Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Martha "Calamity Jane" Canary ~ Rowdy Woman of the West

Martha Jane Canary was born May 1, 1852 in Princeton, Mercer Co., MO to Robert Wilson Canary and Charlotte M. Burge. She was the oldest of 6 children, having two brothers and three sisters.

Robert packed his family and moved by wagon train from Missouri to Virginia City, MN in 1865. Charlotte died along the way in Black Foot, MN in 1866 of "washtub pneumonia". In the spring of that year, Robert took his six children on to Utah, arriving in Salt Lake City in the summer. They were there a year before he died in 1867. At the tender age of 15, Martha Jane took over as head of the family, loaded up the wagon once more, and took her siblings to Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory. They arrived in May of 1868. From there they traveled to Piedmont, WY on the Union Pacific Railroad.

In Piedmont, Martha Jane took whatever jobs she could to provide for her large family. She worked as a dishwasher, a cook, a waitress, a dance-hall girl, a nurse and an ox team driver. Finally, in 1870, she found work as a scout at Fort Russell. Although she had great friends and very positive opinions of the proper things that a girl could enjoy, she soon gained a local notariety for her daring horsemanship and skill as a rifle shot.

Most people thought of her as a hard-drinking woman with a preference for men's clothing. She spoke and behaved bawdily, chewed tobacco and was handy with a gun. During her life she was an army scout, a bullwhacker, a nurse, a cook, a prostitute, a prospector, a gambler, a heavy drinker and one of the most foul-mouthed people in the West.

She earned her nickname in 1872 in a peculiar way. Back then, she was at Goose Creek Camp, SD where Captain Egan and a small body of men were stationed. The Indians were giving a lot of trouble, and there was much fighting. One day Captain Egan was surrounded by a large band. They were fighting desperately for their lives, but were being steadily, but surely slaughtered. Captain Egan was wounded and had fallen off his horse.

In the midst of the fighting, she rode into the very center of the trouble, dismounted, lifted the captain in front of her on her saddle, and dashed out. They got through untouched, but every other man in the gallant company was slaughtered. When he recovered, Captain Egan laughingly spoke of her as Calamity Jane and the name has clung to her ever since.

Before she turned 20, General Cook appointed her as an army scout under Buffalo Bill. In June 1876, she partnered with Wild Bill Hickok as an outrider for Colorado Charlie Utter's wagon train, galloping into Deadwood with a shipment of prostitutes, fresh from Cheyenne.

She had unlimited nerve and entered into the work with enthusiasm, doing good service on a number of occasions. Though she never did a man's share of the heavy work, she went places where old frontiersmen were unwilling to to themselves. Her courage and good fellowship made her popular with every man in the command.

Wild Bill Hickok
That same year, by a daring feat, she also saved the lives of six passengers on a stage coach traveling from Deadwood to Wild Birch, in the Black Hills country. The stage was surrounded by Indians, and the driver, Jack McCall, was wounded by an arrow. Although the other six passengers were men, not one of them had nerve enough to take the reins. Seeing the situation, she mounted the driver's seat without a moment's hesitation and brought the stage safely and in good time to Wild Birch.

The citizens of Deadwood dubbed her the White Devil of the Yellowstone and Saint because she helped nurse the sick during a smallpox plague.

For the remainder of her days, Calamity Jane claimed to have been Wild Bill Hickock’s lover. But his letters home from Deadwood indicate that he was happily wedded. She died on January 8, 1903 and is buried next to Bill Hickcock in Deadwood, SD.

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