Martha Jane Cannary (or Canary) Burke (May 1, 1852 – August 1, 1903), better known as Calamity Jane, was an American frontierswoman, and professional scout best known for her claim of being an acquaintance of Wild Bill Hickok, but also for having gained fame fighting Native Americans. She is said to have also exhibited kindness and compassion, especially to the sick and needy. This contrast helped to make her a famous and infamous frontier figure.
Early life: 1852–1876
Marker east of Princeton indicating the most widely believed location of her birth. The site is now occupied by a Premium Standard Farms hog farm
Calamity Jane was born May 1, 1852, as Martha Jane Cannary (or Canary)  in Princeton, Missouri, within Mercer County. Her parents, Robert W. and Charlotte Cannary, were listed in the 1860 census as living about 7 miles (11 km) further northeast of Princeton in Ravanna. Martha Jane was the eldest of six children, having two brothers and three sisters. In 1865, Robert packed his family and moved by wagon train from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana. Charlotte died along the way in Black Foot, Montana, in 1866 of “washtub pneumonia.” After arriving in Virginia City in the spring of 1866, Robert took his six children on to Salt Lake City, Utah. They arrived in the summer, and Robert supposedly started farming on 40 acres (160,000 m2) of land. They were there only a year before he died in 1867. Martha Jane took over as head of the family, loaded up the wagon once more, and took her siblings to Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory. They arrived in May 1868. From there they traveled on the Union Pacific Railroad to Piedmont, Wyoming.
In Piedmont, Martha Jane took whatever jobs she could to provide for her large family. She worked as a dishwasher, a cook, a waitress, a dance-hall girl, a nurse, and an ox team driver. Finally, in 1874, she found work as a scout at Fort Russell. During this time period, Jane also began her on-and-off employment as a prostitute at the Fort Laramie Three-Mile Hog Ranch.
From her autobiography of 1896, Martha Jane writes of this time
“In 1865 we emigrated from our homes in Missouri by the overland route to Virginia City, Montana, taking five months to make the journey. While on the way, the greater portion of my time was spent in hunting along with the men and hunters of the party; in fact, 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 of my age. I remember many occurrences on the journey from Missouri to Montana. Many times in crossing the mountains, the conditions of the trail were so bad that we frequently had to lower the wagons over ledges by hand with ropes, for they were so rough and rugged that horses were of no use. We also 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. Then we had many dangers to encounter in the way of streams swelling on account of heavy rains. On occasions of that kind, the men would usually select the best places to cross the streams; myself, on more than one occasion, have mounted my pony and swam across the stream several times merely to amuse myself, and have had many narrow escapes from having both myself and pony washed away to certain death, but, as the pioneers of those days had plenty of courage, we overcame all obstacles and reached Virginia City in safety. Mother died at Black Foot, Montana, 1866, where we buried her. I left Montana in Spring of 1866, for Utah, arriving at Salt Lake City during the summer.”
Accounts from this period described Martha Jane as being “extremely attractive” and a “pretty, dark-eyed girl.” Martha Jane received little to no formal education and was illiterate. She moved on to a rougher, mostly outdoor adventurous life on the Great Plains.
Acquiring the nickname
1885 photos of Calamity Jane
Martha Jane was involved in several campaigns in the long-running military conflicts with Native American Indians. Her unconfirmed claim was that:
“It was during this campaign [in 1872-1873] that I was christened Calamity Jane. It was on Goose Creek, Wyoming where the town of Sheridan is now located. Capt. Egan was in command of the Post. We were ordered out to quell an uprising of the Indians, and were out for several days, had numerous skirmishes during which six of the soldiers were killed and several severely wounded. When on returning to the Post we were ambushed about a mile and a half from our destination. When fired upon Capt. Egan was shot. I was riding in advance and on hearing the firing turned in my saddle and saw the Captain reeling in his saddle as though about to fall. I turned my horse and galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling. I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Capt Egan on recovering, laughingly said: ‘I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.’ I have borne that name up to the present time.”
