Calamity Jane By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
April 26, 2013
Among the many mourners at the funeral of Wild Bill Hickok on August 3, 1876, was a sorrowful, rough looking woman clad in buckskins and a weathered cowboy hat. Calamity Jane. She was as famous as he man whose grave she was sobbing over. She had the reputation of being a woman who always did as she pleased. She was an army scout, a railroad worker, a nurse, and sometimes prostitute who could drink the average man under the table, and cuss with the best of them. And for the most of her adult life, she was devoted to one man. Bill Hickok. Calamity Jane was born as Martha Jane Canary in Princeton, Missouri in 1852. From her early years on she fought dressing like a proper lady or learning domestic chores like cooking and sewing. She preferred running with boys and riding through the countryside on her horse. When she was twelve, her family headed west. She was most excited about the promising adventures that lie ahead. She immediately fell in love with the wild country, and when she wasn’t riding the range, she was holed up in a cow town watching the gamblers, miners, ranch hands, and ladies of the night. She was thirteen when her parents passed away and she was left to raise her siblings. In 1867 she moved them to Fort Bridger, Wyoming where she kept them fed by working as a laundress and by working as a prostitute at a local brother. In 1870 she left the hard life she was living and ended up in Fort Russell, Wyoming, signing on as a scout for General George Custer. This was the first of many jobs she would do; her employment aspirations were as unconventional as her manner of dress. She wore men’s clothing, long underwear, and boots, and sported a pair of six-shooters on her hips. Tales of her adventures made their way into dime novels, making her a household name all across the country. Jane was a hard drinker with bawdy ways, but still had a compassionate soul. Often times she cared for ailing miners dying of smallpox. She allegedly married Clinton Burke in 1891, but little is known of the marriage, and throughout everything her heart belonged to Hickok. He always maintained they were just friends, but she insisted they were more. Whatever their relationship, there was no doubt she was dedicated to Wild Bill. She grieved his passing for years. Jane’s rough life came to an end seventeen years after Bill’s death. At age 53, she ended up in Terry, South Dakota, rented a room at the Calloway Hotel, and died. According to the Black Hills Daily Times, Jane’s funeral was one of the largest Deadwood had ever seen. Her last request was to be buried next to Wild Bill. She’s laid to rest beside him at the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood. Two names are inscribed on her tombstone. One reads “Calamity Jane”, and the other “Martha Jane Burke”.
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