Calamity Jane on horseback
Calamity was a crowd-pleaser at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., but she soon grew restless for the wide-open West. ((William B. Secrest Collection))
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Trying to separate fact from fiction in the life of the legendary Calamity Jane is about as difficult as trying to prospect for gold on the Staked Plains or trying to walk straight when drunk as a skunk. All James D. McLaird wanted to do was determine how Calamity had become famous, but he ended up tackling the myths and distortions that hover around her image like a dust cloud. The years of research might have taken more than a decade off the author’s own life, but his dedication and/or obsession has provided us with Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2005, $29.95), a 355-page biography that filters through more than 100 years of legend-making and gets to the heart of the notorious woman whose real name was Martha Canary (1856–1903).

McLaird, who recently retired after teaching history at Dakota Wesleyan University for 37 years, has plenty of facts to present but far more misinformation (much of it provided by Calamity herself in an 1896 biography and elsewhere) to correct. For instance, Calamity was never an Army scout or the lover of Wild Bill Hickok, but she was a mother who loved her children and often did women’s work while dressed in women’s clothing. “Sadly,” he writes in his introduction, “after romantic adventures are removed, her story is mostly an account of uneventful daily life interrupted by drinking binges.” McLaird, whose historical writing has focused on South Dakota and the Black Hills, recently took time to answer some questions for Wild West Magazine:

Martha Canary’s “leap into adulthood” came early, didn’t it?

Martha’s leap into adulthood probably came about primarily after she was orphaned between 10 and 12 years of age. Even before that, there is some question how much parenting her mother and father provided, making Martha, the eldest child, at times a surrogate parent. This undoubtedly had some impact on her. It is doubtful Martha ever really took care of her siblings after her parents died; those that survived were evidently adopted by other families. There is a question, of course, whether Martha ever made a real leap into adulthood. Although she learned to take care of herself in a rough environment, for the rest of her life she frequently exhibited juvenile behavior, such as riding into town and shooting her guns in the air and bragging about imagined exploits.

There are differing accounts of the Canary family’s passage west from Missouri.

Robert and Charlotte Canary, Martha’s parents, both died in the West when their children were very young, and they evidently left no records of their trip. Later generations had to rely on the memories of the surviving Canary children, all of whom made the trip west when they were less than 8 years old (some much less!). In their accounts, they sometimes embellished the record; for example, in one account their parents are killed in an Indian attack and young Martha daringly rides to a fort in the region to get help. This is simply a tall tale. At other times, the family changed the story, perhaps unknowingly, to make it more respectable. Thus, Robert becomes a minister going west because he is interested in the Mormon religion rather than going west to seek his fortune in the Montana gold fields. These kinds of distortions are not unusual in family accounts.

Martha spent time in jail for theft and drunkenness. Why wasn’t she arrested and jailed when she borrowed a buggy for a local trip and then proceeded to take it all the way from Cheyenne to Fort Laramie without returning it?

Sometimes it seems surprising that Martha didn’t spend more time in jail. In 1876 she was arrested and jailed for stealing clothes from other women, but was released after being found not guilty. She then rented a buggy and took it all the way to Fort Laramie without returning it. The officials who came to get the buggy could not arrest her because she was out of their jurisdiction. As is the case today, because most of Martha’s “crimes” were petty, she was usually given warnings not to misbehave again and/or told to move on to a different location. Some cases concerning property were settled out of court. Most of her time in jail involved overnight stays for drunkenness and small fines.

Calamity and others have written about her being close to Wild Bill Hickok, but your research reveals otherwise.

Actually, many other writers have shown that accounts of a romantic relationship between Calamity and Wild Bill are largely invented—see Joseph Rosa’s biography of Wild Bill, for example. However, despite the accounts of these researchers, many popular writers and the movies continue to repeat old tales. Interestingly, even Calamity only claimed in Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane, By Herself that she and Wild Bill were friends. My research simply added further evidence supporting these conclusions. Tales of an intimate relationship between Calamity and Wild Bill will continue to appear, however, despite the evidence. The two did ride into Deadwood in the same party and definitely were acquainted. Both were dime novel celebrities, and it was easy to associate them together. And their nearby graves in the Deadwood cemetery continue to cause tourists and writers to assume there must have been a close relationship between them in life as well as death. It is hardly surprising that imaginative writers claim there was an intimacy that most of those who knew them well failed to see.

