It’s a little hard to pin down many facts on Martha Jane Cannary (better known as Calamity Jane), largely because she was one of the West’s most notorious liars.
Martha’s father moved his wife and children west from Missouri in the early 1860s. He was ostensibly a Mormon lay preacher bound for Salt Lake City, but the Cannarys seem to have landed in Virginia City, Nevada, during the 1865 gold rush. As a teenager, Martha Jane set to wandering around the West, picking up what work she could.
Like many other women of the West, she became a prostitute, but she also demonstrated both an aptitude for and interest in such male-dominated pursuits as army scouting and prospecting, and she often showed her more tomboyish side. Says the Works Progress Administration’s Montana, A State Guide Book, “She was given to shooting up saloons, and to raising hell with tongue and quirt.”
She may have been a lover of Wild Bill Hickok’s, but it’s unlikely. Stories of her secret marriage to Wild Bill and of a daughter, Janey, resulting from the union are unsubstantiated. But her theatrical bent did lead to a stint with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Her theatrical career, however, as well as many other projects, was cut short by her alcoholism.
Castle, Harlowton, Big Timber, and Livingston were all her haunts. She lived in Livingston off and on; she had a cabin at 213 Main Street for several impoverished and unhappy years.
She was 51 when she died outside Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1903. According to her wishes, she was buried next to Wild Bill in the Deadwood cemetery.
For a fact-based eloquent novel, try Larry McMurtry’s Buffalo Girls, which chronicles the lives of Calamity Jane and her comrades.
© W.C. McRae & Judy Jewell from Moon Montana, 7th Edition