By Hunter Rothwell
Deadwood in the 1870s is synonymous with the American
Wild West. Then part of the Dakota Territory, it was a lawless town
that attracted every kind of Victorian Age character. One of the
most memorable was a hard drinking woman who wore men’s clothing,
fought, chewed tobacco, smoked cigars, and was handy with a
gun and a bullwhip.
One night during Deadwood’s boom years, “Calamity Jane” and her
gunslinger friend Arkansas Tom attended a sold-out theater performance
by the Lard Players. Calamity Jane was sorely disappointed with
the plot’s unhappy outcome, so as the play ended, she stood and let fly a
long stream of tobacco juice, hitting the female star square in the eye.
Arkansas Tom hollered and shot out the lamps. The crowd
went wild, and the two marched out of the building
to the cheers of the audience. Life was never
dull when Calamity Jane was in town.
Martha Jane Cannary was
born sometime between 1852 and
1856 in Princeton, Missouri. The eldest of
six, dark-eyed Martha Jane was a tomboy who
loved the outdoors, hunting, fishing, riding and
playing with guns. As a young girl, she was very
pretty, but because her family was poor, she had
no formal education and was illiterate.
Just after the Civil War, in 1865, Robert Cannary caught
“Western fever,” with the hope and reward promised by the
territories. Robert and his wife Charlotte packed the children and
joined a wagon train traveling from Missouri to Virginia City,
Montana. The trip took five months.
“The greater portion of my time was spent in hunting along with
the men and hunters of the party,” wrote Jane in her autobiography.
“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 my age.”
She was about
13, and could already “cuss as fiercely as any man” and had “learned to like
the taste of whiskey.”
Tragedy hit in Black Foot, Montana, in 1866, when Charlotte died of “washtub
pneumonia,” a general diagnosis for respiratory problems associated
with women working as laundresses in coal mining camps. Robert and the
children eventually settled on a 40-acre plot in Salt Lake City, Utah. Robert
passed away the next year.The oldest child, Martha Jane was now responsible for her younger brothers and sisters.
Once again, the family packed up, and
by 1868 they’d settled in Piedmont,
Wyoming. Barely in her mid-teens,
Martha Jane worked as a dishwasher,
a cook, a waitress, a dance-hall girl, a
nurse, an ox team driver, and began her
on-and-off employment as a prostitute
at Fort Laramie’s Three-Mile Hog Ranch.
Ultimately she had to find homes to
adopt her youngest siblings.
Starting in 1870, Martha Jane began
working for the U.S. government. Before
she was 20, General Crook appointed
her a scout under Buffalo Bill Cody.
“From that time on, her life was pretty
lively,” recounted Cody.
“She had unlimited nerve,
and entered into the work
with enthusiasm, doing good
service on a number of occasions.”
Working as a scout, Jane was involved
in campaigns into the territories, mostly
efforts to move Native Americans onto
reservations. Because she wore the uniform
of a soldier, she was rarely recognized
as a woman.
She earned the name Calamity
Jane during this time.
She recounts that while on
campaign in Goose Creek,
Wyoming (now Sheridan), she rescued
Captain Egan after he was shot. On
returning to the Fort, Egan declared, “I
name you Calamity Jane, the heroine
of the plains.” However, Calamity
Jane was known to embellish on occasion,
and according to the St. Paul Dispatch,
“She got her name from a faculty
she has had of producing a ruction at any
time and place and on short notice.”
In Jane’s own words, to mess with
her was to “court calamity.” She
certainly lived up to the moniker.
In spring 1876, Calamity Jane met
Wild Bill Hickok in Fort Laramie.
She joined the wagon train and arrived
in Deadwood that June. There,
she worked as a Pony Express rider
on the rough 50-mile trail between
Deadwood and Custer. Making
the trip every two days, she was
never held up or robbed like
other riders, nor did the Sioux
Indians bother her.
Jane’s list of offenses included
drunken and disorderly
conduct (on too
drunk. But she helped any
person who was down and out,
giving them her last dollar, and
there is no evidence she ever
ruthlessly killed anyone.
In 1878, a small pox epidemic
hit Deadwood and eight men
were quarantined. According
to Jane’s occasional employer,
Madam DuFran, “Jane volunteered
to care for them…
three of the men died, and she
buried them, she recited the
prayer ‘Now I Lay Me Down
to Sleep.’ Her good nursing brought
five of these men out of the shadow
of death, and many more later on,
before the disease died out.” The
Deadwood community knew Jane as a
kind and loving individual, and for her
tremendous acts of kindness, the town
put up with her antics.
“On one occasion,” reported the Bozeman,
Montana Avant 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.”
By 1881, Jane was settled in Miles
City, Montana, along the Yellowstone
River. There, she raised stock and cattle
and ran a wayside inn where, according
to Jane, “The weary traveler could
be accommodated with food drink, or
trouble if he looked for it.”
Jane endured a rough, uncivilized,
masculine world. She retired to
Deadwood in 1901 after a last riding
and shooting appearance at the
Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo,
New York. When she died in her
early 50s, she looked 100. The famous
woman scout of the Wild West
was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok
in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery,
as her last request.