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(Without Planning It) Calamity Jane Was a Pioneer for Women’s Rights

(When asked once how she got her name
she said it was because she would be
a calamity to any man who bothered her . . . )


(Lois Michal Unger and E.L. Freifeld) – Calamity Jane, Martha Jane Cannary was born in Princeton, Missouri, 1852. Some years later, her family moved to Montana. Shortly after they got there, her mother passed away. Her father then took Jane and the children to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he too died soon after their arrival. Martha, who was the eldest of six children, became the family breadwinner at the age of 12. She was a robust girl, not afraid of anything or anyone and survived in a man’s world by taking on man’s ways, including dressing like a man. She took jobs that men took like driving a stagecoach, scouting for the Army, working in saloons and gambling. Jane sometimes worked as a nurse and it’s been rumored that she occasionally worked as a prostitute. She once said “the bigger a man’s gun the smaller his doodlewick.”

calamity-jane-letters-to-daughter

The book containing the letters of Calamity Jane to her daughter (Shameless Hussey Press 1976). “It’s an honest piece of writing and deeply touching. The misspellings add to the charm”

Jane met James Butler (Wild Bill) Hickok in 1870, in Abilene, Kansas. He was born in the town of Troy Grove, Illinois, 1837. When they met he was already a legend, known as a scout, a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War and a U.S. Marshal. Wild Bill Hickok was also a gunfighter and a gambler.
In a letter from Deadwood, Dakota Territory dated 1880, Jane wrote to her daughter:

“I heard a bunch of outlaws were planning to kill him. I couldn’t get too where my horse was so I crawled on my hands and knees through the brush past the outlaws for over a mile and reached the old shack where he was staying that night. I told him and he hid me back of the door while he shot it out with them. They hit him cutting open the top of his head & then they heard him fall & lit matches to see if he was dead. Bill killed them all.”

Jane nursed him for several days. On the road returning to Abilene, they met Reverend Sipes and Reverend Warran, and were married. The marriage doesn’t seem to have been ‘happily ever after’. Jane was jealous of other women, especially dance hall girls. Hickok’s family didn’t think Jane was good enough for him so she gave him a divorce and he married a woman back East, named Agnes Lake. But he didn’t stay with Agnes Lake and returned to Jane. Their daughter Janey was born September 25, 1873, in the Montana Territory.

In 1876 Bill was shot from behind and killed by Jack McCall in a saloon in Deadwood. He was playing poker when he was shot and the hand he was holding, black aces and eights has become the legendary ‘dead man’s hand’. A picture of Jane and the baby was in his pocket. At first, Jane stayed in the Deadwood area with her baby but eventually allowed Captain Jim O’Neil and his wife to adopt her and raise her back East. When Daddy Jim’s wife died, he raised the girl alone.

The book of letters is artless—there are no metaphors, puns on words, deliberate humour. These are letters from the heart of a woman who didn’t think she was good enough to raise her own daughter. This excerpt from her second letter dated September 28, 1877:

“Another day had gone dear in fact three days have passed since I wrote last—I am sitting beside my campfire tonight. My horse Satan, is picketed nearby. You should see him the light from the campfire playing about his sleek neck and satiny shoulders of muscle, white feet and diamond of white between his eyes. He looks an object of all beauty. I am so proud of him. Your father gave him to me and I have his running mate, King. I use him for a pack horse on long trips but I haven’t got him with me this trip. I can hear coyotes and wolves and the staccato wail of Indian dogs near their camps—There are thousands of Sioux in this valley I am not afraid of them—They think I am a crazy woman and never molest me.”

In 1876, Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and his troops were defeated by the Lakota Sioux and Northern Cheyenne Indians in a battle that’s gone down in American history as Custer’s Last Stand. I grew up hearing about Custer’s Last Stand because my father was bald and used to tell the children in our family that he lost his hair fighting with Custer, that the Indian’s scalped him.

In a letter to her daughter Janey, September 28, 1877, Calamity Jane writes about visiting the battle field the day after the battle. She describes seeing bodies with their legs and arms dismantled and heads chopped and eyes probed out.

“You see Custer had molested an Indian village, running the squaws and children from their camps so one can’t blame them from getting even in their own way.”

She also writes that she found her uncle, Cy, hacked to pieces.