As reported in the Anaconda Standard (Montana – 4/19/1904): Captain Jack Crawford (served under both Generals Wesley Merritt and George Crook) stated, Calamity Jane “…never saw service in any capacity under either General Crook or General Miles. She never saw a lynching and never was in an Indian fight. She was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish, but possessed a generous streak which made her popular.”
However, it may be that she exaggerated or completely fabricated this story. Even back then not everyone accepted her version as true. A popular belief is that she instead acquired it as a result of her warnings to men that to offend her was to “court calamity”. It appears possible that Jane was not part of her name until the nickname was coined for her.
She certainly was known by that nickname by 1876, because the arrival of the Hickok wagon train was reported in the Deadwood newspaper, the Black Hills Pioneer, on July 15, 1876, with the headline, “Calamity Jane has arrived!”
One verified story about “Calamity Jane” is that in 1875 her detachment was ordered to the Big Horn River, under General Crook. Bearing important dispatches, she swam the Platte River and traveled 90 miles (145 km) at top speed while wet and cold to deliver them. Afterwards, she became ill. After recuperating for a few weeks, she rode to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, and later, in July 1876, she joined a wagon train headed north, which is where she first met Wild Bill Hickok, contrary to her later claims.
Deadwood and Wild Bill Hickok: 1876–1881
Calamity Jane accompanied the Newton-Jenney Party into the Black Hills in 1875, along with California Joe and Valentine McGillycuddy.
In 1876, Calamity Jane settled in the area of Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills. There, she became friends with, and was occasionally employed by, Dora DuFran, the Black Hills’ leading madam. She became friendly with Wild Bill Hickok and Charlie Utter, having travelled with them to Deadwood in Utter’s wagon train. Jane greatly admired Hickok (much later others alleged to the point of infatuation and also claimed she was obsessed with his personality and his life). After Hickok was killed during a poker game on August 2, 1876, Calamity Jane claimed to have been married to Hickok and that Hickok was the father of her child (Jean), who she said was born on September 25, 1873, and whom she later put up for adoption by Jim O’Neil and his wife. No records are known to exist which prove the birth of a child, and the romantic slant to the relationship might have been fabrication. During the period that the alleged child was born, she was working as a scout for the army. At the time of his death, Hickok was newly married to Agnes Lake Thatcher. However, on September 6, 1941, the U.S. Department of Public Welfare did grant old age assistance to a Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick (her third husband), who claimed to be the legal offspring of Martha Jane Cannary and James Butler Hickok, after being presented with evidence that Calamity Jane and Wild Bill had married at Benson’s Landing, Montana Territory, on September 25, 1873, documentation being written in a Bible and presumably signed by two ministers and numerous witnesses. (However, McCormick’s claim has been vigorously challenged because of a variety of discrepencies.) Jane also claimed that following Hickok’s death, she went after Jack McCall, his murderer, with a meat cleaver, having left her guns at her residence in the excitement of the moment. However, she never confronted McCall. Following McCall’s eventual hanging for the offense, Jane continued living in the Deadwood area for some time, and at one point she did help save several passengers in an overland stagecoach by diverting several Plains Indians who were in pursuit of the stage. The stagecoach driver, John Slaughter, was killed during the pursuit, and Jane took over the reins and drove the stage on to its destination at Deadwood. Also in late 1876, Jane nursed the victims of a smallpox epidemic in the Deadwood area.
Final years: 1881–1903
In 1881, she bought a ranch west of Miles City, Montana, along the Yellowstone River, where she kept an inn. After marrying the Texan Clinton Burke, and moving to Boulder, she again tried her luck in this business. In 1887, she had a daughter, Jane, who was given to foster parents.
In 1893, Calamity Jane started to appear in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show as a horse rider and a trick shooter. She also participated in the Pan-American Exposition. At that time, she was depressed and an alcoholic. Jane’s addiction to liquor was evident even in her younger years. For example, on June 10, 1876, she rented a horse and buggy in Cheyenne for a mile-or-so joy ride to Fort Russell and back, but Calamity was so drunk that she passed right by her destination without noticing it and finally ended up about 90 miles away at Fort Laramie.
