The Real Calamity Jane: James D. McLaird Uncovers The Heart of the Woman

It’s highly likely that everything you know about Calamity Jane is hogwash. For instance, she never had a romantic relationship with Wild Bill Hickok. They weren’t married, and they didn’t have a child together. Jean McCormick, the woman who came forward in 1941 claiming to be their daughter, was a fraud. Another thing Calamity Jane never did was go to England with Buffalo Bill Cody to perform in any show, though she did perform in shows—just not in England and not with Buffalo Bill. And contrary to most sources, at no time did she kill Indians, work as an Army scout, save a stagecoach from road agents, or ride for the Pony Express. Her name wasn’t even Jane. It was Martha Canary.

James D. McLaird, a professor emeritus of history at Dakota Wesleyan University, spent 15 years researching and writing Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend, a biography of Canary. The book was published in 2005 by University of Oklahoma Press and is now out in paperback amid a flurry of new interest. McLaird has been getting more calls for interviews this time than he did when the book was first published—possibly because of the current political and media focus on women’s personal autonomy.

The author grew up assuming Calamity Jane was fictional, nothing but a folk hero. His interest in the Black Hills region of South Dakota led to his discovery of a couple of little-known scholarly works that shed some light on the real person. Calamity Jane wasn’t an expert shot or a stagecoach driver, he learned; she was a prostitute and an alcoholic. Once in possession of this information, McLaird wanted to know how she had won such fame and status, so he read every northern Plains regional newspaper from the 1860s and 1870s ever archived on microfiche.

Calamity Jane was a bit of a tabloid star in her day. All the little towns and camps in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Utah took note of her comings and goings. Much of the local coverage of her is more reliable than the reporting in the big-city papers of New York and Chicago, which, as she gained fame during her lifetime, often reported unverified claims. Some of these claims were invented by Canary herself, but many came from other sources and were simply lifted whole-cloth into new articles. “She was one of the few famous Westerners about whom there wasn’t a real authoritative biography,” McLaird said in a conversation with Pasatiempo. “There wasn't much interest. One person said to me, ‘Who wants to write a biography of a prostitute?’”

That view oversimplifies and denigrates Canary just as much as the legend of Calamity Jane whitewashes her by hyping fictitious accomplishments. Canary was the oldest of four children, said McLaird, who contends she was born in 1856 in Princeton, Missouri. Her parents moved the family west when Canary was quite young. Her mother died on the trail, and her father died shortly thereafter, when Canary was 9. She was left to raise her siblings on her own. Though a few families might have tried to adopt her, by time she was a teenager, she was a camp follower, and most such women were sex workers. Though there is nothing in the record to prove this, McLaird agreed that it is unlikely she was well treated in the camps and as a child could well have been the victim of rape or abuse. “She was ‘adopted’ by the men, and I can imagine what that might mean,” he said.

He describes her as an off-and-on prostitute, not a lifelong brothel worker. She also slung hash and was a dance-hall girl. There were few career paths open to women with no family, no education, no prospects, and a wild side. At that time, the Army certainly wouldn’t have hired a woman to be a scout, though Canary was not the only camp follower who dressed in men’s clothing while on the trail, nor was she the only person in the Black Hills to exaggerate or fabricate her adventures. In her day, she was known as a hard drinker and as someone prone to cursing a blue streak. While it’s true that she wore buckskin some of the time, for the most part she wore dresses, and she liked fancy hats. “People have described her as the ugliest woman on the frontier, which I disagree with,” McLaird said. “So much of a person’s looks have to do with personality. People who think she was ugly didn’t meet her and talk with her. Reporters who actually interviewed her described her as a lovely person.”

Canary was independent and well-traveled for a woman of her time and class. She longed to be married and had a series of long-term romantic relationships, often referring to her male companions as husbands, whether or not they were legally wed. Evidence shows she gave birth to two children—a son who died in infancy and a daughter McLaird thinks might have suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome, though he does not make that unsupported claim in the book. “The dominant theme in her life that struck me the most is that she was an alcoholic, and that overrode almost everything. She was addicted, and she died early because of it. It’s impossible to prove this, but I don’t think she drank every day. I think she went on binges.” She died in 1903, at age 47, but most people thought she was in her 70s; pictures of her from her last years show a rapidly aging woman.

Calamity Jane was the star of dime novels in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and as soon as moving pictures came along, films were made about her, including In the Days of ‘75 and ‘76 (1915), starring Freeda Hartzell Romine; then came The Plainsman (1937), starring Jean Arthur; and Calamity Jane (1953), a musical starring Doris Day. The Hollywood version of Calamity Jane usually portrays her as feminine and nurturing—in addition to being a crack shot—which probably stems from the need to make her a more socially acceptable screen presence and from stories of her charitable nature that became greatly exaggerated over time. (Though she did volunteer to nurse sick people, it’s unlikely she nursed the entire town of Deadwood through a smallpox epidemic, as some stories claim.)

McCormick, the woman who claimed to be Calamity Jane and Wild Bill’s daughter, added to that aspect of the legend by forging a diary Canary supposedly wrote that consisted of emotional letters to her “daughter,” though there is no evidence Canary could read or write. Her autobiography, published as a pamphlet in 1896, was dictated to a ghost writer.

Canary was a complicated woman who struggled to survive among other people struggling to survive as the West was “won.”

She was less than a heroine but far more than a whore. The most recent depiction of Calamity Jane to enter popular culture was Robin Weigert’s Emmy-nominated performance in HBO’s Deadwood, in which Calamity’s potentially abusive past is a large part of her characterization. Though the show captured aspects of her well, McLaird takes issue with the portrayal because Weigert was always dressed in buckskin. “They latched onto the folklore of Calamity with a dark side. They got the alcoholism and the swearing right, but they missed the heart of the woman.”  


Calamity Jane: The Woman and Legend, by James D. McLaird, is published by the University of Oklahoma Press.

Image: Martha Canary (Calamity Jane), Blacks Hills, 1875, age 19; this is the earliest known picture of Canary. Courtesy, J. Leonard Jennewein Collection, Layne Library, Dakota Wesleyan University, Mitchell, South Dakota

 This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 04/06/2012