Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend

Calamity Jane: The Woman and the Legend

by James D. McLaird

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Forget Doris Day singing on the stagecoach. Forget Robin Weigert’s gritty portrayal on HBO’s Deadwood. The real Calamity Jane was someone the likes of whom you’ve never encountered. That is, until now.

This book is a definitive biography of Martha Canary, the woman popularly known as Calamity Jane. Written by one of today’s foremost


Forget Doris Day singing on the stagecoach. Forget Robin Weigert’s gritty portrayal on HBO’s Deadwood. The real Calamity Jane was someone the likes of whom you’ve never encountered. That is, until now.

This book is a definitive biography of Martha Canary, the woman popularly known as Calamity Jane. Written by one of today’s foremost authorities on this notorious character, it is a meticulously researched account of how an alcoholic prostitute was transformed into a Wild West heroine.

Always on the move across the northern plains, Martha was more camp follower than the scout of legend. A mother of two, she often found employment as waitress, laundress, or dance hall girl and was more likely to be wearing a dress than buckskin. But she was hard to ignore when she’d had a few drinks, and she exploited the aura of fame that dime novels created around her, even selling her autobiography and photos to tourists.

Gun toting, swearing, hard drinking—Calamity Jane was all of these, to be sure. But whatever her flaws or foibles, James D. McLaird paints a compelling portrait of an unconventional woman who more than once turned the tables on those who sought to condemn or patronize her. He also includes dozens of photos—many never before seen—depicting Jane in her many guises. His book is a long-awaited biography of Martha Canary and the last word on Calamity Jane.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A life labor of historian McLaird (history, emeritus, Dakota Wesleyan Univ.; Dakota Resources: A Reader's Guide to the Historical Literature of South Dakota), this book examines the larger-than-life legend of Martha "Calamity Jane" Canary (1856-1903) in meticulous detail while interweaving a thoroughly documented chronological narrative of her actual history. A superb review of the entire spectrum of Calamity Jane literature provides the basis for McLaird's look at how a Western pioneer woman became a notorious Western icon, vilified by some as an alcoholic prostitute while idolized by others as a strong frontier heroine. This much-needed and definitive critical biography now stands as the baseline for all future Calamity Jane research, being far more comprehensive than any previous studies, including John Leonard Jennewein's Calamity Jane of the Western Trails and Roberta Beed Sollid's Calamity Jane: A Study in Historical Criticism. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries with interests in the history and popular culture of the American West.-Nathan E. Bender, Buffalo Bill Historical Ctr., Cody, WY. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
The definitive biography of Martha Jane Canary.—L.A. Times

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Calamity Jane

The Woman and the Legend

By James D. McLaird


Copyright © 2005 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8313-8


Princeton, Missouri 1856–1864

Martha Canary, later known as Calamity Jane, was born in the vicinity of Princeton, Missouri, in 1856, perhaps on the first of May. That virtually every published account differs concerning these simple facts illustrates the confusion that exists about the life of this famous woman. Other dates and places of birth, and even different family names, are suggested. Various writers assert that she was born in 1844, 1847, 1851, 1852, or 1860, in Burlington, Iowa; La Salle, Illinois; Salt Lake City, Utah; or near Fort Laramie in Wyoming Territory; and that her name was Dalton, Somers, Coombs, or Conarray. Indeed, one of her acquaintances believed that the name Canary became attached to Calamity Jane solely because her singing resembled that of a mule, or Rocky Mountain canary.

Although Martha never concealed her identity, few of her contemporaries knew her by other than her nickname "Calamity Jane" prior to the appearance in 1896 of the Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane, By Herself. Several acquaintances, however, recorded her correct name and age prior to her autobiography's appearance. For example, newspaperman Thomas Newson, who interviewed her in the Black Hills in 1878, accurately identified her as Martha Canary, twenty-two years of age.

