The former director of the Center for the American West at the University of New Mexico offers a biographical study of Calamity Jane and the narratives that have shaped perceptions of her remarkable life.
Born Martha Canary to a family of Missouri farmers in 1856, Calamity Jane is one of the great romantic figures of the Old West. Countless newspaper and historical accounts about her exist, but as Etulain (Lincoln and Oregon Country Politics in the Civil War Era, 2013, etc.) points out, much of that information is inaccurate. What is known for certain is that by the time Calamity turned 11, both parents were dead. How she, an illiterate girl on her own, managed to survive and care for her younger siblings remains a mystery. Evidence points to Calamity’s having adopted male clothing and manners, including a fondness for smoking and drinking. After almost a decade of living a transient’s life, she landed in Deadwood, South Dakota, where she became a celebrated associate of the legendary Wild Bill Hickok as well as a favorite topic of both journalists and dime-store novelists. Some accounts state that she also sold sex to survive and that during her brief time with Hickok, she became the legendary gunman’s lover and the mother of his child. Etulain, however, never advances these claims due to lack of conclusive evidence. Instead, he focuses on what can be verified, such as the fact that Calamity gave birth to a daughter long after her association with Hickok and that, while she lived with a number of men, only one ever became her husband. Etulain also spends considerable time looking at the many interpretations—novelistic, filmic and theatrical—that have sprung up about Calamity in the century since her death in 1903. While adding nothing new to her historical portrait, they have nevertheless demonstrated the extraordinary “staying power of Western legends” in public consciousness.
For lovers of the Wild West and its colorful history.