“I dug a grave & and put his poor poor old body in my saddle blanket and buried him.”

calamity-jane-at-the-grave-of-wild-bill_deadwood_south-dakota_1903

Calamity Jane at the grave of Wild Bill, Deadwood, South Dakota, 1903. “Without planning it she was a pioneer for women’s rights”

We learn from a letter dated Colson, January 1882, that Jane got to visit her daughter and Daddy Jim in Richmond, Virginia and bemoaned the fact that he didn’t ask her to stay. “Why couldn’t I have stayed with you and Daddy Jim?” she wrote to Janey, after she returned home from the visit. “Why didn’t he ask me to stay? I was so in hope he would but darling your mother is a misfit in a home like you have.” Her words brought me back to the feeling I’ve had that my daughter replaced me and our family with my sister and her family, and I burst into tears.

In society, as long as I’ve known about it, and maybe forever, there’s always been people who say “this is how you should live.” And if you don’t you face a wall of their snobbery and rejection. In a letter dated Clark City, Montana Territory, 1884, Calamity tells Janey about the time the women wanted to run her out of town.

Respectable women wore dresses and petticoats. Jane wore pants. Respectable women didn’t work in saloons and Jane did. Respectable women had family members who were male protectors. Calamity Jane lived alone. True, she was a widow but there was too much in her lifestyle for ‘nice’ women to accept it. She claims she dressed like a man because they wouldn’t let respectable women in saloons. Throughout the years in her letters she writes, “when you come out here if you ever do Janey & any of them stick up their noses at you because of your parents and they bury me beside your father, you move our bodies to Abilene Kansas or wherever.” She goes on to tell her that she wants her to be buried beside her parents.

“I don’t think Jane ever mailed these letters to her daughter. I think they were put in her daughter’s hands after her death. Her July 1898 letter continued, ‘If you ever get this,’ she wrote, ‘then you will know who the woman was on board your Daddy Jims ship.’”

I was struck by her telling Janey of her wishes. In life she didn’t think she had a right to raise her daughter because she was always poor, with little food, losing all her money at poker, sleeping at campfires alone at night . . . Perhaps this was a hazy dream of floating on a cloud, fantasizing and going off on a dream. Or was she just drunk, as usual?

From Billings,1889 she writes:

“I would like to square things for your father Janey. I know now that it was Deadwoods frame up to kill him. Sol Shose told me they didn’t want law & order and interested in having a U.S. Marshal with guts.”

On September 25, 1891 on Janey’s eighteenth birthday she writes:

“I did a most crazy thing . . . I married Charley Burke . . . But I don’t love him dear. I still love your father Bill Hickok.” She goes on to tell her “Marriage isn’t all a romance either.”

During her stay in Billings, 1891, the tone of her letters begins to change. Janey is grown up. She writes about coming to visit Janey who is now engaged to a man called Jack Oaks. Reading succeeding letters, it doesn’t seem she made the trip.

Jane bought a 320 acre ranch in Canyon Creek Montana, in 1893—seven or eight miles west of Billings. She paid a dollar an acre. She wanted a place she could call her own. There was a log cabin on the property and a shack where some outlaws lived. Jane began cooking for them for pay. “What they do is none of my business” she wrote. “Let sleeping dogs lie, is my motto.”

That same year, 1893, Calamity Jane was invited to join Bill Cody’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. She wrote to Janey that she would be riding a horse standing up, shooting her old Stetson hat twice after throwing it in the air, before it fell back on her head.

In 1896, the show played New York City. She wrote to Janey, “The show is a success. Such crowds yelling and applauding their heads off.” She added, “We are going from here to Richmond.”

How perfect, Richmond, Virginia. She could see the daughter she loved. But was it perfect? A week later she wrote from Richmond:

“I saw you tonight and you saw me too but you do not know that the woman you watched standing and shooting on a bareback horse was your mother. I saw admiration & wonder in your eyes—I rode as close as I dared to you & Jim & after the show he told me how proud he was of you . . . and to think his boat sails the same date as the one chartered by Bill Cody. & I can go on the Madagascar with you. I would crawl on my knees just to be near you.”

It’s almost unbelievable that so much pain could be endured by a mother so close to her daughter without revealing who she was? Did Jim speak to Calamity alone after the show? Why didn’t he bring Janey to her mother? Why didn’t Calamity insist on speaking to her daughter?

In another letter July 25, 1893, after writing to Janey her favorite recipes, she told her:

“Your father James Butler Hickok left me after you were born & to spite him I let the O’Neils adopt you. He was afraid of that common law wife of his & left me alone and sick.”

When I read this I wondered why she told this to her daughter, except maybe she had to get it off her chest.

