Martha Jane Canary, popularly known as Calamity Jane, was a controversial figure and a professional scout in the Wild West. She was known for her alcoholic drinking habit, sharp shooting, and cross-dressing. Her life is shrouded in mystery, self-promotion, and legend. What people know about her life are unproven as it comes from her autobiography which she narrated to her friend, to be included in the Old West museum as part of the attraction. Jane was known for telling stories about her life and adventure which she did well on platforms during her time as an actor before she was expelled from performing due to alcoholism.
Calamity Jane was born around May 1852 in Princeton, Missouri, although she sometimes claimed to have been born in Wyoming or Illinois. Her father, Robert Canary, was a farmer who later developed a gambling problem while her mother, Charlotte Canary, was a prostitute. Calamity Jane was the firstborn in a family of six children. Robert moved his family to Montana by wagon in 1865 during the Gold Rush. One year later, Jane’s mother died of pneumonia and the rest of the family moved to Salt Lake where Robert supposedly took up farming. However, her father died just a year after moving there, leaving Jane as the head of the family at the age of only 12 years. Jane took her five siblings to Wyoming where they arrived in 1868.
Life in Wyoming
Jane began her independent adventure in Wyoming. As the head of the family, she had to provide for her siblings. She moved around the town, taking any job she could find including cooking, dishwashing, hall dancer, waitressing, and nursing. She also visited mining camps, a military fort, and railroad camp and occasionally engaged in prostitution at Fort Laramie. Slowly, she developed an interest in rougher, outdoor activities. Legend has it that it was in Wyoming that she could disguise herself as a man and accompany the soldiers as a scout.
Origin of the Name Calamity
Her love for scouting and outdoor adventure led her to the Great Plains where she joined military campaigns. In one of the military campaigns, Jane claims that she was nicknamed “Calamity Jane.” Jane narrates that one day while they were returning to their post, they were ambushed and her commander, Captain Egan, was shot at. However, she managed to rescue him and successfully took him to a safe place on her own. When the captain recovered, he gave Jane the nickname, indicating her heroism.
Life in Deadwood Dakota
After spending many years in the Great Plains, Calamity Jane lost her feminine appearance and instead developed a more masculine look. In 1876, she moved to Deadwood, in South Dakota where she befriended Dora DuFran of Black Hill area. She also befriended Charlie Utter and Wild Bill Hickok. Jane claims to have been married to Wild Bill and claims that he was the father of her child who she gave up for adoption. Calamity Jane was a popular figure in Deadwood. She appeared in several Wild West shows around the country. She published her autobiography in 1896 to cash in on her fame. She died in 1903 with the cause of her death remaining unclear.
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