Martha Canary was born in 1852 in Princeton, Missouri. Her mother died soon after and her Father moved the family to Virginia City, Nevada which was in the early days of the boom. Orphaned at age 15, she was left to her own devises and by age 18 she was hired as a scout under General George Custer. Through these experiences she became a daring frontier horsewoman and an excellent shot.
Women were not encouraged to work in professions belonging to men in those days and so she began to dress in men’s clothing and developed a reputation as a hard drinking woman who could out-swear and out-spit any man. Posing as a man she became a part of the 400 soldier Newton-Jenny geological expedition which explored the Black Hills. She then became a member of the Black Hills force led by General George Crook but an officer in the unit discovered she was a woman and had her expelled.
Shortly thereafter, in June 1876, Jane made her way to Deadwood via Cheyenne in a party with Wild Bill Hickok. It is said that she was infatuated with him as he was a good looking man with a reputation. Nothing indicates that Wild Bill returned her affections before he was shot in the Saloon No. 10 a few weeks later.
Calamity Jane was a woman of many professions. Her swearing abilities were no doubt the result of having been a bullwhacker in the Black Hills, delivering supplies between Deadwood and the outlying camps. A bullwhacker drives his oxen team with the sound of his voice and uses commands shouted at the top of his lungs to direct them as needed. Albeit these commands usually were interspersed with language not befitting a man of society, let alone a woman, Jane was able to handle a team smartly and the language seemed to come naturally.
She also worked as a cook, dance hall girl and nurse. Being of a generous spirit, she helped to nurse some of the victims of a smallpox epidemic in Deadwood in 1876. It was joked that if she did help to cure them of the disease she likely gave them the great pox instead, for her many professions included working in a whore house or two. A Mrs. Drowley of Glendive, Montana records that when as a child she broke her finger Calamity Jane cuddled and comforted her singing “There’ll be a Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.”
It is unknown exactly how she obtained the name Calamity Jane, but many stories point to an incident involving the heroic saving of Captain Egan in an altercation with Native Americans near Sheridan, Wyoming. It is said that Jane saved the Captain from certain death while the men under his command ran back to the fort.
Her legend grew and she later (1895) became a part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, although she was fired for her continued drunkedness.
She wasn't an incredibly attractive figure. In fact, a Deadwood resident by the name of Jesse Brown said in 1876 that she was “about the roughest looking human being I ever saw.” But her rough appearance was no wonder when one considered her lifestyle. Her drinking is legendary and it is well known that the “drunker she got the louder she would howl,” until someone would lead her home and put her to bed with a bottle to keep her quiet for the night.
A benefit was held at the Green Front Theater around 1900 to raise funds to send her daughter (from a brief marriage to Clinton Burke in 1891) to a convent. Jane took the money raised and promptly bought all of her friends drinks until there was no money left for the poor girl.
Until the day of its closing in the 1980’s, Goldberg’s Grocery Store carried a bill on its books for $7 run up by Calamity Jane on October 10, 1895. The bill was partially paid by means of a one dollar credit given for a picture.
According to her dying wish, Calamity Jane is buried next to Wild Bill Hickok on Mt. Moriah overlooking the city of Deadwood.