In spring 1877, Calamity Jane was out riding a trail and happened upon a runaway stagecoach from Wyoming that had been attacked by a Cheyenne war party. Promptly engaging in a breathless mounted pursuit of the careening coach, she leapt into the driver’s seat in daredevil style, jettisoned all baggage (apart from the all-important mail), pacified the horses, and drove on to the safe confines of Deadwood City, whereupon she received a hero’s welcome. A heady slice of all-action western adventure, the episode—known as the Rescue of the Deadwood Stage—was one of her most famous historical vignettes and was referenced in the opening scenes of the musical Calamity Jane (1953). In the Hollywood hit, a boisterous and bullwhipping Doris Day rode shotgun, as protector of the Deadwood stage, complete with Winchester rifle, fresh-faced athleticism, and catchy musical score (“Whip Crack Away!”).
Celebrated as a rootin’ tootin’ fixture of the frontier imaginary, one might be forgiven for assuming that Calamity Jane was a creature dreamed up by novelists and filmmakers, and regurgitated on demand as a stock western character. In fact, beyond the folklore is the story of one Martha Jane Canary, whose history speaks of complex gender identities, cultural representations, and the sinuous connections between lived and invented experience in the West. Indeed, on the matter of the Deadwood stage rescue, the local press painted a rather different story to that told by Canary and her latter-day celebrators. Covering the incident in March 1877, the Cheyenne Daily Leader failed to even mention her, identified bandits as the culprits in the ambush, and reported a driverless coach rolling into town courtesy of equine homing instinct. A few months later, Calamity Jane’s name cropped up not as the savior of the hour, but as a likely member of a notorious band of outlaws, one eyewitness having identified a “woman dressed in men’s clothes” among their number. Masculine disguise was successfully used by some of the West’s most famous highwaywomen to evade capture (for instance, Pearl Hart, Sally Scull, and Laura Bullion), but in the case of Calamity Jane, her sartorial reputation made her prime suspect.The story of Martha Jane Canary/Calamity Jane is a dramatic tale of opportunity and oppression, masquerade and myth-making.
The story of Martha Jane Canary/Calamity Jane is a dramatic tale of opportunity and oppression, masquerade and myth-making. The late nineteenth century brought far-reaching and rapid changes to the Great Plains—mineral strikes, railroad tracks, homestead booms, and territorial wars—and set the stage for Calamity Jane (along with a host of other characters, including Billy the Kid, Jesse James, and James Butler (‘Wild Bill’ Hickok) to emerge as personifications of the West in its “wild and woolly” years. The period also saw an array of opportunities for women in the trans-Mississippi region, from running homesteads to entrepreneurship in service industries, including laundries, boarding houses, and brothels. At the same time, a heavily masculinized frontier culture left limited room for maneuver for an unconventional woman who inhabited what one early biographer called “the man-trails of the old West.” Surviving photographs offer a tantalizing glimpse into the fluid identities of Martha Canary/Calamity Jane as she navigated between the assured swagger of a woman dressed as a man in theatrical stance and the abjections of a poor, alcoholic drifter eking out an existence at the margins of social acceptability. A masculine-clothed itinerant lounging on a rock; a confident army scout grasping a rifle in studio pose; a down-at-heel pioneer woman with a glass of beer held aloft in greeting; and a sepia-tinged mourner with flower in hand at Bill Hickok’s grave: these scattered visual snapshots of “Calamity” tell a thousand words. Or rather, they do and they don’t. Evident here are the swirling conceits that gathered around her as a frontier celebrity, as well as the hint of a hidden tale of personal struggle, storytelling, and gender possibility. How Martha Jane Canary came to be Calamity Jane, and how her story was successively recycled and repurposed over the span of a century or more, is the subject of Calamity: The Many Lives of Calamity Jane.
Canary was born in Missouri in the 1850s and arrived in the West as a young child, traveling overland with her parents as part of the long procession of those taking to the mineral-rich lands of Montana in search of wealth and prosperity. She found neither. Orphaned and destitute by the end of the 1860s, she moved between railroad and mining camps, military stations and frontier towns, trying her hand at various jobs—some customary (cook, laundress, saloon girl, and prostitute), and others less typical (freighter, prospector, mule drover). Over these years, however, Martha Canary did make a name for herself. Well known in the rough and ready settlements of the western plains for dressing in men’s clothes, a taste for liquor and wanderlust, and a tendency to shoot off her mouth and her guns, she became something of a regional curiosity. Quite unlike the pious school ma’am or the sun-bonneted “gentle tamer”—the stereotypical faces of the female frontier—here stood a maverick figure operating far beyond the boundaries of normative behavior and attracting local attention for her apparently wild ways, trigger itch, and insobriety.When she rode into Deadwood in July 1876, an arrival that symbolically marked the beginning of her ascent to frontier superstardom, the local press put it succinctly: “Calamity Jane has arrived.” In the next few years, meanwhile, Canary went from being the subject of Black Hills gossip to national (and international) fame. Catapulting her onto this new stage were a number of literary renditions of her “story”: newspapers, literary works, and a string of dime novels (cheap and sensationalist texts that reveled in the West and its colorful cast of characters) in which Calamity Jane played leading lady-in-buckskin to all-purpose frontier hero, Deadwood Dick. Representing a world of freedom and unfettered action, a “wild West” of the popular imagination that endures today, the “Heroine of the Plains” captured the public mood.
