JULY / AUG 2017: BY SCARLETT GRANT
American culture immortalized Calamity Jane. Portrayed by Doris Day in the 1953 musical film as a pretty, petite blonde, she starts out as a frontier hero wearing men’s clothing. By the end she has become feminized and is in a relationship with Wild Bill Hickok. In the HBO Deadwood series (2004 – 2006) she is more accurately depicted by Robin Weigert. Dark-haired, drunk, and dirty, this is far more like how this frontier female would have been.
Most of the information we know about Calamity Jane comes from an autobiographical booklet she published in 1896. I’ll be using parts of it to illustrate her life and experiences. But, as she documented her story for publicity, we can argue that there must be exaggerations, if not flat-out lies about her story. But since she is recalling her own story in her own words, it is an insight into the woman that was Calamity Jane.
Calamity was born in 1852 in Missouri, and her birth name was Martha Jane Canary. Like any pioneer family of the time, Jane’s parents took Jane and her five siblings out west to Montana. On this five-month journey, Jane showed early enjoyment for an adventurous lifestyle and developed excellent survival skills as she later recalled;
“While on the way, the greater portion of my time was spent in hunting along with the men and hunters of the party; in fact, I was at all times with the men when there was excitement and adventures to be had. By the time we reached Virginia City, I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age.”
But on the way, Charlotte, Jane’s mother caught pneumonia and later died. Robert, the father, continued their journey and even after reaching Montana went south to Utah, where he began a small farm. But only a short time afterwards he died too. Calamity was now fourteen years old and needed to provide for her siblings. Being the practical person she was, she took them all to a new life in Wyoming, where she took whatever jobs she could find.
Jane worked as a dishwasher, cook, waitress, dance-hall girl, nurse, and ox team driver. She did not have the time or money to pursue an education and was illiterate her whole life. However, her hard life didn’t impact upon her looks, primary accounts described Jane at the time as a “pretty dark-eyed girl” and “extremely attractive”.
At twenty-two, Jane found work as a scout at Fort Russell. This may be when she first began her on-off employment as a prostitute. Jane would later claim she took part in a campaign during 1872 – 73 against the Native Americans in which she acquired her nickname. However, a captain who participated in the conflict later claimed, “[She] never was in an Indian fight. She was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish, but possessed a generous streak which made her popular.”
There is some subsistence to his claim, because Jane did not acquire her job as a scout until 1874, just after the campaign ended. But Jane lived a hard life on the frontier, when she arrived in South Dakota in 1875, others noted her tanned and leathery skin, greasy hair. She muscular and wore men’s clothes – no doubt to prove she was as capable as the men at surviving.
A year later when she arrived in the infamous frontier town of Deadwood, first see her referred to as “Calamity Jane.” On the way to Deadwood, she met Wild Bill Hickok, who she admired (they buried her next to him). Over time, Hickok became Calamity’s lover (or even husband, although there is no hard evidence to support this). Also in Deadwood she met her sometimes employer, the infamous brothel madam Dora DuFran.
Some of her exploits in Deadwood include saving multiple lives of passengers travelling in a stagecoach by diverting away the Native Americans in pursuit and leading the coach to Deadwood. She also nursed victims during a smallpox epidemic in the Deadwood area. This era of her life is also when her alcoholism became more apparent. Allegedly, while drunk she rented a horse and buggy for a one mile joy ride but was so intoxicated that she travelled ninety miles instead.
The 1880s marked big changes for Calamity Jane, she moved away from Deadwood to Montana, got married, and ran an inn. In 1887, she gave birth to a daughter called Jane. Deadwood wouldn’t hear the last of Calamity though. She returned to raise funds for her daughter to receive an education at a Catholic boarding school. The benefit raised a huge amount of money, however Calamity drank a huge amount of it and left with her daughter the next day. Estelline Bennett, a Deadwood resident who had met Calamity a few days before believed she wanted to give her daughter an education but her alcoholism inhibited her to carry out long-term planning. But according to Estelline, Little Jane did “get an education, and grew up and married well.”
Next, Calamity joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show in 1893 as a storyteller. She dressed up in her pioneer clothing and described her elaborate adventures in the Old West. She used “colorful” but clean language when telling her stories. No doubt Buffalo Bill had to remind her there were families in attendance at the show., her alcoholism resulted in her exit from the show. Besides her alcoholism she also developed depression during her time travelling with the Buffalo Bill show.
In 1903 Jane returned to Dakota and again worked for Madame Dora DuFran by cooking and doing laundry for her girls. Later in that year, Calamity was travelling by train across Dakota and drinking on her journey. She became sick, and the conductor had to carry her off the train. Calamity secured a hotel room and called a doctor, but soon died. It was later deduced that she died from a combination of bowel inflammation and pneumonia.
In spite of her problems with alcohol, others considered her a generous individual, always wanting to help others in need. Thus, many people ignored her problems with drink. In fact, substance abuse was a common part of frontier life as it was recalled; “Her vices were the wide-open sins of a wide-open country–the sort that never carried a hurt.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Scarlett Grant is a young graduate trying to step into the real world. When she’s not writing for Femnista, she’s focusing on her own blog: Thoughts in 500 Words. She is also an amateur history buff, with other interests in art, film, languages, music and writing.