Martha herself is to blame for two common inaccuracies in later accounts about her, the date of her birth and the spelling of her name. In Life and Adventures she related, "My maiden name was Marthy Cannary, was born in Princeton, Missouri, May 1st, 1852." Concerning her family, she added, "Father and mother natives of Ohio. Had two brothers and three sisters, I being the oldest of the children." While generally correct (the May first birthdate will have to be accepted on faith), the year of her birth is demonstrably wrong. The census report of 1860 for Mercer County, Missouri, in addition to suggesting the correct spelling of her name, Martha Canary, clearly indicates that she was born in 1856, for she was four years old when the census was taken. The census lists her father, R. W. Canary, age thirty-five in 1860, a farmer from Ohio; her mother, Charlotte, age twenty; and Martha, the eldest child, with a brother Cilus, age three, and a sister, Lana, one year old.Charlotte would have been sixteen years old when Martha was born. Evidently, Martha's grandfather, James, seventy-two years of age, was living with the family, for his name appears next to theirs in the census. Biographers have failed to use this census to correct information in Martha's Life and Adventures, accepting her "facts" even while complaining that her autobiography is unreliable.

Why Martha related an incorrect date of birth in her 1896 autobiography is a matter of conjecture. Posing as older may have begun when she was orphaned at about age twelve in an attempt to prevent authorities from ending her independence, or perhaps she adjusted her chronology because she appeared older than she was. The autobiography's misdating may, of course, result from simple carelessness on her part or by a ghostwriter.

Residents of Princeton have long been aware of her origins in their vicinity. When Calamity Jane died in 1903, the Princeton Press carried her obituary: "The dispatches in the daily papers last week announcing her death were read with especial interest by Mercer county citizens," stated the paper, "a great many of whom remembered her father and mother and a number of whom remembered the woman herself when she was a girl here." The volume on Missouri in the American Guide Series asserts that Martha Canary is the "best known, perhaps, of early-day Princeton residents." Today, a sign along the highway entrance to the town announces the annual celebration of "Calamity Jane Days," a two-day sales promotion sponsored by local businessmen. Not only are there sales at "calamitous" prices, but the event has included a parade, barbeque, dance, trail ride, flea market, car show, black powder turkey shoot, and athletic contests. Excitement is added by the "Shoot-Out Gang," and a Calamity Jane Melodrama held in the Cow Palace allows the crowd to cheer heroes and boo villains. Reigning over the festivities is the winner of the "Miss Calamity Jane" contest (her escort is, of course, "Wild Bill Hickok"), and there is even a "Little Miss Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok" contest for three- and four-year-olds.

Nevertheless, contemporary Princeton displays only sporadic interest in its famous product. A few miles north of Princeton is the "Calamity Jane Roadside Park" developed in 1957, the town's "first attempt to claim fame as the birthplace of this famous woman of the early days." Nearly another decade passed before a sign marked the site of the farmhouse in which she was born. For several years thereafter, the local historical society published a historical paper coinciding with the celebration of "Calamity Jane Days." In 1991, a dramatic presentation based on her life titled "Calamity Jane's Return, Who Says You Can't Go Back Home," was added to the festivities. However, today a visitor has to ask for directions to find the historical marker at her birthplace outside Princeton. Calamity's controversial reputation may play a part in the town's general lack of interest. There has been some debate whether naming a local woman "Miss Calamity Jane" is appropriate, given Calamity's reputation.

Reminiscences by people in Princeton who remembered the Canary family were utilized by Duncan Aikman for his 1927 biography, Calamity Jane and the Lady Wildcats. A flamboyant writer more concerned with colorful narrative than careful documentation, Aikman nevertheless did considerable research. However, he erred frequently by accepting reminiscences collected sixty years after the events had occurred as established fact, and he embellished stories to fit his interpretation. Unfortunately, he failed to discover the census record listing Martha and, using the 1852 birthdate from her autobiography, invented stories of her childhood to conform with his assumption that she was twelve years old before her family left Princeton. For Aikman, Martha already was an "untutored rebel" whose creed was "to hell with the consequences." Allowed to roam as she wished by indulgent or inadequate parents, the tomboyish Martha learned all the "interesting, almost awe-inspiring secrets of country depravity." Aikman related a fictitious story of Martha successfully dodging corncobs thrown by local boys while she played in the woods like a young Amazon, cursing them with profanity usually reserved for adults. In contrast, Martha relates little about her childhood in her autobiography, recording only that she "had a fondness for horses," adventure, and "outdoor exercise."

Aikman mentioned in his biography that he had discovered documents proving the Canary family had resided in Princeton. Land records, he asserted, showed that Bob Canary purchased 180 acres of farmland for $500. When later scholars could not locate these records, Aikman's credibility was questioned. Another biographer, Roberta Beed Sollid, noted that "if deeds for this property ever did exist, they are not on hand at the present," adding that Aikman "from a few recollections of old-timers spun an elaborate tale" about Martha and her family.

