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Calamity Jane Rode Hard, Drank Even Harder and Became a Wild West Legend

Calamity Jane
An albumen silver print by photographer J.A. Kumpf of Martha Jane Canary, aka Calamity Jane, at the grave of her friend Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, South Dakota, circa 1903. GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

With a reputation for being one of the most adventurous and foul-mouthed women in the Old West, Calamity Jane has fascinated American history buffs for over 170 years. She was known to be a sharp-shooter, a whiskey lover and an early adopter of men's fashion at a time when women were largely confined to strict codes of dress and conduct. But who was Calamity Jane and where did she come from?

"Martha Jane Canary, aka Calamity Jane, was born in Princeton, Missouri," says Carolyn Weber, executive director of Deadwood History, Inc. "The family then went on to Montana — her parents were negligent with her and her siblings' care and they were a very poor family."

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Canary had five younger siblings and when the family moved from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana, in 1865, she spent most of the five-month wagon train trip hunting with the men in the caravan. By the time the group reached their destination, Canary had earned a reputation for being an expert markswoman and a strong leader.

Canary's life changed drastically once her family settled in Montana, however. "Her mother died when she was 9 or 10 years old," Weber says. "The family then went to Utah. Martha's father died, perhaps in 1867, but not confirmed, and Martha then went to Wyoming. She came to Deadwood from Cheyenne."

Orphaned by age 12 and now tasked with heading a household, Canary was desperate to make a living and support her siblings. While in Wyoming, she took on a variety of jobs, including dishwasher, waitress, nurse and — according to some — prostitute. In 1870, she became a scout at Fort Russell, joining General George Armstrong Custer. Canary later said she was "the most reckless and daring rider and one of the best shots in the West."

Where Did the Nickname 'Calamity' Come From?

Canary reportedly earned her nickname around 1875, during the Newton-Jenney expedition, which was intended to determine the quality and quantity of gold in the Black Hills. "She got her nickname while traveling with the Jenny expedition in 1874," Weber says. "She had wandered off one day and the soldiers thought it would be a 'calamity' if she were captured or killed by Indians."

In 1876, Canary was ordered to the Bighorn River where she swam across the Platte River to deliver dispatches from General George Crook to a local outpost. During this time, she contracted a serious illness and was hospitalized for two weeks. When she recovered, she rode on to Deadwood, where she met legendary frontiersman, Wild Bill Hickok, who many credit with bringing order to the Old West. The two became close, and Canary remained in Deadwood all summer, working as a Pony Express rider and carrying the mail between Deadwood and Custer. However, in August of that year, Hickok was shot in the back of the head by Jack McCall while sitting at a gambling table in Deadwood's Nuttall & Mann's 66 Saloon. Canary stayed in Deadwood, prospecting at mining camps and later nursing residents who fell ill during the smallpox outbreak.

Calamity Jane
Calamity Jane was said to have scouted for General Custer and later traveled with Wild Bill Hickok.
Corbis/Getty Images

Canary finally left Deadwood the following year and traveled to Bear Butte Creek with the 7th Cavalry. She left the command in 1878 and traveled to Rapid City, then went on to Fort Pierre in 1879 to drive mule trains to Fort Pierre and Sturgis. By this point, her reputation had made her somewhat of a celebrity, and magazine editors and dime novel authors were writing stories about her adventures.

In 1882, Canary bought a ranch on the Yellowstone River, but felt antsy within the year, leaving for California in 1883, and then moving on to Texas in 1884. She met Clinton Burke in El Paso, and the two married in 1885. They had a daughter two years later and left Texas for Boulder, Colorado, when the girl turned 2. For several years, the family ran a hotel and then spent time traveling yet again through Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and South Dakota.

In 1895, Canary realized she could use her shooting skills to support her family and joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, performing sharpshooting tricks. Her drinking antics, however, cost her the job, and she was fired after touring Minneapolis, Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City. In 1901, she was hired by the Pan American Exposition, but once again lost the job due to her excessive drinking.

Calamity Jane
Calamity and Teddy Blue Abbott face off with beers at a bar in Gilt Edge, Montana, circa 1887.
Mrs. E. G. Worden/Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives

Canary moved back to the Black Hills in 1903 and worked as a cook and housekeeper in Dora DuFran's Bell Fourche brothel. She died a few years later and was buried next to Hickok at Mount Moriah Cemetery.

"Martha Jane Canary/Calamity Jane is so much more than her bawdy reputation," Weber says. "She was a caregiver to the ill, a prostitute, orphaned at a young age, cleaning woman, frequently went on alcoholic binges, etc. She was an unaccompanied young child and woman in the frontier American West doing the best she could with the situations she was handed. She supported herself at a time when there were limited opportunities for women."

Calamity Jane
The gravesite of Mrs. M. E. Burke, better known as Calamity Jane, in Deadwood, South Dakota.
Hans Wild/Getty Images

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