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During the late 19th century there were many colorful women called Calamity Jane by dime store novelists, but none were as compelling as the real Martha Canary.
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Martha Canary was born in Princeton, Missouri in 1856. Journeying to the gold fields of Montana with her parents in 1864, she and her siblings were often left alone to fend for themselves. By 1869 both parents were dead and there is evidence that Martha was alone in the small Union Pacific railroad camp of Piedmont, Wyoming, probably working in a boarding house. From there she traveled to railroad towns and military posts making her living any way she could, at times working as a prostitute.
The first historical record of Martha using the name of Calamity Jane is when she accompanied the Jenney-Newton geological expedition into the Black Hills in 1875. Her career as a camp follower continued when she joined General George Crook’s expedition against the Lakota in February 1876 and a second Crook-led expedition that same spring. Calamity Jane later bragged that she had scouted for General Crook.
In June of 1876 Calamity Jane returned to Laramie, Wyoming Territory from the second Crook expedition. She celebrated with the soldiers and was jailed for drunkenness. Colorado Charlie Utter’s wagon train stopped at Laramie on the way to the Black Hills and it was suggested they take Calamity Jane with them. Her most illustrious fellow traveler on the train was Wild Bill Hickok. It was perhaps their first meeting. It is likely that Wild Bill and Calamity Jane were acquainted, but they were never romantically involved. Hickok was a recently married man and Calamity Jane’s companion on the trip was Charlie’s brother, Steve Utter.
Upon arriving in Deadwood in July of 1876, Hickok and others set up camp, but Calamity Jane went downtown and became a dance hall celebrity, frequenting Al Swearengen’s Cricket Saloon. She worked as a prostitute and dance hall girl in Deadwood and briefly managed a house of her own. Despite the fact that she was a coarse woman, adept at profanity and drunk a great deal of the time, Calamity Jane was also known for her kindness. Deadwood’s Dr. Babcock referred to her as “brave” because she helped nurse the ill during the 1878 smallpox epidemic. She was reported to donate food to the needy as well.
Calamity Jane stayed in the Black Hills for three years following Wild Bill’s death. After 1880 she spent most of her time in Wyoming and Montana, visiting the Black Hills again briefly in 1885-86 and finally returning in 1903. She died in Terry, a small mining town near Deadwood, from complications due to alcohol poisoning on August 1, 1903. She is buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery next to Wild Bill Hickok.