The Wild West was a time when cowboys fought the Indians, when the Sheriff fought the outlaws, and when there was nobody to fight, everyone was drinking and gambling… or at least that is what one pictures when he thinks of the Wild West. He also thinks about Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy, Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid, and Buffalo Bill – some were heroes, others were villains, but they are now all legends. There are also legends about the frontierswomen, women who had to learn how to ride horses to herd cattle and how to shoot to help with the hunt. The most famous frontierswoman is Calamity Jane. Though Calamity Jane created most of the legends about herself, she still represents how tough frontierswomen had to be in the Wild West.
Martha Jane Canary was born in Princeton, Missouri on May 1, 1852. In 1865, her family moved to Virginia City, Montana. Her mother died along the way and her father died in 1867, leaving Jane in charge of five younger siblings at the age of 15. To support her family, she worked as a cook, nurse, miner, ox-team driver, and a prostitute. In 1870,she joined General George Custer as a scout and went to Arizona for a Indian Campaign. At this time, she began dressing like a man; she already knew how to shoot and to drink whiskey like a man. In 1872, she claims to have earned the nickname Calamity Jane. The story is that a group of soldiers were heading back to camp when they were ambushed by a large group of Indians. The leader of the soldiers, Captain Egan, was shot first and fell from his horse. Jane was riding ahead, but turned back when she heard gunfire.Jane lifted him onto her horse and got him back to safety at the Back at the fort, Captain Egan told her, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.” Other say she earned the nick name because dating her would be like dating calamity. Jane proved to be a hero several times; in 1877, she saw a stagecoach being chased by Indians. She followed the stagecoach and upon closer inspection she saw the driver was shot dead by an arrow so she jumped onto the driver’s seat and drove the coach into town, saving the six passengers inside. She also took care of the residents in Deadwood, South Dakota when a smallpox epidemic broke out. Besides being kind to humans, she also liked animals. When she saw a man beating his mule with a whip, she took out her gun and threaten to shoot the man if he whipped the animal again.
In 1876, she was in Deadwood when she met Wild Bill Hickok. Though he was newly married, Jane claims that he was the love her life. He was later killed, destroying any hope of her being with him. In 1887, she married Clinton Nurke and had a little girl, who she gave up to a couple after her marriage ended. In 1895, she became part of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show because she could shoot better than most man. She would show of her shooting skills while telling the audience stories of her fighting Indians, mining for gold, and working as a scout. Jane’s boasts that she could drink more than any men proved true; she was an alcoholic. In 1901, she was fired from the show due to her excessive drinking. She died on August 1, 1903, at the age of 51. Her funeral was the largest to be held in Deadwood for a woman and her coffin was closed by a man, who has a boy she had nursed back to health during the smallpox epidemic. She also received her wish of being together with Wild Bill Hickok…she is buried right next to his grave.
Calamity Jane was out west when both her parents died, leaving her in charge of her family. As an un-educated teenage girl, she had to take odd jobs, even working as a prostitute to provide for her younger siblings. She is an example on how children were forced to grow up quickly at a time when life-threatening diseases were common. Though her drinking problem and adventurous soul created problems for her, she was remembered by fellow acquaintances as being generous, especially to the sick and needy. It may never be possible to determine her true life story, but Calamity Jane shows that even women can be legendary.