The Truth About Calamity Jane

She cast a long shadow in American folklore. Which of the stories are true, and which are fiction?

by posted on June 24, 2021
Calamity Jane

The year was 1872, and 20-year-old scout Martha Jane Cannary was riding ahead of Captain Egan and the troops as they headed back to the fort at Goose Creek, Wyoming.

Cra-a-a-ck!

Martha Jane’s horse whinnied at the sound of the shot.

Cra-a-a-ck! Cra-a-a-ck!

Martha Jane whirled around in time to see Captain Egan take a hit. He jerked backward in the saddle, slumped and slowly slid from his mount.

By now the attacking American Indians were swooping down from the hills, firing as they charged. The soldiers were caught off-guard, but Martha Jane didn’t hesitate. Riding low on her mount, she dashed back into the fray. Quickly she placed the unconscious Captain Egan on the saddle in front of her. Spurring her horse onward, she dodged bullets as she galloped for the safety of the fort, nearly 2 miles away.

A few days later, Martha went to visit a recovering Captain Egan. As she entered the room, Egan looked up, smiling. “Here she comes: Calamity Jane, heroine of the plains.”

And that’s how Calamity Jane got her name. Or is it? You see, there are several versions floating around. The one you just read was Calamity Jane’s. Others claimed she got her nickname because she was accident-prone. Still others said she came by it because she stirred up trouble wherever she went. The fact of the matter is, nobody knows for sure.

Calamity’s adventures started early in life. At the age of 15, she joined General Custer as a scout and moved to Arizona. That is Calamity’s version, at any rate. Another story has it that she actually joined General George Cook in Wyoming. In any case, she was a scout with the Army and, about this time, she started dressing as a man. Her remarkable shooting and riding skills, which she had picked up from her wagon train days, would come in handy in her life on the frontier.

Captain Egan wasn’t the only one saved by Calamity Jane’s quick thinking and kind heart. By 1876, the 24-year-old Calamity was out of the Army and living in Deadwood, S.D. There she worked as pony express rider.

On one of her mail runs, she came upon a stagecoach being chased by American Indians. The driver was dead, and the six male passengers remained frozen in their seats as the panicked horses raced for the safety of their distant stable. Calamity hastily pulled her own mount alongside the madly bouncing stagecoach, boarded and took the reins. It was a daring thing to do, but she managed to get the stage to its destination safely.

In 1878 Deadwood was hit with a smallpox epidemic, and eight men were quarantined in a small mountain shack. Calamity—that rough-talking, rough-dressing, foul-mouthed, crack shot of a woman—volunteered to take care of them. She managed to nurse five men back to health as well as others that would sicken later. But her style was pure Jane as she cursed them into getting better and recited a child’s prayer, “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep,” over those who didn’t.

In later years Calamity Jane would tour with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and shoot with the Pan American Exposition. She died in 1903 at the age of 51 and is buried next to her friend Wild Bill Hickok on a hill overlooking the town of Deadwood.

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