Three years after Frederick Jackson Turner presented his famous frontier thesis to the American Historical Association, Calamity Jane addressed her own audience in print. Turner’s 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” argued the case for westward conquest as a foundational aspect of the American experience. Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane, By Herself (1896) offered a personal take on migration, settlement, and resilience in a trans-Mississippi theater. Like Turner, her rendition sprang from an acknowledgment of the West as a powerful and dynamic setting, as well as a sense of its potency as a dramatic device. Produced to accompany the dime museum show for Kohl and Middleton, in which Canary was performing, the short account presented a piece of staccato chronicle from a true-life frontier witness. In common with many journals of the westward journey, Canary’s tale began with a potted genealogy, followed by a breezy narration of the dangers and thrills of a five-month overland trip across plains, rivers, and mountains. Describing herself as a “remarkably good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age,” she noted being “at all times along with the men when there was excitement or adventure to be had.” Briefly referencing her arrival at Virginia City, Montana, and the death of both of her parents, Canary focused on her work as a scout for General Custer, during which time she found a life “perfectly at home in men’s clothes.” The army years brought renown as a maverick “female scout,” as well as the famous epithet “Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains” (reputedly the words of one Captain Egan, after he was saved from an unceremonious dismount during an ambush). Thereafter, the narrative moved to Deadwood and her exploits as a Pony Express rider, the capture of Wild Bill’s killer, and (naturally) the rescue of the Deadwood stage. All of these remained integral aspects of her legend in years to come. After a whistle-stop tour of her 17 years drifting from town to town, prospecting, mule-whacking and the like, Canary ended her tale by recalling a triumphal return to Deadwood as a famous character whose story continued to inspire fascination. With a nod to her authority as authentic narrator of the frontier experience, she closed with a message of humble assuredness: “Hoping that this little history of my life may interest all readers, I remain, as in the early days. Yours, Mrs. M. Burk. Better Known as Calamity Jane.”The process by which Martha Canary came to be Calamity Jane is best understood in terms of a wider culture of frontier celebrity under construction in the late 1800s.
Canary was not alone in wanting to commit her western story to posterity. Legions of female travelers and homesteaders eagerly wrote the frontier into ink, conjoining their own life stories with collective tales of manifest destiny and history in the making. As Dee Brown, author of one of the earliest academic treatments of westering women in The Gentle Tamers (1958), put it, female emigrants were eager diarists, who chronicled the everyday details of their experience, along with a sense of being part of something bigger than themselves. Their stories, however, were overlooked in a traditional narrative of westward conquest that concentrated on the white masculine hero, namely the cowboy, cavalryman, miner, sheriff, and desperado. Frederick Jackson Turner, for instance, stressed the role of the “over-mountain men” (my emphasis) in his celebration of American democracy and westward drive. Significantly, it was not until the rise of New Western History in the 1980s and its imperative to present a more crowded, complicated, and contested picture (what Elliott West calls “a longer, grimmer but more interesting story”) that the “female frontier” was taken seriously as a historical subject. Thereafter, the excavation of a rich vein of first-hand testimonies produced by thousands of women as they encountered the West and made it their home illuminated a vibrant “Herstory” in a terrain that had hitherto appeared as “Hisland” (to use the terms of Susan Armitage). This freshly inscribed frontier revealed stories of domesticity, constraint, and hardship, but also social mobility, the invention of new identities, and a more flexible definition of “women’s work.” British-born émigré Evelyn Cameron, who went to Montana in the early 1900s with her husband Ewen to raise polo ponies, was one of those who documented daily life on the homestead and the hunting trail—from plugging walls with mud to prevent drafts, to pulling out a rotten tooth by wiring it to ropes thrown over a rafter. In one entry, she wrote: “Manual labour . . . is all I care about, and, after all, is what will really make a strong woman. I like to break colts, brand calves, cut down trees, ride and work in a garden.” Such stories showed a diversity of experience on the female frontier that extended far beyond the Hollywood stereotypes of the domestic helpmate and the sassy saloon girl.
