The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane

The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane

by Richard W. Etulain


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The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane by Richard W. Etulain

Everyone knows the name Calamity Jane. Scores of dime novels and movie and TV Westerns have portrayed this original Wild West woman as an adventuresome, gun-toting hellion. Although Calamity Jane has probably been written about more than any other woman of the nineteenth-century American West, fiction and legend have largely obscured the facts of her life. This lively, concise, and exhaustively researched biography traces the real person from the Missouri farm where she was born in 1856 through the development of her notorious persona as a Wild West heroine.

Before Calamity Jane became a legend, she was Martha Canary, orphaned when she was only eleven years old. From a young age she traveled fearlessly, worked with men, smoked, chewed tobacco, and drank. By the time she arrived in the boomtown of Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876, she had become Calamity Jane, and the real Martha Canary had disappeared under a landslide of purple prose.

Calamity became a hostess and dancer in Deadwood’s saloons and theaters. She imbibed heavily, and she might have been a prostitute, but she had other qualities, as well, including those of an angel of mercy who ministered to the sick and the down-and-out. Journalists and dime novelists couldn’t get enough of either version, nor, in the following century, could filmmakers.

Sorting through the stories, veteran western historian Richard W. Etulain’s account begins with a biography that offers new information on Calamity’s several “husbands” (including one she legally married), her two children, and a woman who claimed to be the daughter of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity, a story Etulain discredits. In the second half of the book, Etulain traces the stories that have shaped Calamity Jane’s reputation. Some Calamity portraits, he says, suggest that she aspired to a quiet life with a husband and family. As the 2004–2006 HBO series Deadwood makes clear, well more than a century after her first appearance as a heroine in the Deadwood Dick dime novels, Calamity Jane lives on—raunchy, unabashed, contradictory, and ambiguous as ever.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806146324
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 09/25/2014
Series: The Oklahoma Western Biographies , #29
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

Richard W. Etulain is Professor Emeritus of History and former director of the Center for the American West at the University of New Mexico. Former editor of the New Mexico Historical Review, he is the author or editor of more than 50 books, including Beyond the Missouri: The Story of the American West, Telling Western Stories: From Buffalo Bill to Larry McMurtry, and The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane.

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The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane

By Richard W. Etulain


Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4786-4


Foundations, Stable and Broken

In early July of 1876 several riders rode slowly into the new boomtown of Deadwood, Dakota Territory. Most of the group of miners, gamblers, and expectant entrepreneurs had begun their adventuresome trip in late June in eastern Wyoming. Stopping off near Fort Laramie, the riders had taken in new members and then continued traveling north toward the new mineral rush in the Black Hills. It would be a trip of destiny for two of the riders: Old West notables Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

By early 1876, Hickok had already captured the imagination of many Americans. The starting point of Hickok's journey to stardom began with his appearance in a sensational and overblown article by George Ward Nichols in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (February 1867) lionizing Wild Bill as a demigod of the West. In the next decade Hickok became the best-known lawman and gunman of the Wild West, his reputation growing in a series of controversial events. He had recently married circus owner Agnes Lake and was headed to Deadwood, where he hoped to strike a rich lode of new income.

For Calamity Jane, most of her hyped reputation was still to come but barely beyond the horizon. Just twenty years old in summer 1876, she had been transformed in reputation in 1875 and early 1876 from a Missouri farmer's daughter named Martha Canary into a young woman without moorings, rumored to drink with abandon and cohabit with men. While Martha Canary was disappearing into the past, the controversial Calamity Jane was bouncing onstage.

When Hickok's riders took in Calamity near Fort Laramie about 1 July 1876, Wild Bill and Calamity met for the first time. They were not previously acquainted and did not become lovers, but from 1876 on, their names were conjoined in story and mythology. Indeed, when Calamity sauntered down the main street of Deadwood with Wild Bill, the ride was a coming-out party for her. After those early days in Deadwood, her life took off in new directions.

