History Wednesday: Calamity and Conceit

When I was in Riverton, Wyoming, this past weekend I had a chance encounter with a descendant of Martha “Calamity Jane” Canarie, an iconic figure of the Old West. His wife even does portrayals of her. Now there’s a History Wednesday topic if there ever was one!

It should be an easy blog entry too, right? Well, the historical Calamity Jane is so intertwined with legend, tall tales and flat out bullshit there’s not much to go on. People can’t even agree on how her real name was spelled.

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And we can’t even blame sloppy Arabic translations for that.
Image credit: Jim Gordon

According to Calamity Jane’s autobiography – which itself is called into question as most historians believe Jane was illiterate – she was born in 1852. Or was it 1850? Or 1847? Or earlier? In any event, in the mid 1860s Jane and her family moved in quick succession from Missouri to Montana to Salt Lake City. Along the way both of her parents died, leaving the (apparently) teenage Jane in charge of her younger brothers and sisters. After several more years of bouncing from place to place, by 1874 Jane settled more or less in the Fort Laramie, Wyoming, area.

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I’ll go out on a limb and say she wasn’t involved with the cold fusion hoax while in Salt Lake City.

Calamity Jane earned her nickname after ostensibly fighting in the Indian Wars alongside Generals George Custer and George Crook. This is disputed in contemporary sources. After moving to Deadwood, South Dakota, Jane then met and claimed to have married Wild Bill Hickok. While it’s accepted she and Hickok were acquainted, there’s no evidence to suggest the two were ever an item, much less married.

Note the pattern here.

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“Tell me about it. Hey, two pair!”

Despite all that’s written about her, there’s not much we can say for sure about Calamity Jane. Sources agree that she was a woman who lived in the late 19th Century American West who dressed as a man, told stories and drank too much. That’s about it. The historical provenance of just about everything else is dubious at best.

Much like this fine period piece.

Yes, Jane was clearly a master storyteller. In her later years she appeared as herself in shows throughout the country, notably Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Despite often being destitute herself, Jane was also universally recognized for her generosity. While in Deadwood, at great risk to her own health Jane often cared for seriously ill adults and children.

Jane died in 1903 after years of whiskey and hard living finally caught up to her. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok per her request. Yet even in death Calamity Jane’s penchant for embellishment continued to make the rounds. In 1941 and again in 1996, people publicly claimed to be Calamity Jane’s long-lost daughter or granddaughter. However, to date no evidence has surfaced that Jane ever had children.

As for my acquaintance in Riverton, he claimed descent from one of Jane’s siblings. That’s much more plausible.

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