Imagining Calamity

Even before Martha Canary celebrated her 21st birthday, she had been transformed into the Wild West heroine Calamity Jane. Once the dramatic heroine came on stage, the orphan farmer’s daughter from Missouri largely disappeared from the scene. Calamity Jane she had become before she rode into booming Deadwood with Wild Bill Hickok in midsummer of 1876. Already commented on as an independent-minded, free-spirited female who dressed, rode, and drove teams like a man, and maybe served informally as an army scout, Calamity soon emerged as a notorious figure, a rousing drinker, and perhaps a part-time prostitute.

These sources of information did much to shape images of Calamity as a frenetic frontier woman in the 1870s and beyond. Most important in the creating and broadcasting of the rambunctious, eccentric Calamity were local and regional journalists of the northern interior West. Knowing they had to turn new residents into subscribers and realizing that sensationalism and controversy appealed to readers (as they always have), newspapermen rarely overlooked opportunities to bring startling people or events onto their pages.

As one historian of frontier journalism has put it, newspaper publishers and editors “knew that sensationalism sold newspapers.” Nor, the same scholar writes, were they above “the practice of embellishing articles to enhance otherwise dull reading.” The new, unknown Calamity, with her unorthodox behavior and controversial actions, was exactly the grist needed for these journalistic mills. Wherever Calamity went from the mid-1870s onward, she became a subject for writers and readers hungering and thirsting for lively copy.

The second force in shaping Calamity’s burgeoning reputation was eastern writers, or at least writers outside the area of her usual perambulations. Journalists from Minnesota and Chicago, for example, provided some of the first dramatic stories about Calamity in the 1875–78 period for readers in those areas and even for the much larger national readership. Most important of all in turning Calamity into a continentally known figure were the dime novels of E. L. Wheeler in the Deadwood Dick series.

True, as biographer James D. McLaird perceptively notes, little of the Calamity Jane of the dime novels surfaced in later biographies, novels, or films about her. But Wheeler made her a well-known name in the late 1870s and early 1880s. No one acquainted with the heroes and heroines of American popular fiction, particularly those focused on the American West, would have been unaware of Calamity Jane by the mid-1880s.

Third, Calamity herself had a large hand in molding her popular image during her lifetime. She did it by eliding much of her pedestrian and depressing beginnings and replacing nondescript events with sensational happenings. Although Martha was about eight years old when the Canary family left Missouri to take its arduous, dangerous trip west to frontier Montana and about 11 when she became an orphan, her earliest statements avoided the truth of what her father and mother had become. If the scattered segments of what others gathered first from Martha and later from Calamity are true (as well as the stories her younger sister, Lena, told her children), Calamity sometimes replaced Robert and Charlotte Canary with her birth and orphanhood in a soldiering family in the northern Rockies. And, as the years passed, she spoke often of her rollicking—and largely imagined—roles as a scout and soldier for Generals Crook and Custer, her heroic work as a veteran bullwhacker, and superb rider.

Calamity’s pamphlet autobiography Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane, By Herself (1895–96) provides the best example of her reshaping of her own life. Although speaking truthfully, for the most part, about her birth in Princeton, Missouri, her years in Montana, and the loss of her parents early on, Calamity loads up her account with misinformation. She speaks much of scouting and soldiering that never occurred, a legal marriage to Clinton Burke that never took place, and of nonexistent travels and homes. Moreover, she erases her only legal marriage (to Bill Steers), omits her saloon dancing and gambling, and understandably makes no mention of drinking and possible prostitution. Calamity sold herself as an authentic Old West heroine for much the same reasons frontier journalists capitalized on her: stories of an unusual, dramatic frontier woman drew attention and corralled readers and show attendees. Calamity needed people to come to her presentations as a dime novel performer and to buy her autobiography and photos. As noted, Calamity herself played a central role in shaping the Calamity Jane legends that have paraded before the American public in the past 110 years and more.

In the years after Calamity’s death, as in the 25 years or so before it, images of her have been neither monolithic nor static. During her lifetime, journalists often tried to balance the less palatable facets of her controversial character—the cross-dressing, drinking, and promiscuity—with counterbalancing images of an angel of mercy. Even before her Deadwood days, there were accounts of Calamity speaking approvingly of her willingness to nurse the sick and help the needy, unhappy, and destitute. These early and much later positive treatments included her care for smallpox victims, her aid to the poor, her attentions to mothers and children, and her bailing out the penniless. Few pre-1903 accounts omitted these positive aspects of Calamity’s life, even while castigating her as an increasingly destitute, drunken, wretched wreck of a woman.

Missing in nearly all accounts of Calamity during her lifetime, however, was her desire to be a rather traditional pioneer woman, with a family. Only a handful or two hints survive to reveal this desire. Calamity wanted to be married, to be with a “husband,” to be near children. In 1895–96, she told a female interviewer that her daughter, Jessie, was her reason for living, that she wanted to make sure Jessie got the education she had missed. Calamity visited and perhaps worked with sister Lena until her untamed actions built a barrier between her and the Borner family in Wyoming. Calamity also had warm feelings for her “little brother” Elijah, or Lige, and wept openly when she heard of his difficult life in western Wyoming.

Calamity mentioned family and parenthood much less frequently than she paraded her Wild West activities. Increasingly, the emphases on Calamity as a Wild West woman, by others and by herself, meant that few interpreters ever depicted Calamity as a wannabe traditional pioneer woman. Yet most of the two-dozen photographs of Calamity portray her in women’s clothing of the late 19th century, and many of the private reminiscences recall Calamity dressing and acting like a wife and mother. Those domestic images of Calamity were sidelined during her days in Deadwood and never reappeared with any consistency before her death. Calamity Jane had become identified with a romantic Old West and never broke free from its constrictions. Still, these close and tight links between Calamity Jane and the Wild West, although clear and large at the end of her life, did not continue unchanged in the passing decades.

The legends surrounding her have undergone considerable transformation in the more than a century since her death. Indeed, these changes, particularly in regard to her reputed relationship with Wild Bill Hickok and the possibility of her bearing his child, repeatedly redirected—and often distorted—the images of her in numerous biographies, novels, and films, among other venues. 

—By Richard Etulain

Richard Etulain is professor emeritus of history at the University of New Mexico and the author of 50 books.