What Really Happened To Calamity Jane?

Calamity Jane had quite the resume. She was a rootin', tootin', Wild West heroine and a gal who could hold her own in a world very much controlled and dominated by white males. She claimed to be a driver of stagecoaches and freight wagons, and she was a self-professed Army scout. On top of all that, it's been said that she was the beloved lover and secret wife of Wild Bill Hickok (and that she dragged his murderer to justice). What's not to love? Why wouldn't you want to bring her home to meet the folks?

Well, that's the legend anyway. But so much of Old West history is a guessing game. And as it turns out, Calamity Jane's life was a little more complicated — and a bit less glamorous — than it's been portrayed over the years, and a lot of the stuff we "know" about her isn't actually true. Sure, she was a larger-than-life figure, but what did she actually do? And more importantly, where did she end up after her glory days faded away?

The truth about Calamity Jane

Needless to say, Calamity Jane's real name wasn't Calamity Jane. Instead, she was actually born Martha Jane Cannary (though some say Canary) in Missouri at some point in the year 1852. Biography.com tells us that by the time she was 12, she was an orphan in Salt Lake City, Utah, supporting her numerous siblings (five, maybe six) by whatever means necessary and available.

There weren't a lot of options in those days for women, especially if they lacked even the rudiments of education. So Martha Jane became a camp follower — one of the women who traveled unofficially with troops, perhaps doing laundry, cooking, providing a woman's presence, and perhaps engaging in prostitution.

As for all those tall tales about her, some Calamity Jane stories might not be verifiable, but they are plausible, depending on the veracity of the period newspapers in question. For example, many say that she helped victims of a smallpox epidemic. And she also claimed that she saved a stagecoach when the driver was killed during an attack by Native Americans. Maybe that one's a bit far-fetched, but as an old theater professor once said, "All my stories are true. Some of them really happened."

We do know that she ended up in Deadwood (yes, that Deadwood), South Dakota. However, she didn't actually capture Jack McCall, the man who killed Hickok with a bullet to the back of the head. And believe it or not, she and Hickok were never intimately involved, nor secretly married, though they were at least friends, and she mourned him deeply when he was murdered.

So what exactly happened to Calamity Jane?

Martha Jane did what she had to in order to get by. In many ways, she should be admired, not so much for living life on her own terms but for simply surviving difficult, though common, circumstances of life in 19th-century America. It's not like she had access to career counselors.

She gave birth to a son who died in infancy and a daughter who lived into the 1960s. Jane was reportedly charming, caring, and kind when she was sober. Increasingly, she wasn't. And as you might expect, alcoholism took its toll. She sold her alleged autobiography during speaking tours late in her life, and she would regale audiences with truths, half-truths, and outright lies, appearing in buckskins, toting a pair of handguns and maybe a rifle. In time, however, the pistols were replaced by flasks of liquor, just to get her through the show.

Her final days found her cooking and doing laundry for a bordello in Belle Fourche, South Dakota. At age 47, but looking closer to 74, she died August 1, 1903, in Terry, South Dakota, and she was taken back to Deadwood for burial next to her friend, Wild Bill.