Calamity Jane: “Woman of the West”

In the early Americas and development of the West, there were many standards that middle class women had to meet; unless you were Calamity Jane. Many still dream and tell stories of the wild woman of the West whom fought in battles, shot from horseback, and saved  people from various Indian war parties while also maintaining her harsh reputation and manly disposition. However, Historians and other skeptics question Calamity Jane’s “glamorous” and “romantic” lifestyle, as well as her very existence. Therefore, did Calamity Jane embark on her wild adventures in the American West, or was she the stereotypical American woman of the middle class? Digging deeper into the dark history of this woman and the mystery of her tall tales, one may uncover that there are truths in her reputation as a rough pioneer woman rather than a “good” American woman, as well as many false stereotypes within the life of “Calamity Jane”.

Modern  media, such asthe 1953 romanticized musical Calamity Jane, has influenced the vast majority of America’s view of Calamity Jane (or Martha Jane Cannary) to see her as a romantic, wild cowgirl that was just as strong as a man and could out-shoot anyone in the “wild West.” Stories are still told of her elegance and strength, her compassion for others, her wild adventures with western legend Wild Bill Hickock, and telling stories in the infamous Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Many of these wild tales and myths originate from her own biography, promoted by Calamity Jane herself. Her role in the growth of the American West suggests that any woman could be just as strong as a man, giving strength to the female gender role of that era. Modern media has given the American icon “Calamity Jane” the image of beauty, strength, feminism, and courage, rather than what was actually true about her; alcoholic, orphan, and a cross-dresser. Calamity Jane was not considered feminine in her era, and from what is portrayed in her actions, she did not meet the expectations of a “good” woman in the West. Furthermore, she was rarely considered being a woman because of her manly persona and the high expectations America had set for women.

Calamity Jane is just as equal a mystery as the myths about her outrageous life. Little is known of her real life before it was insanely clouded by wild tales and fame. However, historians have recorded that Calamity Jane was born as Martha Jane Cannary on May 1, 1852 in Princeton, Missouri. She was the eldest out of as many as six children to Robert and Charlotte Cannary. Her legend began at the age of twelve years old when her parents passed away, leaving her helpless and raising her siblings by herself. Jane grew up quickly and desperately sought jobs to survive. Rumors spread that Jane even engaged in prostitution as a teenager to make money. The legend that everyone is familiar with continued when she supposedly ran away to Deadwood, South Dakota, where she met Wild Bill Hickock shortly afterwards. As her life kicked off in Deadwood, so did her drinking problem, feeding into her image as an “improper lady”. Calamity Jane was remembered as an outrageous drunk, taking on men’s work and male persona. She was even recorded to have worn male clothing or a dress accompanied by a man’s hat and boots. Within the series of documents and records in The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane, Calamity Jane herself is documented in a photo of her in Utica, Montana in the year of 1897. The black and white photo portrays her as a tall and stern looking woman with dark features and wearing a long dress with men’s boots and a man’s hat. She carries a rifle by her side and holds the reins to a dark horse, most likely borrowed from another man for the photo. This sort of evidence, along with the documented evidence concerning her alcoholism in the article, confirms the popular belief that Calamity Jane was in fact a rough woman that cross-dressed, revealing her male-like persona and drunken nature. As she grew older and weaker, her early lifestyle and drinking problems eventually caught up to her as she was believed to have passed away in the Calloway Hotel at the age of 51 and was shortly after buried beside Wild Bill Hickok at Mount Moriah Cemetery. Other records, like the Livingston Enterprise  in Livingston Montana, documented that during Calamity’s declining health and “loss of her elegance”, she was then invited by Mrs. Josephine Winifred Blake to live out the rest of her days in New York and spending her life in peace as a guest of Gotham. Supposedly, she accepted upon being asked and spent her last days in New York; prior to her death, going blind and suffering until the age of 51 years old (written in her letters to her daughter). Martha Jane Cannary was proven to have existed and lived a solemn and rough life; much different from the glamorous and romanticized life of “Calamity Jane” that is familiar within stories throughout American  history.

Etulain, W. Richard. The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane. University of Oklahoma Press.        Sep. 15, 2014, p. 174.

“Calamity In Luck: A Home Provided For Her In New York Through Sunshine And Rain.”        The Livingston Enterprise 1901. July 13, 1901. Catalog No. 2006.044.2028. Whithorn Collection. Neg. No. Nego937.

Another one of the most famous popular myths surrounding the legend of Calamity Jane is that Calamity Jane was romantically involved with Wild Bill Hickok. Rumors go as far as the belief that they were married and had a daughter while living in Deadwood. However, this particular rumor was challenged and proven false in “Calamity Jane’s Diary: Story of a Fraud” by James D. McLaird, when guest Mrs. Jean Hickok McCormick made a declaration that she was the biological daughter of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. To back up her statement, she produced the supposed diary and letters of Calamity Jane as her evidence. However, her claim was proven to be false and historians uncovered error in Jean’s “evidence”  connecting her to Calamity Jane, mainly because the most popular tales and myths (that were proven to be faulty) surrounding Calamity Jane’s life were used in the evidence provided. Therefore, Calamity Jane’s life and family relations remains a mystery; most importantly, the myth of her daughter remains unsolved.

    Calamity Jane was once a real woman; but not the woman from America’s dreams. Martha Jane Cannary (Calamity Jane) was in fact a rough riding pioneer woman with a compassionate heart and a fatal alcohol problem. Although little is known of this American “wild West” icon, what can be drawn from her story is that she was a woman of male attributes and a dark past that drove her to numb her pain. Before her death, which was never concluded,      Martha Cannary admitted to her shifty stories and wild rumors made up about herself repeatedly to reporters when the fame began to rise and blurred the lines between myth and reality; exaggerating upon her life in numerous tales. Therefore, what is known about the notorious Calamity Jane only exists in tall-tales, whereas the true Calamity Jane lived a separate and solemn life from the wild accusations Martha Cannary made about herself, expanding to modern beliefs of the infamous rough riding woman of the “wild West”.

McLaird, D. James. “Calamity Jane’s Diary: Story of a Fraud.” In Montana: The Magazine of      Western History. Vol. 45, No.4. (Autumn-Winter, 1995), pp. 20-35.

Spritzer, Don. “Parallel Life: Separating the Real ‘Calamity Jane” From the Fiction”. The Missoulian. April 11, 2015.


By: Rachel Pavsek

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