The land records do exist, however, and with the 1860 census data and recently discovered probate court records dating from the death of Martha's grandfather, James, considerable documentation of the Canary family's residence in Princeton is available, reawakening interest in the reminiscences utilized by Aikman. The land records from the Office of the Recorder of Deeds for Mercer County suggest the Canary family probably arrived in 1856, for on April 28 that year, Hiram Overstreet sold 320 acres for $1,775 to James Canary, Martha's grandfather. If the family arrived in Missouri near the date when this land was purchased, Charlotte would have been pregnant during their trip to Missouri, and Martha would have been born only two days after Robert's father acquired his land.

Shortly after he purchased his land, James sold 40 acres to Robert Southers (Sowders?) for $50 on November 19, 1856, and another 100 acres for $400 to James Kilgore on October 8, 1859. Southers and Kilgore were sons-in-law, married to Robert's sisters, Lanny and Mary. Evidently divesting himself of his land holdings, James on October 8, 1859, sold the remaining 180 acres of the land he purchased in 1856 for $500 to Robert and Charlotte Canary, Martha's parents. Having sold his land to his children for considerably less than he paid for it, James evidently retired and lived with Robert and Charlotte.

Martha's grandfather died a few years later. The probate court records for James Canary, dated June 30, 1862, list James' nine children who were heirs to his estate: Joseph and wife Sarah, with several children, residing in Washington County, Ohio; Joshua, residence unknown; Levina, married to William N. Jones, Wheeling, Virginia; Abner and wife, Harriet Busly, with several children, living near Parkersburgh, Virginia; Lanny, married to James Kilgore, a carpenter from Ohio, Mercer County, Missouri; James Thornton and family, Mercer County, Missouri; Rachel Ann, married to Joseph Hague, living near McConnellsville, Ohio; Mary, married to Robert Southers, Mercer County, Missouri; and Robert Willson.

These records show that, in addition to Robert and his father James, three of Robert's siblings resided in Mercer County. His sister Lana, age forty-one in 1860, and her husband James Kilgore, forty-seven, lived near Robert's family in Ravenna Township. Mary, thirty-six, married to Robert Southers, forty, also resided nearby with their two children, Loretta, nine; and Sorina, three. Living in Medicine Township was Robert's brother, James Thornton, referred to simply as Thornton perhaps to eliminate confusion with his father. Thornton filed on land from the government on May 3, 1858, indicating he may have arrived in Missouri later than the others. The 1860 census indicates Thornton was forty, a farmer, and married to thirty-seven-year-old Delila. Eight children are listed, including daughters Victoria, fifteen; Tabitha, fourteen; E. J., twelve; Candis, five; and S. V., two; and sons, W. E., eleven; J. M., seven; and G. W., five months. The Thornton Canary family evidently resided in the Princeton area long after Calamity became a national celebrity, finally selling their land on January 18, 1882, and moving to Midvale, Idaho. The Southers and Kilgore families evidently remained in Missouri.

Prior to their migration to Missouri in the 1850s, the Canary families were listed regularly in Ohio census reports. The 1850 census from Malaga Township, Monroe County, Ohio, lists James Canary, age sixty-two. With him lived his wife, Sarah, fifty-six, as well as Joshua, thirty-six, and Robert, twenty-five, these sons evidently single and living at home. Residing nearby was Thornton Canary, age thirty, with his wife Delilah, age twenty-seven, and four children. James Kilgore and Lanny were listed in the census immediately after the Thornton Canary family. Clearly these families were neighbors in Ohio and probably remained in close proximity during their westward migration.

Further back in time, records provide less information, but the 1820, 1830, and 1840 censuses all report James Canary living in Malaga Township, Monroe County, Ohio. The township was organized in 1820, when James Canary was first reported there by the census. Other Canary families resided throughout Ohio, some perhaps brothers and cousins of James. These census records indicate the Canary family had been long-time residents of Ohio before their trek to Missouri. Their location prior to 1820 is uncertain, but James Canary's place of origin in the 1850 census, indistinctly written, appears to be Virginia, where he would have been born in 1788. The 1830 census indicates a man between seventy and eighty years of age living with James, perhaps his father. No other contemporary records of the family from Malaga Township have yet been located.

