Martha Jane Canary-Burke, better known as Calamity Jane
(May 1, 1853–August 1, 1903), was a frontierswoman and professional scout most well-known for her claim of being a close friend of Wild Bill Hickok, but also having gained fame fighting Native Americans.
Calamity Jane was born May 1, 1853 Martha Jane Canary in Princeton, Missouri, the oldest of six children, having two brothers
and three sisters. Her mother died in 1866 of "washtub pneumonia", and her father died in 1867 in Salt Lake City,
Utah. She lived for a time in Virginia City, Montana.
She received little to no formal education but was literate. In 1868, she took on the role as head of her
household at age 16 and moved her family to Fort Bridger, Wyoming. She then moved them to Piedmont, Wyoming. She settled her siblings into life there and
strived to find a home that would welcome them in. Accounts from this period described Canary as being attractive, with light
blue eyes. She moved on to a rougher, mostly outdoor adventurous life on the Great Plains.
In 1870, she signed on as a scout and adopted the uniform of a soldier. It is unclear whether
she was actually enlisted in the United States Army at the time. From then on she mostly
lost touch with her siblings, preferring to live a more wild and unsettled life. "Calamity Jane", as she would become known,
did live a very colorful and eventful life starting in 1870, but as historians have since discovered, she was prone to exaggerations
and lies about her exploits.
Calamity Jane often claimed associations or friendships with notable famous American Old West figures, almost always posthumously. For example,
years after the death of General 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 he did not take an active part in the Arizona Indian Campaigns; he was tasked with subjugating the Plains Indians. It is more likely that she served under General
George Crook at Fort Fetterman, Wyoming.
She did serve in one campaign in which General Custer was involved, following the spring of 1872. Generals Custer, Miles, Terry and Crook were dispatched with their forces to handle Indian
uprisings near present day Sheridan, Wyoming, which would be called the "Muscle Shell Indian
Outbreak", and is also referred to as the "Nursey Pursey Indian Outbreak". This is the only confirmed opportunity Calamity
had to meet Custer, although it is unlikely that she did. Following that campaign, in 1874, her detachment was ordered to Fort Custer, where
they remained until the following spring. During this campaign (and others involving Custer and Crook together), she was not
attached to Custer's command.
She was involved in several campaigns in the long-running military conflicts with Native Americans. One story, told by her, has her acquiring the
nickname "Calamity Jane" in 1872 by rescuing her superior, Captain Egan, from an ambush near Sheridan,
Wyoming, in an area known then as Goose Creek, Wyoming. However, even back then not everyone
accepted her version, and in another story it is said that she acquired it as a result of her warnings to men that to offend
her was to "court calamity".
One verified story about her 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 Bill Hickok, contrary to her later claims.
In 1876, Calamity Jane settled in the area of Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills. She worked, on occasion, as a prostitute for Madam Dora DuFran, and later worked as a cook and in the laundry,
also for DuFran. 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 (to the point of infatuation), and she was obsessed with his personality
After Hickok was killed during a poker game on August 2, 1876, Calamity claimed to have been married to Hickok
and that Hickok was the father of her child (Jane), who she said was born September 25, 1873, and who she later put up for adoption by Jim O'Neil and his wife. There are no records to prove the
birth of a child and the romantic slant to the relationship may have been a 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, formerly of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
However, on September 6, 1941, the U.S. Department of Public Welfare did grant old age assistance to a Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick (name of her 3rd husband), who claimed to be the
legal offspring of Martha Jane Canary 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 reverends
and numerous witnesses.
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 of 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.
Calamity Jane while working at Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.
In 1884, Jane moved to El Paso, Texas, where she met Clinton Burke. They married in August 1885 and had a daughter in 1887. The marriage, however, did not last, and by 1895 they were officially separated.
In 1896, Calamity Jane began touring with Wild West shows, which she continued to do for the rest
of her life. Throughout this period, she claimed to have been one of Hickok's closest friends, a story that over time became
the version history most often remembered as fact. Jane died from complications of pneumonia in 1903. In accordance with what was said to be her dying
wish, she was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok in Mount Moriah Cemetery, overlooking the city of Deadwood. There, her "Letters to my daughter" stayed in a museum until its closure in 1951, after the death of her daughter, and then were
kept by a lady until their recent discovery by a Frenchman (Gregory Monro) interested in History, who had them reprinted.