Calamity Jane

Today, May 1, (1852) is the birthday of Martha Jane Canary, better known as Calamity Jane. She was a well-known and notorious figure in western history, and she frequently appears in South Dakota history.

She was just a teen when the death of both of her parents made her the head of the family of six children, and she always lived a hardscrabble life.

At one time or another it is claimed by her and others that she had been a dishwasher, cook, waitress, dance-hall girl, prostitute, nurse, bullwhacker, stage driver, Army scout, Indian fighter, innkeeper, show performer, and author. But she was also known as a tall-tale teller, so who knows for sure about some of those claims. She was uneducated, worked at what she could get, and wandered the West.

It is unclear how she acquired the nickname of Calamity Jane. But when she arrived in Deadwood in 1876 at the height of the Black Hills gold rush she was already known by that name; the local newspaper ran a headline saying “Calamity Jane has arrived!”

In her youth she was said to be attractive, but by her Deadwood days her looks were gone; she led a hard life, drank, smoked, and hung out in saloons a lot. She was described as looking “like a busted bale of hay”. The photo here was taken probably in 1895.

She died in South Dakota in 1903 and is buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood, South Dakota. Her grave is next to that of Wild Bill Hickok, who was assassinated in Deadwood in 1876. That positioning makes for good theater, but, in fact, the two were never linked romantically. And some have said Hickok had no use for her at all.

Despite her vices she was also well known for her kindness, compassion, generosity, and willingness to take on hard and even dangerous tasks. She really did help nurse the victims of the Deadwood smallpox epidemic. One friend remarked, “As long as I have two dollars in my pocket Calamity Jane can have one of them.”