Did Calamity really have a gift for nursing people back to health despite her rough edges?

As is true of most stories about Calamity, legend must be separated from fact before answering this question. Shortly after her death, one of her pallbearers recalled she had helped a victim of smallpox in early Deadwood. By the 1920s, that victim was stretched to hundreds of victims in accounts by some Black Hills pioneers, despite the fact that no Deadwood or area newspapers mention such a widespread epidemic. Martha did help care for sick and injured people, and was respected for her efforts. However, many other women in similar circumstances did the same, and, of course, “respectable” women did so as well. There is no doubt that her nursing activities have been as exaggerated as her relationship to Wild Bill has been.

Martha’s legendary drinking led to much of her extravagant behavior, correct?

First, it must be noted that Martha was an alcoholic, and despite repeated efforts to end her dependence on liquor, she failed; her friends, sadly, supported her drinking habits rather than helping her. Many of the stories about her related to her boisterous behavior during her drinking sprees, and many are accurate. Her dress and behavior often seemed extravagant, especially for that era. She daringly dressed as a soldier and accompanied soldiers on campaigns, though as a camp follower and companion of one of the men rather than as a scout. She purportedly rode into town with cowboys, shooting recklessly in the air or at signs and windows. Like others, she required unsuspecting individuals who entered saloons to buy a round of drinks, sometimes by taking something of value from them and agreeing to return the item only after they footed the bill. She is remembered for these actions not only because it wasn’t typical for women to do this but also because, thanks to dime novels, she was a celebrity. These obscure other aspects of her life that were more typical, such as her working as a waitress or laundress. By the way, in her daily life she usually wore a dress, not a buckskin outfit.

Were Martha’s exploits with the Army highly exaggerated?

Martha claimed she served as a scout with commanders such as George Crook and George Custer. There is no evidence she ever served in this capacity with any military outfit, and those men who did serve were almost unanimous that she did not. She did, however, accompany the Jenney expedition into the Black Hills in 1875, and was with Crook’s army in 1876. Members of those parties clearly indicated she was a prostitute or a camp follower, not a scout. It was Martha’s claim that she scouted for Crook that led a Black Hills writer in 1877 to publish a fanciful account of her career, which in turn led to a dime novelist’s featuring her in his new “Deadwood Dick” series. Thus, her stories about serving as a scout led directly to her becoming a national celebrity, even though they had no foundation in fact.

When Martha died, it seemed to have opened the flood gates of further outlandish tales, including some from Buffalo Bill Cody.

Her death led not only to outlandish tales being both repeated and invented but also to rigorous attacks on her behavior. Editors took sides and fought bitterly over her reputation. Cody, who was in England at the time, was of course asked about her. He told the press that Martha never had been employed by the government as a scout, but sometimes joined the troops as a “mascot.” He also accurately mentioned, “Whenever she could get hold of any whisky she was pretty sure to paint the town red.” But Cody also seemed willing to add to her legend. She fought Indians well, but her “best work,” he said, was helping law officers capture criminals. Unfortunately for Cody’s story, there is no evidence that she ever engaged in this activity.

What other important myth needed to be refuted?

Perhaps most important is the evidence proving that the claim by Jean McCormick in 1941 that she was the daughter of Calamity and Wild Bill is false. McCormick tried to prove her story by producing a diary and letters purportedly written by Calamity Jane. These documents suggest that Calamity traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show to England, that she met Jesse James after his alleged death (he sang at his own funeral, the diary says), and so forth. The evidence is overwhelming that the diary and letters were, in fact, written by McCormick. Indeed, it is fairly certain that Martha never learned to read and write at all. Nevertheless, many writers and movie producers have found McCormick’s documents more interesting than Calamity’s own life story, which is far different from that found in the so-called diary.

Are there other points you found to be significant?

There is, of course, the story of the actual woman named Martha Canary that is obscured by the legendary tales about her. She really did have a daughter (not Jean McCormick, however); she really was at one time legally married. Her husband beat her on several occasions; she had him jailed at least three times for abuse, yet returned to him afterward. Another point of interest to me is how much inaccurate information circulates about her concerning basic biographical information. For example, census reports show she was born in 1856, not 1852, which means she died at age 47. Such information was available earlier to anyone willing to seriously research her life.

Originally published in the February 2006 issue of Wild West