In the decade and a half after that memorable summer in Deadwood, Calamity became as well known as any woman in the frontier American West. The notoriety was decidedly melodramatic and sometimes lurid. She was frequently dubbed a "hellcat in red britches," a Lady Wildcat, and a female terror of the plains, becoming a favorite subject for journalistic hyperbole. But behind this adventuresome, gun-toting hellion was another person: Martha Canary, a young woman adrift in a pioneer man's world, without home, family, or occupation. When Martha was transformed into Calamity Jane in the pivotal years of 1875–78, her less dramatic side disappeared under a landside of purple prose. The young pioneer woman of the frontier lost out to the Wild Woman of the Old West. But behind the mythological figure of popular attire stands another woman who needs her story told.

Unfortunately, more than a century after Calamity's death, too much of her life remains uncovered. Since Calamity was illiterate, there are no signed records—not even a signature. But there are truckloads of lively stories ensuing from Calamity's wildness: Calamity came to town, went on a toot, and is currently in the cooler. The paucity of solid facts and the plethora of stylized stories forces Calamity's biographers to sort through thousands of bits and fragments to stitch together a story, much of it at odds with many of her previous life stories.

The story of Martha's ancestors remains short and blurry, but it can be traced to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The first of the Canary family known to history is her paternal grandfather, James Canary, who was born in Virginia in 1788. Only vague rumors of French Huguenot and Irish heritage exist before Grandpa James. Reared in the western section of Virginia that in 1863, during the Civil War, hived off into a separate state, West Virginia, James may have served in the War of 1812 and received a military land grant in the West as a veteran's benefit. By 1820, as the U.S. census reveals, James was living in eastern Ohio and now married (perhaps in 1812 or 1813) to the former Sarah Wilson (Willson), who was born about 1794 in North Carolina. When the census taker arrived in 1820 at the Canary household, he encountered a rapidly expanding family of four sons and four daughters, which by 1825 had increased by one boy. The last of these children was Robert Wilson (or Willson) Canary, born in 1825, and the father-to-be of Martha Canary, Calamity Jane. All the children of James and Sarah Canary were born in Ohio between 1813 and 1825.

James Canary was a lifetime farmer. Four consecutive census reports—1820, 1830, 1840, 1850—disclose the Canary family residing in Monroe County, Ohio, a rural and agricultural region just west of the Virginia/West Virginia border. As adults, several of James's children farmed near him and Sarah. Over time, through his diligence and careful purchases and exchanges, James gained valuable landholdings.

Out of the scattered and miniscule records, a few distinguishable patterns emerge about James and Sarah Canary. They remained thirty years in Marion County in Ohio and advanced economically as a farm family. Several of the Canary children chose to remain near their parents even after they had established their own families. The census of 1830 indicated that an older man lived with James and Sarah, perhaps his own father, said to be another James or the father of Sarah. The census of 1850 also revealed that the Canarys now owned acreage estimated to be worth $2,500.

Then quick, dramatic changes transformed the lives of the Canary family. In the early 1850s, Grandpa James and Sarah began to sell off their land. In 1851 and 1852, three parcels were sold for $1,000, $700, and $900, for a total of $2,600. These unexpected actions engender questions. Why the quick sale of land after the long, diligent acquisition of these farmlands? Had incoming populations sealed off the possibility of land purchases for James's offspring or escalated prices beyond their reach, making it impossible to launch their own farming careers? Were the sons and married daughters urging their parents to move west so that the young families could all purchase land and ensure their futures?

No clear answers are forthcoming, but the chronology of the Canary family's move west can be partially traced. By 1852, James had sold all his land in eastern Ohio and was on his way west—with several of his children coming with him and Sarah. Soon after 1852, daughter Lana and her husband James Kilgore were in Iowa in Polk County, just north of Des Moines. Son James Thornton Canary also came to the same county in the mid-1850s. Most important for this story, the youngest Canary son, Robert, now thirty years of age, arrived in Iowa in the mid-1850s and married Charlotte Burge on 14 June 1855 in Polk County. She was fifteen, and her family had resided for some time in the area. Their residence there and the marriage license of June 1855 counter a decidedly negative rumor by a Canary family in-law that Robert "had been bedazzled by Charlotte's beauty in her early teens when he had found her in an Ohio bawdy house. On the spot he had married her to reform her." Nearly one year after the marriage, perhaps on 1 May 1856, Robert and Charlotte, now in Missouri, became the parents of their first child, a girl they named Martha.

