Martha Cannary Burke 1852 - 1903


Martha Cannary Burke also know as Calamity Jane was a frontierswoman, a show woman and a teller of tall stories and adventurous yarns, some true, some not so true.

But she was a woman who was making it big in the mans world of the rough and tough Wild West.

Not much is really known of her childhood or early teenage years except that she was born Martha Jane Cannary sometime around 1852 in Mercer County, Princeton, Missouri, where she was the eldest of two brothers and three sisters. 

Her parents Robert W. and Charlotte Cannary moved to Virginia City, Montana in 1865-66 where her mother died along the way of "washtub" Pneumonia.

In the spring of 1866 her father took them all to Salt Lake City, Utah and apparently started a farm on forty acres of land.  But a year later he became ill and died and Jane, being the eldest at seventeen years old took over as the head of the family and they all packed up to go to Fort Bridger in Wyoming Territory.

It was from there they travelled on the Union Pacific Railroad to Peidmont, Wyoming.



Calamity Jane later wrote in her autobiography..

"In 1865 we emigrated from our homes in Missouri by the overland route to Virginia City, Montana, taking five months to make the journey. While on the way, the greater portion of my time was spent in hunting along with the men and hunters of the party, in fact, I was at all times with the men when there was excitement and adventures to be had. By the time we reached Virginia City, I was considered a remarkably good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age.

I remember many occurrences on the journey from Missouri to Montana. Many times in crossing the mountains, the conditions of the trail were so bad that we frequently had to lower the wagons over ledges by hand with ropes, for they were so rough and rugged that horses were of no use.

We also had many exciting times fording streams, for many of the streams in our way were noted for quicksand and boggy places, where, unless we were very careful, we would have lost horses and all.
Then we had many dangers to encounter in the way of streams swelling on account of heavy rains.

On occasions of that kind, the men would usually select the best places to cross the streams; myself, on more than one occasion, have mounted my pony and swam across the stream several times merely to amuse myself, and have had many narrow escapes from having both myself and pony washed away to certain death, but, as the pioneers of those days had plenty of courage, we overcame all obstacles and reached Virginia City in safety.

Mother died at Black Foot, Montana, 1866, where we buried her. I left Montana in Spring of 1866, for Utah, arriving at Salt Lake City during the summer."

Jane initially took whatever jobs were available including a cook, dishwasher, rail road worker, nurse and even being the head of an ox ploughing team. She lived in mining camps  and became known as a sharpshooter and horsewoman.

It was in 1874 that she finally found a job that she liked and that was as a scout for the soldiers at Fort Russell.



In 1875 when she was twenty-three years old she rode the pony express for the U.S. Cavalry under General George Crook which carried mail between Custer, Montana and Deadwood, South Dakota.

Once she was ordered to carry dispatches to the Big Horn River, and whilst carrying these important dispatches, she swam the Platte River and quickly travelled over ninety  miles of rough terrain while still wet and cold to  deliver them.

As a result,  she became ill with pneumonia, but as she was a strong willed woman she managed to recuperate in just a few short weeks.

She also joined an  expedition into the Black Hills of Dakota, the expedition was led by General George Crook against the Sioux and Northern Cheyenne. She was the only woman among one thousand three hundred men.



She had gained a big reputation amongst all who knew her and even those that didn't for chewing tobacco, spitting, drinking and smoking like the rest and the best of them.

She was not conventional  and dressed in men's clothing  and claimed that she was equal to any man.

She often stated that if any man offended her that they would be courting calamity  and hence acquired her name of Calamity Jane. She was as tough as any man if not more and often and got quite drunk and used to pull out a six gun and start shooting up the saloon.

This act more often than not got her packed out of the town by the locals and the sheriff.



She later rode to Fort Laramie, Wyoming, where she later  joined a wagon train headed north and this is where she  first met the famous frontiersman and later lawman James Wild Bill Hickok, this is contrary to her later claims of meeting up with him earlier.

