Martha “Calamity Jane” Cannary: The White Devil of the Yellowstone

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Cabinet photograph captioned in the negative, Calamity Jane, Gen. Crook's Scout. An early view of Calamity Jane wearing buckskins, with an ivory-gripped Colt Single Action Army revolver tucked in her hand-tooled holster, holding a Sharps rifle.

Calamity Jane was a professional Indian Scout, marksman, showman, and personal friend of Wild Bill Hickok who broke through the gender barriers of her time.

Martha Jane Cannary “Calamity Jane” was born May 1, 1852 and was the oldest of six children. In 1869, her father Robert packed the family up and them moved from Missouri to Virginia City, Montana. It was during this period of time that Martha learned how to hunt and handle firearms. Martha’s mother Charlotte died along the way in Black Foot, Montana in 1866, and Robert a year later in 1867. Martha became head of the family and moved everybody to Wyoming.

Calamity Jane’s early years

After relocating the family she struggled to keep the family fed by working as a scullion, waitress, cook, or any kind of job that would get her by. She loved the outdoors and craved an adventurous lifestyle. Martha decided to find work as a scout for the military, and she got her wish and was hired as a scout at Fort Russell.

At this point of her life she primarily gave up all of her feminine ways and dressed like a man, used harsh language, and chewed tobacco, this was something very unusual for the time but she gruntingly earned the respect of her fellow soldiers and scouts and earned her nickname “Calamity Jane.”

The story about how she earned the nickname is uncertain, but in her biography she claims it was given to her by Captain Egan after she saved his life after he had been shot during an Indian uprising.

George Armstrong Custer

Calamity Jane vehemently claimed to have served with Custer in battle against Native Americans between the years of 1872 through 1874 in pitched skirmishes throughout the Wyoming territory, but military records of that time were poorly kept and many historians doubt her claims about serving with Custer.

One confirmed report placed Jane in Sheridan, Wyoming in the spring of 1872 during the “Mussel Shell Indian Outbreak” in which Custer and General Miles were dispatched to repel uprisings.

Like many wild west icons of her time Calamity Jane was well known to exaggerate her exploits, especially later in her life in the hopes of making money from selling paperbacks and her biography. So, like many famous western characters her self accounts are viewed with a skeptical eye, but she did indeed serve as a scout and she did see action as an Indian fighter and in 1875 she distinguished herself by carrying important dispatches by swimming across the Platte River in cold weather and riding at breakneck speed to deliver them.

Wild Bill Hickok

Jane traveled with a wagon train in 1875 and eventually ended up in the Black Hills where she met Charlie Utter and Wild Bill Hickok. Many wild stories, none able to be confirmed, were circulated about the relationship between Calamity Jane and Hickok. The only thing that is certain is that they were good friends and companions and Jane respected and greatly admired him.

Wild Bill was treacherously murdered in 1876 by a coward named Jack McCall and Jane was grief stricken. After Hickok’s senseless murder and burial Jane stayed on in Deadwood where she saved several passengers being attacked by Indians and helped nurse many locals back to health after a smallpox epidemic, a goodwill gesture that would forever endear her to the people of Deadwood, South Dakota.

Jane left Deadwood in 1887 and wondered around from Bear Butte with the 7th Calvary where Fort Meade was built to Rapid City where she prospected for gold then on to Fort Pierre where she became a mule-skinner for a time.

Buffalo Bill Cody

Having gained fame throughout the country and earning her second nickname “The White Devil of the Yellowstone” for her exploits, Calamity Jane met Buffalo Bill Cody and signed on with “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” in 1895.

She had secured a reputation for horsemanship and gunplay, and was making a good living performing sharp-shooting exhibitions and always brought the house down, however, during this time Jane was a raging alcoholic and was fired for fighting and being too rowdy. She married Clinton Burke in 1889 but left him a few years latter.

Calamity Jane’s End

By the turn of the century Calamity Jane was broke with no prospects, and her attempts to sell her biography for enough money to retire on were unsuccessful. She returned to the Black Hills in 1903 where she earned her keep doing menial chores such as laundry and cooking.

On August 1, 1903 she developed pneumonia and died shortly thereafter at the age of fifty-one. The people of South Dakota remembered her kindness during the epidemic of 1876 and gave her a hero’s burial. She was laid to rest at Mount Moriah Cemetery right beside her old comrade Wild Bill Hickok.