McCall snuck in through a rear entrance. McCall shot Hickok in the back of the head and then fled. Rushing to the scene, writes Cannary, "I at once started to look for the assassin." She found him at Shurdy's butcher shop, grabbed a meat cleaver, and "made him throw up his hands." McCall was tried, sentenced, and hanged.

Apparently, Cannary had a softer side, according to the testimony of several who saw her ministering to unfortunates victimized by the smallpox epidemic that beset Deadwood in 1878. Dora DeFran , a notorious madam of brothels in communities in South Dakota's Black Hills (Deadwood, Lead, Belle Forche, and Rapid City), reported that when the smallpox plague descended, eight men were quarantined in a little shack on the shoulder of a mountain called "White Rocks." Cannary volunteered to care for them. Her only medicines were epsom salts and cream of tartar. When three of them died, she recited the prayer "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep" as they were laid to rest. "But her good nursing brought five of these men out of the shadow of death," wrote DeFran, "and many more later on, before the disease died out." That 1878 smallpox epidemic saw many "bedfast from the scourge," writes Lewis Crawford. "It was here that this outcast woman, true to the better instincts of her sex, ministered day and night among the sick and dying, with no thought of reward or of what the consequences might be to herself."

Cannary was a free spirit; no single occupation was hers for long. When she needed money, she could turn to bullwhacking at which she was an expert. In the old West, covered-wagon trains were formed to haul freight from one place to another; these trains were often drawn by oxen.

A bullwhacker was simply a teamster who "whacked" the animals with a long whip to make them go. In 1879, "I went to Fort Pierre and drove trains from Rapid City to Fort Pierre for Frank Witcher," wrote Cannary, "then drove teams from Fort Pierre to Sturgis for Fred Evans." Oxen "were better fitted for the work than horses, owing to the rough nature of the country." Cannary was so good, one writer declared, that she offered to wager she could "knock a fly off an ox's ear with a sixteen-foot whip-lash three times out of five." Not only did she wield the whip with expertise, but as a bullwhacker she could "lash out with her voice as well as her whip."

Colorful tales are told of Calamity Jane, the gunslinger. That she was familiar with guns, wore them, and, on occasion, used them seems certain. However, there is little or no evidence that she was a killer who ruthlessly shot those who got in her way. Bozeman, Montana's Avant Courier boasted that Calamity Jane "could draw as quickly as any man who ever lived." On one occasion, reported the Courier, the cowboys in a saloon in Oakes, North Dakota, began to "chaff" her. Cannary smiled, whipped out two revolvers, shouting, "Dance, you tenderfeet, dance." Dance they did "with much vigor." "Calamity Jane was not a person to be trifled with," concluded the Bozeman newspaper.

O.W. Coursey in a publication titled Beautiful Black Hills described Cannary's intervention on behalf of a helpless mule, one of a pack train carrying army supplies from Laramie to Deadwood along the Black Hills Trail. When the mule went down, the driver "kicked it viciously with his heavy army boots and abused it mercilessly." When Calamity, dressed as a man, could no longer endure the plight of the mule, she cried out, "Don't you kick that mule again." The driver responded by jerking her hat off with a sharp flick of his whip. Calamity pulled her revolver "quicker than a flash," commanding the driver to "put that hat where you got it." Coursey reported: "Judging by the look in her eyes and the tone of her voice, he promptly obeyed."

"Husbands, Lawful and Casual" was a chapter title in Sollid's biography. There is "ample evidence," writes Sollid, that during the 1880s "Calamity Jane was mixed up in some manner with a young man named Robert Dorsett." Exactly what the relationship was or how long it lasted is unclear. A court record from November 1888 states that "Charles Townley, an unmarried man, and Jane Doe, alias Calamity Jane, an unmarried woman," did at various times "unlawfully bed, cohabit and live together and have carnal knowledge of each other without being then and there married."

In Cannary's autobiography, the only man she claimed as her husband was one "Mr. Clinton Burk" whom, she said, she married in August 1885. According to Cannary, she gave birth to a child on October 28, 1887. Other men with whom she had relationships included a Wyoming rancher named King and a certain William Steers, characterized by one newspaper as "a miserable stick" who "is one of the worthless curs unhung." Though Cannary seems to have longed for a relationship with Wild Bill Hickok, her love was not reciprocated.