After Europe Calamity was glad to be back in the U.S., back out west. She wrote to Janey from Deadwood in July 1898:

“I got so lonely for our old west & and so disgusted with gadding all over the world—Lord! how I did hate England with its snobs its good for nothing women with their put on airs and brogues.”

The Spanish American war was on. Jane was working as a nurse.

Her July 1898 letter continued, “I am tired and feel so old. If I wasn’t so old I would get to nurse our boys who are sick & dying. I always miss out on these wars,” she goes on to say. “I was only 10 at the time of the Civil War & now I am too old for this one with Spain.”

I don’t think Jane ever mailed these letters to her daughter. I think they were put in her daughter’s hands after her death. Her July 1898 letter continued, “If you ever get this,” she wrote, “then you will know who the woman was on board your Daddy Jims ship.”

I wonder if the letters felt like a gift to Janey when she read them or did they make her feel terrible sorrow for what she’d missed, what might have been. Was it Daddy Jim who said, “it’s best this way.” Or was it Jane herself? I like to think that as years passed, Janey cherished the letters, loved the letters, read and reread them, touched and retouched them as she might have touched her mother.

In April 1902 Jane wrote from Deadwood:

“I guess my diary is just about finished. I am going blind—I can still see to write this yet but I can’t keep on to live an avaricious old age. All hope is dead forever Janey. What have I ever done except to make one blunder after another . . . oh how I wish I could live my life over . . . Forgive all my faults and the wrong I have done you.”

In June, still in Deadwood she wrote:

“There is some thing I should confess to you but I just can’t. I shall take it to my grave—forgive me & consider I was lonely.”

Jane’s health was deteriorating. She had lived a hard life, working hard and drinking hard. She died at the Calloway Hotel in Terry, South Dakota near Deadwood August 1,1903. She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok at Mount Moriah Cemetery in South Dakota.

calamity-janes-daughter

Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick, daughter of Jane “Calamity Jane” Cannary and James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok

On September 6, 1941 the U.S. Department of Social Welfare granted Old Age Assistance to Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick. When she applied she said she was the daughter of Jane “Calamity Jane” Cannary and James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok.

Looking over Calamity Jane’s life and writing, I am moved by the choice she made regarding Janey and the resulting deep wound that cut through her life. I am happy at her exploits. I recognize that without planning it she was a pioneer for women’s rights. But mostly I can feel the sorrow that she felt. Re the literary value of Jane’s writing, it’s an honest piece of writing and deeply touching. The misspellings add to the charm.

“There is some thing I should confess to you but I just can’t. I shall take it to my grave”

What secrets were there for Calamity Jane to take to her grave? that she was a raging alcoholic, a bi-sexual, a lesbian, hooker, homeless mother and opium addict? She actually describes being a hooker as a ‘respectable’ occupation, along with being a nurse. In her letters collected from the original album at the Billing’s Museum, the text of 3-4 letters have been redacted and not included in this 1976 edition. In her last will and testament for her daughter written to Daddy Jim in 1889, she includes “My ranch on Canyon Creek with log cabin and this diary, wedding ring and brooch of gold and pearls.” She further adds, “The brooch has a history—it was used in smuggling dope from the orient. It was my mother’s.” In another written the same year, she describes her meeting with Jesse James:

“I met up with Jesse James not long ago. He was quite a character—you know he was killed in ’82. His mother swore that the body that was in the coffin was not his but another man they called either Tracy or Lynch. He was a cousin of Wild Bill. You wont likely care about this but if Janey outlives you and me she might be interested. He is passing under the name of Dalton but he couldn’t fool me I knew all the Daltons and he sure aint one of them. He told me he promised his gang and his mother that if he lived to be a hundred he would confess—you and me wont be here then Jim. To make it strange Jesse sang at his own funeral.”

At the end of this same letter she writes:

“Beginning to snow and I have a roaring camp fire. As long as you live Jim she will always have a good life. She wont have to live beside camp fires with a saddle for a pillow and very little to eat.

            Take care of yourself.

                                                                                  Regards –                                                                                              from Jane”

Along with Jesse James, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, Martha Jane Connary was an Icon of 19th Century American pop-culture. It was during the age of the Robber Barons, Big Jim Fisk, Diamond Jim Brady and Daniel Drew that these renegades emerged as Icons of counter-culture, a prophesy of things to come in Hollywood. Whether or not these artless letters may be included in the American pantheon of feminine literature, of Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott and Sara Teasdale is doubtful, if at all necessary. Still they are deeply moving and powerful, and deserve in my view her status of minor immortality.

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