The myths and fabrications concerning the life of Calamity Jane are so numerous it is difficult to discover her true story. Legend has it that at various times Jane worked as a dishwasher at Fort Bridger, a laborer on the Union Pacific, a scout for General Custer, and a teamster. Some claim that Jane’s parents died when she was only eight years old and the event led to her nickname “Calamity,” but serious historians have never found any solid evidence for any of these legends.
What reliable records do exist indicate that she was born Martha Jane Canary and spent the first 13 years of her life in rural Missouri. In 1865, she and her family moved west to the booming gold rush town of Virginia City, Montana. There she grew into a tall and powerfully built young woman who liked to wear men’s clothing and spend her time in the company of men. Like many young frontier women, Jane learned to ride and shoot at an early age, and she apparently bridled at the narrow limits placed on women in her era.
By the early 1870s, Jane appears to have been out on her own. She was able to find occasional work in Virginia City as a laundress, one of the few occupations that were open to women at the time. In 1875, she joined a scientific expedition into the Black Hills of South Dakota, probably working as a laundress and camp follower rather than the teamster of legend. Still, Jane’s participation in the expedition put her in the Black Hills during the height of the subsequent gold rush to the region from 1876 to 1880. She eventually settled in the rugged boomtown of Deadwood, South Dakota.
Given to hard drinking and carousing, she attracted public attention with stunts like riding a bull down the main street of Rapid City. By the 1890s, many Americans were already fascinated with the rapidly fading days of the Wild West, and a wild woman like Jane was extremely interesting. Jane catered to this fascination with boasts of her supposed exploits, claiming to have been a uniformed army scout for General Custer, for example, though there was no evidence this was true. Ultimately, Jane was a performer, providing the public with the appropriately grand and mythic image of the West.
By 1896, Jane’s hard living had begun to take a toll, and she was suffering from the debilitating effects of severe alcoholism. Nonetheless, she accepted an offer to appear on the stage in Minneapolis in her self-created persona of Calamity Jane. In 1901, she was even invited to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Wherever she went, Jane brought along copies of her hopelessly inaccurate autobiography, which she sold to credulous fans for a few pennies.
One of the most persistent legends has been that Jane was married to the famous gunslinger and lawman Wild Bill Hickok, and that she may have given birth to his child. Yet again, biographers have been unable to establish any connection between Jane and Hickok. There is some evidence Jane may have given birth to a daughter, but if the child existed at all, its paternity was uncertain. Mostly likely, Jane simply fabricated the affair with Hickok, although she eventually may have come to believe that this-and other stories about her life–were actually true.
Two years before she died, she seems to have finally have tired of living the self-created persona of Calamity Jane. Found sick and drunk in an African-American bordello in Horr, Montana, she grumbled an uncharacteristic wish that the world would “leave me alone and let me go to hell my own route.” She died at the age of 51 on August 1, 1903, in Terry, South Dakota.