In 1896, she was persuaded to tour some of America's major cities decked out in buckskin trousers and jacket "with all imaginable accompanying wild west accouterments." In January 1896, she was off for Minneapolis where she appeared at the Palace Museum. There she was billed as the "famous woman scout of the Wild West" who was the "heroine of a thousand thrilling adventures," "the Terror of evildoers in the Black Hills," and "the comrade of Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok."

No one seems to know how long her stand at the Palace Museum lasted. One paper in Deadwood states that Calamity Jane would begin her tour in Minneapolis and then move on to Chicago. There is no evidence that she appeared in Chicago or any other city after her Minneapolis debut. "Chances are," surmises Sollid, she was unable to "stay away from her liquor and conform to the restrictions imposed upon her by the management." (Cannary was reputed to have sworn never to go to bed with "a nickel in her pocket or sober.") On June 6, 1896, Deadwood's Pioneer Times reported that Calamity Jane was back in town.

In 1901, journalist Josephine Brake inveigled Cannary to appear at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, where promoters promised fairgoers "a wild-west woman straight from the cow country." (It was at this same exposition that Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley.) Again, there is uncertainty as to how Cannary fared as a showgirl. One oldtimer described how the master of ceremonies with great fanfare introduced Calamity Jane, whereupon she tore into the ring on horseback attired in buckskin, boots, packing revolvers and stealing the show. Other descriptions of her performance were not quite as glowing.

About this time, she was also hawking her autobiography, Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane by Herself. Apparently sales were slim. Seemingly after Calamity's drinking embroiled her with the Buffalo police, William Cody (Buffalo Bill) had to loan her money to return home. "I expect she was no more tired of Buffalo than the Buffalo police were of her," said Cody, "for her sorrows seemed to need a good deal of drowning."

Upon returning to the West that she knew, the 51-year-old Cannary was ill and nearing her end. In early July 1903, she spent some time in Deadwood where she visited Wild Bill Hickok's grave at Mt. Moriah Cemetery, posing for a picture beside his tombstone. Later in July, she traveled from Spearfish to Terry, a small mining town near Deadwood and spent her last days in the Calloway Hotel where she was visited by several old friends. She requested that her funeral be conducted under the auspices of the Black Hills Pioneer Society and that she be buried in the Mt. Moriah Cemetery. "Bury me beside Wild Bill—the only man I ever loved," she is supposed to have said. She died on August 1, at five o'-clock in the afternoon. Funeral services were held in Deadwood's First Methodist Church on August 4 after which Martha Jane Cannary's body was carried to the Mt. Moriah Cemetery. She was laid to rest next to Wild Bill Hickok.


Ahearn, Robert G. The Mythic West in Twentieth Century America. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1986.

Cannary, Martha Jane. Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane by Herself. Fairfield, WA: Galleon Press, 1969.

DeFran, Dora. Low Down on Calamity Jane. Stickney, SD: Argus Printers, 1981.

Faber, Doris. Calamity Jane: Her Life and Legend. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Klock, Irma M. Here Comes Calamity Jane. Deadwood, SD: Dakota Graphics, 1979.

Mueller, Ellen Crago. Calamity Jane. Laramie, WY: Jelm Mountain Press, 1981.

Sollid, Roberta B. Calamity Jane: A Study in Historical Criticism. Helena, MT: Historical Society of Montana, 1958.

suggested reading:

Clairmonte, Glenn. Calamity Was the Name for Jane. Denver, CO: Sage Books, 1959.

Horan, James D. Desperate Women. NY: Bonanza, 1962.

Jennewein, J. Leonard. Calamity Jane of the Western Trails. Huron, SD: Dakota Books, 1953.

Mumey, Nolie. Calamity Jane: A History of Her Life and Adventures in the West. Denver, CO: Range Press, 1950.

related media:

The Plainsman, starring Jean Arthur and Gary Cooper, produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, screenplay by Waldemar Young, Harold Lamb, Lynn Riggs, and Jeanie Macpherson , edited by Anne Bauchens , Paramount, 1937 (the best of the Calamity Jane films).

The Plainsman, starring Don Murray and Abby Dalton , directed by David Lowell Rich, Universal, 1966.

Calamity Jane, musical film starring Doris Day and Howard Keel, Warner Bros., 1953.

Calamity Jane and Sam Bass, starring Yvonne De Carlo and Howard Duff, Universal, 1949 (in reality, Cannary never met outlaw Sam Bass).

Wild Bill, film written and directed by Walter Hill, starring Jeff Bridges as Hickock and Ellen Barkin as Calamity Jane, 1995.

Robert Bolt , Professor of History, Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan