Who is Calamity Jane?

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  • Written By: Sheri Cyprus
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 12 February 2020
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Calamity Jane was a woman of the Old West. She was born Martha Jane Canary on 1 May 1856 in Princeton, Missouri. Calamity Jane had a reputation for drinking, swearing, chewing tobacco and shooting a gun, as well as for helping others.

When Calamity Jane was just a few years old, her mother died and the family moved to a Montana town called Virginia City. A few years later, her father and brothers were involved in conflict with Native Americans and Calamity Jane was left on her own at ten years of age. Despite having little, if any, formal education, Calamity Jane was literate and also raised her siblings herself from age sixteen.

By age twenty, Calamity Jane was in South Dakota joining the fight against Native Americans as a scout. She met Wild Bill Hickok in 1876 when she rode in a wagon train heading to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Hickok died in a poker game in August 1876 at the hands of Jack McCall. McCall received a hanging death for killing Hickok.


Calamity Jane is credited with saving six people in a stage coach by taking over the reins from the driver when he was shot with an arrow. She was able to get everyone to safety. She also nursed people with smallpox. Legend has it that she earned her nickname by saving Captain Egan from being killed in a fight with Native Americans at Goose Creek Camp. According to the story, she rushed in on horseback in the middle of the calamity of battle, betting on the notion that the Native Americans would not harm her since she was a woman.

Calamity Jane met Clinton Burke in 1884, married him in 1885 and gave birth to a daughter in 1887. Seven years later, the marriage was over and starting with the next year, Calamity Jane found the work that would last the rest of her life. She participated in shows such as Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show.

Jean Arthur played Calamity Jane in the 1936 movie, The Plainsman, with Gary Cooper playing Wild Bill Hickok. A film called Calamity Jane starring Doris Day in the title role was released in 1955. Other films as well as some books have also mentioned Calamity Jane. Home Box Office's (HBO) series, Deadwood, also featured a character based on Calamity Jane.


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