Following Calamity Jane
Born in Missouri in 1856 Martha Canary came west with her family, spent part of her childhood in the Montana gold fields near Virginia City and Nevada City, and came of age in Utah following the death of both parents (her mother in Montana, her father in Utah). She soon struck out alone (leaving behind at least two siblings), and may have spent time around Fort Bridger, and in 1869 was in the coal mining/railroad town of Piedmont, in extreme western Wyoming. She worked her way east stopping in such towns as Rawlins and Laramie before eventually reaching Cheyenne.
Started as an end-of-tracks town by the Union Pacific Railroad, Cheyenne endured after the tracks were laid farther west.
By the time Martha Jane Canary arrived in Cheyenne in the early 1870s, it was the Territorial Capital of Wyoming where the Territorial legislature had granted suffrage to women, along with the right to hold office and serve on juries. It was also becoming a cowboy capital, serving cattle trails from Texas pushing herds onto the Northern Plains, and it had a military presence as well following establishment of Camp Carlin.
Cheyenne became the southern terminus of the Cheyenne-Deadwood Trail, which came to quick prominence after men traveling with Lt. Col. George A. Custer found gold in the Black Hills in 1874. Like others in the region at the time Martha Canary traveled the first leg of its route from Cheyenne to Fort Laramie.
Exactly when Martha Canary came by the moniker Calamity Jane isn’t certain, but men along the Union Pacific rail line and in the military knew her as Calamity in the 1870s. She was at Fort Laramie in 1875 when the Black Hills Expedition under direction of Walter Jenney and Henry Newton organized. Their party was established to determine the quality and quantity of gold in the Black Hills, charged with adding detail to the Custer reports of the previous year.
“Anybody with a blue coat and brass buttons could catch Calamity,” according to Valentine T. McGillycuddy, the doctor who worked as a topographer-cartographer with the Newton-Jenney Black Hills Expedition. At Fort Laramie during her day there were lots of blue coats and brass buttons. Even today you will find them at Fort Laramie with larger numbers in evidence during major event weekends such as the Fourth of July celebration and other living history military weekends held during the summer.
Jane was wearing spurs, chaps, and a sombrero as she strolled across the parade ground at Fort Laramie on May 20, 1875, when Dr. McGillycuddy first saw her. He was with Colonel Richard I. Dodge, Henry Newton, and Horace Tuttle at the time and when the doctor asked about the girl, Dodge identified her as a “regimental mascot” who “didn’t know the meaning” of the word morals.
As the scientific party departed from Fort Laramie, Calamity (uninvited but along never-the-less) worked with the civilian teamsters. Acting Assistant Surgeon J.R. Lane provided one of the early, detailed accounts of the female teamster when he wrote in the Chicago Tribune on June 19, 1875, “Calam is dressed in a suit of soldier’s blue, and straddles a mule equal to any professional blacksnake swinger in the army,” he reported. “Calamity also jumps upon a trooper’s horse and rides along in the ranks, and gives an officer a military [salute] with as much style as the First corporal in a crack company.”
Thomas C. MacMillan, writing for the rival Chicago Inter-Ocean, noted her “reputation of being a better horse-back rider, mule and bull-whacker and a more unctuous coiner of English, and not the Queen’s pure either, than any man in the command.”
McGillycuddy himself said she was “the only woman in the party, dressed in soldiers clothes, rode a horse astraddle, could drink and swear ‘like a trooper.'” He later wrote she was “something like Topsy in Uncle Toms Cabin, she was not exactly ‘raised she growed.'”
The Black Hills Expedition followed the route that would become famous, and well-traveled as the Cheyenne-Deadwood Stage Road, as Colonel Dodge and the scientific party headed north from Fort Laramie, established Camp Jenney, not far from the present town of Newcastle, Wyoming, and then explored the Black Hills. Calamity spent time tending wounds and ailments and mending clothes for the men. She also hunted, bringing deer and antelope to camp for shared meals.
“She staid (sic) with us all summer and returned with us to Laramie in the Fall,” Dr. McGillycuddy said. “She was a typical frontier camp follower, a type by herself, loud and rough in her ways, but kind hearted, always ready to help or nurse a sick soldier or miner, and ready to go on a spree when necessity required or opportunity offered.”
Dr. McGillycuddy, the man responsible for charting the major features and drawing some of the first maps of the Black Hills, would name Calamity Peak for the intrepid female.
Certainly the Black Hills appealed to Calamity and she would spend much of the remainder of her life in the area, visiting gold towns such as Custer City, Lead, and Deadwood, as well as the frontier military post at Camp Robinson (later Fort Robinson).
When General George Crook’s troops traveled east in late summer of 1876, in the aftermath of the major battles with Lakota and Cheyenne Indians at the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn, the command entered present North Dakota and then turned south, engaged in a battle at Slim Buttes, endured a torturous march, survived on horsemeat, and finally reached Crook City, where Calamity Jane and others with supplies met the troops.
Dr. McGillycuddy wrote in his journal “our old friend Calamity” who had “blossomed out as a fully equipped border scout, beaded buckskin trousers, blue shirt, broad brimmed hat, winchester rifle, mounted on a bucking broncho, with a supply of fluid ammunition in the saddle bags” arrived with the soldiers and relief supplies.
Those two kicked up their heels in a schottische when Crook’s men reached Deadwood. This town had been born during the gold rush to the Black Hills, and became a Mecca for people seeking wealth, excitement, adventure. Heck, in some respects the town hasn’t changed an iota from those days. You’ll still find saloons with good whiskey, restaurants like Jake’s with fine food, and a table on which to place your bets.
Of course the person most associated with both Deadwood and Calamity Jane is James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, who arrived in the community with a host of other characters, spent his time gambling, no doubt meeting Calamity who also hung out in the gambling dens, and of course was gunned down and buried in the town cemetery.
Calamity herself bounced around the region including Wyoming and Montana, finally returning to the Black Hills, where she died in Terry, S.D., on August 1, 1903. She was buried in the Mount Moriah cemetery in Deadwood, next to Wild Bill Hickok.