Why the Canary stopover in Iowa? Had the Canary families hoped to find less expensive land there? Whatever the correct answer, very soon after arriving in Iowa, the Canarys were again on the move. This time they traveled south, just across the border into northern Missouri. James came too, and he may have come as a widower. Although his wife, Sarah, is listed in the census of 1850, she is missing from the enumeration ten years later. Eventually, daughters Lana and Mary and their husbands, along with James Thornton and Robert Wilson and their wives, arrived in Missouri, but evidence is strong that all were in Iowa—even if for a couple of years or even a few months in the mid-1850s. Whatever the reasons of push and pull factors, the stay in Iowa was brief. By 1852 James had sold all his land in Ohio, and four years later he was in Mercer County, Missouri, buying new parcels of land. For Grandpa James, and most of his children moving to Missouri, this would be the last stop in their journey west.

The Canary family and other families migrating west followed a familiar pattern. As agricultural areas east of the Mississippi filled up with newcomers, expanding families looked farther toward the prairies, plains, and beyond for more and less expensive lands. They wanted to find fertile lands for sons and sons-in-law who were looking for land of their own on which to establish families. Without saying so, Grandpa James seemed pulled west by these motivations.

When the Canary families entered Mercer County in the mid-to-late 1850s, they came to one of the last areas of Missouri to fill up with white settlers. Much like most other pioneers, the Canarys were tillers of the soil, looking for fresh opportunities in newly opened territories. They found in northern Missouri what they wanted, tillable land at modest prices. For two of James's married daughters, Mary and her husband Robert Southers and Lana and husband James Kilgore, and for his son James Thornton, Missouri would be their final homes, or at least their domiciles for twenty-five years and more. Only for Robert and Charlotte Canary, the parents of Martha, would the stay be shorter and far less satisfying.

Mercer County and Princeton, its county seat, were barely more than a generation out of Indian control. Even though Missouri had become a state in August 1821 as a result of the famed Missouri Compromise, northern parts of the new state attracted far fewer settlers than lands along the eastern border near the Mississippi River and areas adjacent to the Missouri running diagonally across the state. Most of Mercer County lay in a land belt better for grasses, grazing, and small farms; it was clearly a much less fertile area than the richer farmlands to the north in Iowa.

In the late 1830s and early 1840s, the first groups of white immigrants came to Mercer County and the Princeton area. In 1845 Mercer was organized as a new county, carved out of Grundy County and named for the Revolutionary War general John F. Mercer. Approximately twenty-one miles square, the new county was marked by rolling hills, a few large water courses, isolation from other settlements, and distance from markets. Princeton, laid out in 1846 and incorporated in 1853, became the county seat, ideally located halfway between northern and southern boundaries and nearly so between eastern and western borders.

A land boom in the 1850s transformed the new, isolated county. The 1850 county population of 2,691 boomed to 9,300 ten years later. As the Canary families arrived in the mid-1850s, nearly all the available land was filling up with a fresh crop of incoming settlers. The Kansas-Nebraska controversies to the north, the disappearance of government lands in Iowa, and the "favorable conditions" in northern Missouri worked as molding push-and-pull forces. The newcomers spilled into the prairie lands that earlier immigrants had passed over as less fertile and productive. One of those areas a half-dozen miles east of Princeton became the Ravanna district, organized in 1857. To this area the Canary family came just as the floodtide of settlers washed over Mercer County. As one new immigrant of the time recalled later, when he came in 1856 "there were few houses on the prairie from the Iowa line to the southern part of the Medicine" township (the southwestern corner of Mercer County), but in the next year "there was a complete revolution." And, he added, "the immigrant from Ohio and Illinois was made welcome and given help to get his start." James Canary and the other Canary families fit that description.

Details in the U.S. Census of 1860 and local histories provide a capsule portrait of the area to which Grandpa James, Robert and Charlotte, and the other Canary households had moved. Among the 9,300 residents of Mercer County (another source lists 9,225) were 9,274 whites and 2 free blacks. Only 24 slaves resided in the county. The white population consisted of 4,831 males and 4,443 females. Surprisingly, the county seat of Princeton, with only 249 inhabitants, was the smallest of the county's ten largest townships.

