All About Calamity Jane

Who was Calamity Jane? She endures in history as a Western heroine – hard riding, rapid shooting, quick with a lasso – yet what of the real person? Her real name was Martha Jane Cannary. She was born on May 1, 1852, was the oldest of six children, and a native of Princeton, Missouri.

Biographers agree her expertise in marksmanship and horseback riding rivaled those of male peers. She was an imposing physical figure, six feet tall and big boned. Though she was photographed in women’s apparel, her preference for men’s clothing was controversial and celebrated. Rash, stouthearted, combative, drunken, and competitive – this was Calamity Jane.

She cursed unrestrainedly and flouted conventional cultural ways of life by renouncing traditional careers such as wife and mother. Frontier women did not work outside the home, nor did they not out-ride as well as out-shoot men.

An employer examining her resume would see a variety of skills: bullwhacker, cook, dance hall girl, pony express rider, Wild West show actress, and laborer. It would additionally show she was a grand storyteller, aggrandizing tales to place herself in the best light and as the heroine. While much of the Calamity Jane story is myth, sufficient proof is found in the biographies to disclose a female to be applauded for her self-sufficiency.

Research shows she and Wild Bill Hickok were friends, not lovers, never married. Despite this, her dying wish was to be buried by his side, and they are buried together at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota. According to legend, Captain Egan awarded the nickname “Calamity Jane” to her in 1873 because she rescued him.

Her sole recorded marriage was to Clinton Burke in 1891. The union ended by abandonment; however, the deserter was never specified. Most researchers concur she deserted Burke. In 1895, she surfaced with a girl alleged to be her daughter and tried to register the youngster in a private school but could not afford tuition. Tuition money was raised, but Calamity Jane and her friends used every penny for alcohol.

She wrote her autobiography, The Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane by Herself in 1896. Full of facts flavored with energetic fabrications and outright lies; it gives a quick glimpse at the woman behind the account.

Numerous books have been written about Calamity Jane, including but not limited to:

  • Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend by James D. McLaird
  • Buffalo Girls by Larry McMurty
  • Calamity Jane by Roberta Sollid
  • Notorious Women of the West – The Good, the Bad, and the Eccentric by Marjorie K. Lorenz
  • The Calamity Papers: Western Myths and Cold Cases by Dale L. Walker
  • Calamity Jane (Tall Tales, the Imagination Series) by Larry Dane Bremmer
  • Calamity Jane: Her Life and Her Legend by Doris Faber

Her legend survives on the silver screen in movies like: The Texan Meets Calamity Jane, The Plainsman, and The Legend of Calamity Jane, with the Calamity Jane role portrayed by actresses Doris Day, Jean Arthur, Louise Dresser, and Barbara Scaff. 

She endures as a Wild West icon, immortalized in history’s hall of fame with the likes of Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley, and having historic significance because of her fierce independence. 

To find out more about Calamity Jane's colorful history, refer to:

Biography - National Women's History Museum

Biography - Women in History

The Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane 

Calamity Jane Image

Calamity Jane in Dime Novels

Calamity Jane – The Woman and the Legend

More Images

McLaird on Calamity Jane

Calamity Janes Lives On

Calamity Jane Movie (1953) Synopsis

Calamity Jane’s Crazy Horse Race

Her Last Days

Buffalo Bill on Calamity Jane

Nebraska’s First Motion Picture

Calamity Jane and Deadwood