Jane greatly admired Wild Bill and became infatuated with him and was deeply obsessed with the mans personality and his life.  So much so that she later claimed to have married him and that she also had a child by him.

This was after Hickok was murdered by being shot in the back of the head by a coward named Jack McCall during a poker game on August 2nd, 1876.

 Jane said that their child 'Jane' of whom she later put up for adoption by a Mr. Jim O'Neil and his wife, was born on September 25th, 1873.

No records have yet been found to exist which prove the birth of this child, and it is thought that Jane fabricated the whole story.

During the period that the alleged child was born, she was actually working as a scout for the Army as stated earlier. Further evidence against her story is that at the time of his death, Hickok had just married  Agnes Lake Thatcher, formerly of Cheyenne, Wyoming.



In 1876 Jane settled in the Black Hills area of Deadwood, South Dakota and claimed that upon hearing about Hickok's death, she went after Jack McCall, but as she was so upset and wasn't thinking right, she accidentally left her guns behind and carried a meat clever instead.

She never actually managed to confront McCall, who was eventually found guilty hanged for the murder anyway.

Jane continued living in the Deadwood area for some time, and a story that was actually verified was that  she once helped save several passengers of an overland stagecoach express by shooting at several  Indians who were pursuing the stage.

John Slaughter who was the stage coach driver, was killed during the pursuit and Jane took over the reins and drove the stage safely on to its destination at Deadwood.

It was also documented that in late 1876, Jane nursed the majority of victims of a smallpox epidemic that struck in the Deadwood area.



Later on in life Jane toured with Buffalo Bills Wild West Show as a sharpshooter.  this is wear she probably gained her status, just like a celebrity would today if appearing in a movie or theater production.

In 1891 aged 39 she married a man by the name of Clinton Burke.   Calamity Jane was an alcoholic which led to her ruin and in later life she was reduced to working part time in side shows,  She also sold her memoirs for extra much needed cash. 

In her last years she toured the west in a burlesque show and appeared at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York.  She finally travelled back to Deadwood where she died at the age of fifty-one in poverty and relative obscurity in 1903. Below is a photo taken in 1885 when she was 33 years old



The photo below was taken several years later and show her in a kitchen.



Calamity Jane lived every day to the full, she was an adventurer and told great stories.  Often some of her stories remain a little questionable, some of her associations with the west's more famous and notable characters cannot always be verified.

After the death of General George Armstrong Custer in the Battle of Little Big Horn, June, 25th 1876, Jane claimed that she served under him during her enlistment at Fort Russell and during the Indian campaigns in Arizona.

Below is the last photo of Calamity Jane at the grave-site of Wild Bill Hickok in 1903.



When the records of this were researched many years ago it was shown that Jane was never listed as a serving person with Custer.  Her imagination and strive for adventure it was said, got the better of her at times.

The irony of all this now though, is that Calamity Jane is just as famous as Custer and Hickok and in many ways, overshadows many other notables of the Wild West era.

I'm sure Calamity would like to say cheers  to everyone, as the old photo taken in the 1870's says.



Calamity Jane is buried in Deadwood, South Dakota next to the grave of James Butler Wild Bill Hickok.  The locals of Deadwood decided to carry out Jane's wishes to be buried next to Hickok.

They stated that Hickok never had any time for her or at least never showed it but the locals thought it befitting if she did indeed...layup next to him for a while...meaning all eternity. Ha-ha, and I thought that was great.


R.I.P Calamity Jane

On September 6th, 1941, the U.S. Department of Public Welfare granted old age assistance to a Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick who claimed to be the legal offspring of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, after presenting evidence that they had indeed married.

A marriage that took place at Benson's Landing, Montana Territory, on September 25th, 1873.

The documentation being written in an old Bible and apparently signed by two reverends along with numerous witnesses. The claim of Jean Hickok McCormick was later deeply questioned by the surviving Hickok family who stated " It was quite spurious. "

Maybe the only two people who will even know the truth are Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.





Page created July 23rd 2009.   Updated November 10th 2012