Calamity Jane is a particularly intriguing figure in this story of women claiming authority and ownership over a history and a space traditionally occupied by men. For one thing, her autobiographical profile did not fit the model of the western authoress slaving over candlelight to compile a daily inventory of life (Evelyn Cameron found paper in such short supply that once one entry was finished, she turned the paper on its side and changed her ink color). Martha Canary was, in all likelihood, illiterate, her autobiography published to accompany a dime museum show in which she starred. As such, Life and Adventures was a co-production: forged both from the stories Canary had traded in saloon bars and around campfires, and from the designs of a literary agent tasked with writing into print the stage story of Deadwood’s famed buckskin-clad raconteur. With its consciously theatrical delivery, it illustrated the connected contours of what feminist playwright Heather Carver calls “agency, spectacle, and spectatorship” in female autobiography. Boldly articulated and with a blustering sense of pace, Life and Adventures condensed Calamity Jane’s westward rite of passage into seven pages (Turner’s paper, incidentally, took 28). This was her script and her screenplay (which, according to period anecdotes, served as a useful prompt when Canary performed under the influence), and also served to provide visitors with a wordperfect souvenir of the show. In terms of style, it followed a general trend in frontier testimonials in emphasizing authenticity and escapade as critical ingredients of the frontier biopic (see, for instance, The Adventures of Buffalo Bill Cody (1904)) and favored a matter-of-fact prose that conjured the sense of a heroic geography roamed by luminous, yet straight-talking protagonists. Th is directness in writing, as early biographer Duncan Aikman noted, provided an all-important inference of truth: “when the autobiography is both exceptionally matter-of-course and exceptionally plausible, there is no reason for doubting it.”
In large part, however, Life and Adventures was hokum: an exercise in creative writing and myth-making, or, more accurately, in “writing” up the folklore of Calamity Jane as it had been laid out since the 1870s by Canary and others. The opening line contained two red herrings in the shape of her birth year (1852, rather than 1856) and surname (Cannary, i.e., with an extra “n” thrown in), both of which were faithfully reproduced as “truths.” A good deal of the autobiographical detail was erroneous, to boot. Calamity Jane never rode with Custer, never served as an army scout or a Pony Express courier, and did not apprehend Bill Hickok’s killer. As such, she presented something of a conundrum, in the words of early biographer Leonard Jennewein, “the hero who performed no heroic deeds.” Believability and star appeal, it seemed, counted far more than hard evidence in supporting her claims to fame. As biographer Linda Jucovy notes, “the details about her exploits were rarely true, but no one cared. It was the story that mattered.” Forget the finer points of historical accuracy: Canary’s credentials came from being a credible western actor, in both senses of the phrase. She had traveled with army expeditions in 1875 and 1876, spent time in the railroad camps of the Northern and Union Pacific, participated in the prospecting boom in the Black Hills, and was a fixture of Deadwood in its embryonic years. A keen sense of theatricality ( Jennewein remarked “she attracted attention in a dramatic manner, in episodes calculated to remain in the memory of the witnesses”), meanwhile, invested her grand tales with a veneer of authenticity. Calamity Jane walked the walk of the frontier hero, and, as bar-room storyteller, was well rehearsed at talking the talk. According to the Lander Wyoming State Journal, “she was proud of her cognomen and shrewd enough to utilize its possibilities”—a conclusion that raises interesting questions of agency, cultural resonance, and gender performance in explaining how a poor, itinerant woman became entangled in the heroic mythology of an imagined West.
The process by which Martha Canary came to be Calamity Jane, I argue here, is best understood in terms of a wider culture of frontier celebrity under construction in the late 1800s—a heady time, in which those who had taken part in the western story were catapulted into the limelight as eyewitnesses to history and borderland entertainers. Life and Adventures mixed up the discrete elements of a nonconformist life with assumed “truths” and historical referents to create a potent frontier cocktail that spoke to period fascination with the wildest aspects of the “wild West.” As the Rapid City Daily Journal put it, Calamity Jane was “the prickly cactus symbol of the pioneer days at the heart of their depravity.” Feted as a frontier witness with star appeal, she joined the likes of Buffalo Bill Cody (whom Larry McMurtry calls one of “the first American superstars”) in communicating the story of the West for the purposes of education, entertainment, and patriotic accounting. The fact that Canary’s autobiography was factually light mattered little in an imaginative landscape of western myth-making, where granular realities were less important than satisfying cultural needs for a flamboyant and ideologically powerful American fable. Controlling this galloping beast of frontier mythology proved difficult. William Cody went bankrupt trying to make his “wild West” shows live up to their spectacular billing, and Canary, too, ran into problems trying to make sense of her public and private lives. Period accounts spoke of financial problems, mental and physical instability, a recurring drink problem, turbulent relationships, and an unsettled home life. In 1887, the editor of the Livingston Enterprise remarked: “A complete and true biography of the life of Calamity Jane would make a large book, more interesting and bloodcurdling than all the fictitious stories that have been written of her.” It would, the paper noted, “never find its way into a Sunday School library.” Such editorial flourishes—glorifying Canary’s “wildness” before shooting her down as social pariah, freak or eccentric—indicated the instabilities and inner contradictions of a frontier celebrity that at once celebrated and destabilized hegemonic masculinity.