The first appearance of the Canary family was in the Mercer County land records. On 28 April 1856, Grandpa James purchased 320 acres, paying $1,775 cash for the parcel of land. The price he paid—$5 or $6 per acre—for less-than-prime land suggests how much prices had escalated while newcomers were moving into the Mercer County area. Many in the previous generation in Missouri were able to purchase government land for $1–3 per acre. Still, the price James paid in Missouri was but half the amount, per acre, he had received when he sold his Ohio parcels four or five years earlier.

Then, quickly, James revealed his commitment to family by reselling his land to his children at greatly reduced prices. A few months after he purchased his half-section, he sold 40 acres to his son-in-law Robert Southers. Three years later, James sold an additional 100 acres to another sonin-law, James Kilgore. On the same day, 8 October 1859, he sold the remaining 180 acres of his original purchase to his son Robert for $500. (A second son, James Thornton, already owned his own land, which his father had helped him purchase.) In all, Martha's grandfather had parceled out 320 acres to his three children for $800, or less than half what he had paid for it in 1856. Perhaps declining health warned him he must sell, for he died less than three years later.

The census of 1860 also furnishes the first specific information about all members of Robert and Charlotte's family. These census records, a few other obscure notices, and vague reminiscences gathered more than a half century later tell us what we know of Martha Canary's first years in Missouri. When the census taker visited the log cabin farmhouse of Martha's family in Ravanna Township, he recorded the names and basic information about six inhabitants.

Martha's father Robert was thirty-five and married to twenty-year-old Charlotte. Three children were listed: M[artha], born in 1856; Cilas [Silas?], born in 1857; and Lana [or Lena], a year old. Robert was born in Ohio, Charlotte in Illinois, but all three children in Missouri. (Calamity Jane later wrote there were six children in all, but only Elijah [birth date uncertain] of those not listed in the 1860 census seems to have survived.) A farmer owning 180 acres of land worth $1,500 (he had bought this acreage the year before from his father for $500) and other personal property valued at $400, Robert could read and write, suggesting some earlier schooling. But his father James, his wife Charlotte, and his two sisters in the Princeton area were illiterate. Grandpa James may have lived with Robert and Charlotte; at least his name appears immediately after their family. James is also listed as being without property or personal wealth—a puzzling listing, as we shall see, because controversies over James's possessions, including some cash, would badly divide the Canary families in Mercer County two years later, leading to strong exchanges in court.

Martha's parents resided only six or seven years in Princeton before leaving in 1862 or 1863, but they and their family indelibly impressed themselves on the minds of their neighbors. Newspaper stories and remembrances forty to sixty years later recalled the Canarys. When Calamity died in 1903, a story in the Princeton Post noted that the news attracted "special interest by Mercer county citizens, 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." Some recalled that Robert and Charlotte—and perhaps James too—first lived in rundown buildings in the center of Princeton before moving to a farm a half-dozen miles to the east in what became the Collings neighborhood in the Ravanna Township. In these distant recollections, Robert was remembered as a rather nondescript and unenthusiastic farm worker. Most often, residents of Princeton recalled his lackadaisical attitudes, his lack of drive as an agriculturist, and his inability to control his lively, controversial wife.

It was Charlotte who remained fresh in the neighbors' minds. More memories about her surfaced than about all the other Canary family members together. Time and again Charlotte bruised the social expectations of neighborhood wives. Her brightly colored and eye-catching clothing, her cigar smoking, her public swearing, and her drinking (sometimes to drunkenness) negatively marked a woman when mothers were supposed to be more innocent.


Excerpted from The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane by Richard W. Etulain. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations viii

Series Editor's Preface xi

Preface xiii

1 Foundations, Stable and Broken 3

2 tFinding Her Way 26

3 Negotiating Deadwood 52

4 Overnight Fame: A Dime Novel Heroine 78

5 On the Road Again 115

6 The Decline of a Life 149

7 Imagining Calamity: Launching a Legendary Heroine, 1903?1930 200

8 The Search for a Coherent Calamity, 1930?1960 233

9 A New Gray Calamity, 1960?1990 272

10 A Complex Calamity, 1990?Present 302

Conclusion: Pondering a Life and Legends 339

Essay on Sources 345

Bibliography 357

Index 373

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The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane 3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
tjohn33791 More than 1 year ago
Less about the life and more to do with the legend.
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