Monroe County, Ohio, was remote and predominantly rural. In 1840, during the Canary family's residence there, the county's population was 18,544, and Malaga Township, situated in the northwest portion, had but 1,443 residents. The county seat, Woodsfield, had 262 inhabitants, causing visitor Henry Howe to conclude that it was "much out of the world." In fact, Howe thought the "entire county was quite primitive." Its residents mostly lived in cabins, which had the blessing of "saving many the worry of having so much to look after." Although the county was "away from all travel, except on the river fringe," according to Woodsfield resident Daniel Wire, its people were "generous, warmhearted and benevolent." Monroe County was called "Dark Monroe" by Whigs, said Howe, because of its "stunning Democratic majorities." Indeed, said Wire, its people were so devoutly democratic that they allowed for "no distinction in society, no aristocratic lines drawn between the upper and lower classes." From this distinctly rural and egalitarian region, the Canarys moved to an area in Missouri similarly remote from population centers.

The Canary families' migration from Ohio to Missouri in the 1850s made them typical rather than exceptional. Because there are no extant diaries or reminiscences by the Canarys, the motivation for their move from Ohio cannot be determined, but during this period there was a great population upheaval from the Old Northwest. Like others, they probably moved to improve their livelihood, enticed by stories of better and cheaper land in the West. Perhaps the death of James's wife, Sarah, added to their willingness to depart. Persistent rumors that the Canarys stopped in Iowa before settling in Missouri evidently are true. One of Thornton's children was born in Iowa, suggesting he lived there for a while. Census records also indicate James and Lanny Kilgore resided in Polk County, Iowa, between 1852 and 1856. More importantly, a June 14, 1855, Polk County marriage record for Robert W. Canary and Charlotte M. Burge was recently discovered. According to the 1850 census, the Burge family had lived in Iowa for some time. Henry and Elizabeth Burge, ages fifty-four and fifty-three, originally were from Pennsylvania, and had six children: Gideon, nineteen; Benjamin, seventeen; Andrew, fifteen; Harriet, thirteen; Charlotte, ten; and Elizabeth, eight. Although the eldest four children were born in Ohio, Charlotte was born in Illinois and Elizabeth in Iowa, suggesting the Burge family's progressive migration across the country. Evidently, Charlotte and Robert met during the Canarys' brief sojourn in Iowa and were married when Charlotte was fifteen or sixteen years of age.

James Canary, accompanied by several of his children, left Iowa at least by 1856, arriving in nearby Missouri during Mercer County's early settlement period. Mercer County lies along the northern border of Missouri, about midpoint from east to west. No major river is located in the county, but there are numerous valleys with small creeks bounded, now as then, by elm, oak, hickory, ash, and beech trees that provide building material and fuel, while ridges between the streams provide prairie farmland. Besides raising livestock, early farmers grew corn, oats, wheat, and hay, and occasionally tobacco, potatoes, and sorghum for molasses. Although the first settlers arrived in Mercer County in 1837, the county's remote location caused it to be peopled somewhat slowly. Local histories suggest the slavery issue played a part in this: northern migrants preferred non-slave Iowa, while southern landseekers tended to avoid northern Missouri because of its proximity to a free state. Perhaps it was to the liking of the Canarys because, like Monroe County in Ohio, Mercer County was comfortably rural. Mercer County's population was only 2,691 in 1850, and Princeton, the county seat, was not incorporated until 1853. The county's population grew to 9,300 by 1860. Ravenna Township, where James Canary located, was among the last to be populated; it was primarily prairie, and most settlers preferred timbered areas.

A local resident, J. E. Fuller, recalled that Robert and his young wife, Charlotte, initially lived in a small store building near the current location of the Mercer County courthouse where, some believe, Martha may have been born. No birth records were kept at that time, and reminiscences cannot be used to establish precisely Martha's birthplace. The comment in a local newspaper that "the Canary family moved several times during the years they spent in Mercer County, and that fact has given rise to disagreements as to where they lived," is an appropriate conclusion. That there were several Canary families may have furthered confusion. It is possible that the young family lived in town as James finalized his land purchase, but the historical marker commemorating Martha's birth is located about five miles east of Princeton at the farm later belonging to Joseph T. Pickett; this was the land purchased by Robert from his father in 1859.


Excerpted from Calamity Jane by James D. McLaird. Copyright © 2005 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

James D. McLaird is Professor Emeritus of History, Dakota Wesleyan University, Mitchell, South Dakota. He is the author of numerous articles on western history and myth-making, focusing especially on South Dakota and the Black Hills.

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