Martha Canary never set out to become a legend. But when you’re a boastful, fun-loving drunk, things… just sort of happen. Canary, better known as Calamity Jane, is another Missouri woman whose fictional life overshadowed her real adventures. She never served as an army scout, never fought Indians, and never rescued any stagecoaches. What she did do was hold her own as a woman in the testosterone-fueled, scratch-and-spit world of the Old West.
Calamity Jane was born near Princeton, Missouri, probably in 1856. Her father, like many other fortune seekers in the early West, never stayed in one place long. By 1864, the Canary family left the Show-Me State for the gold fields of Montana. The move quickly turned tragic. Calamity’s mother died in 1866 in Montana. Her father, after once again relocating the family, died the next year in Utah.
Orphaned in a strange country, with few friends and no extended family, eleven year-old Martha had to fend for herself. She ended up in Wyoming, where she fell in with soldiers, teamsters, and transient railroad workers. She survived by whatever means she could: cooking, doing laundry, and possibly even working as a prostitute.
Grim as it was, Calamity’s childhood only made her tougher. Determined to go blow-for-blow with the men that surrounded her, she learned to ride, shoot, and drive ox and mule teams. She also took up the predominantly male pastimes of drinking, smoking, and gambling. Calamity demanded respect, and her vocabulary, especially when angered, became legendary. A friend once described her as “the last word in slang, obscenity, and profanity.”
Calamity’s fiery temperament, and her insatiable appetite for partying, led Wyoming soldiers to give her the nickname she used to identify herself for the rest of her life. The soldiers adored her, and even went so far as to furnish her with uniforms, so she could disguise herself and accompany them on expeditions. “Yes,” Calamity later remembered, “I was a regular man in them days.”
In 1876, Calamity met “Wild Bill” Hickock in Wyoming. Hickock, who was already a dime novel hero, planned to lead a wagon train to Deadwood, South Dakota, in search of gold. Always ready for a new adventure, Calamity joined up with him. Riding into Deadwood at the side of Wild Bill, clad in the buckskin outfit of a frontiersman, she immediately captured and held the town’s attention.
Reports of her eccentric behavior and violent temper travelled back East with gold rush journalists. Dime novelist Edward L. Wheeler was inspired to cast Calamity as the sidekick of his fictional hero, Deadwood Dick. Over the next few years, the prolific Wheeler wrote dozens of Calamity Jane adventures, making her nationally famous. Meanwhile, though, the real-life Calamity was sinking deeper into alcoholism.
With her heavy drinking and hell-raising, Calamity eventually wore out her welcome in Deadwood. She drifted onward to Montana and Wyoming, doing much the same in every town where she settled. She claimed a number of “husbands” throughout her life, and had two children. Although she made attempts to sober up for her kids, she always slipped back into her old habits.
At one point, it occurred to Calamity that she could make money from her celebrity. She had photographs taken of her in her buckskins, and wrote a brief (and heavily fictionalized) memoir of her life. She sold these items on street corners and, for a time, even in Yellowstone Park. She also recounted her adventures in speaking engagements at dime museums and Wild West shows, though her drinking prevented her from keeping steady work.
Calamity Jane’s birthplace in Mercer County is marked with a sign, and appears to be right here.