By the turn of the century, Madame Dora DuFran was still going strong when Jane returned to the Black Hills in 1903. For the next few months, Jane earned her keep by cooking and doing the laundry for Dora’s brothel girls in Belle Fourche. In July, she travelled to Terry, South Dakota. While staying in the Calloway Hotel on August 1, 1903, she died at the age of 51. It was reported that she had been drinking heavily on board a train and became very ill. The train’s conductor carried her off the train and to a cabin, where she died soon after. In her belongings, a bundle of letters to her daughter was found, which she had never sent. Some of these letters were set to music in an art song cycle by 20th century composer Libby Larsen called Songs From Letters. (These letters were first made public by Jean McCormick as part of her claim to be the daughter of Jane and Hickok – but the authenticity of these letters is not accepted by some, largely because there is no non-McCormick document supposedly written by Jane and there is ample evidence that Jane was functionally illiterate.)
Calamity Jane was buried at Mount Moriah Cemetery (South Dakota), next to Wild Bill Hickok. Four of the men who formed a self-appointed committee and so planned her funeral (Albert Malter, Frank Ankeney, Jim Carson, and Anson Higby) later stated that since Wild Bill Hickok had “absolutely no use” for Jane while he was alive, they decided to play a posthumous joke on Wild Bill Hickok by giving Calamity an eternal resting place by his side. There is insufficient documentary evidence to support the truth of this rather callous claim, or to disprove it. It is possible they made the cruel jibe to deflect attention away from the dubious legality of their self-appointed funeral committee and its questionable actions in having her buried next to Hickok at all, possibly for ignoble reasons. By the time “Calamity Jane” died in 1903, Hickok had been dead nearly 30 years and his tourist-draw power was on the wane. Jane’s death in nearby Terry fortuitously presented an opportunity to boost the local profile by giving visitors the chance to see, as it were, two legends of the Old West at the same time. These men may therefore have overridden more decorous plans – and even Jane’s own wishes – for their own profit, though this cannot be proven. Although there is little unbiased documentary evidence either way, it may be inferred that they covering their own backs rather than exposing any genuine feelings towards Cannary on Hickok’s part by the fact that the US Department of Welfare, as mentioned previously, an organisation not noted for its largesse or generosity, did accept the claim of Jean McCormick to be Jane’s elder daughter by an 1873 marriage to Hickok, since the marriage lines she produced as evidence would have had to have been signed by two verifiable ministers of religion and several verifiable witnesses, a group of people unlikely to deliberately lie.
Calamity Jane was a frequent visitor to and sometimes resident of Livingston, Montana, and towns in the Paradise Valley (Montana).
“Calamity Jane”, as she became known, lived a very colorful and eventful life but often claimed questionable associations or friendships with notable famous American Old West figures, almost always posthumously. For example, years after the death of Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer, she claimed that she served under him during her initial enlistment at Fort Russell, and that she also served under him during the Indian campaigns in Arizona. However, no records exist to show that Custer was assigned to Fort Russell, and she did not take an active part in the Arizona Indian Campaigns; she was given the task of subjugating the Plains Indians.
In 1896 she joined the traveling Kohl & Middleton Dime Museum as a performer, and a 7-page souvenir booklet was sold by that circus, titled The Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane by Herself; it was almost certainly written by someone else, as there is no reliable evidence that Jane could read and write. It is this booklet that is described, rather generously, as her autobiography. The booklet misstates her birth name (as “Marthy Cannary”), her birthdate, misspells “Missourri” repeatedly and refers to “Wm. Hickok”. Several of the stories in the booklet are unsupported, or even contradicted, by reliable evidence.
Unlike Annie Oakley, her performances did not involve sharpshooting or roping or riding, merely Jane appearing on stage in buckskins and reciting her adventures – “which metastisized with each telling” – in colorful but clean language; however after about six months her increasing drinking and profanity ended her career as a stage performer. 
Her reputation for embellishing her accomplishments, and the willingness of some others to attribute to her even more fanciful adventures, have made it very difficult to determine the “true facts” of her life. Historians have been unable to locate sufficient information to determine the truth about disputed events, and in many instances independent sources completely contradict her own accounts.