Calamity Jane Cowgirl Extraordinaire  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Brian Lebel.

“As a scout, I had many dangerous missions to perform, and while I was in many close places, always succeeded in getting away safely, for by this time I was considered the most reckless and daring rider and one of the best shots in the western country.” Calamity Jane

Calamity loved to tout her own accomplishments and claimed at one time to be the wife of Wild Bill Hickok, a pony express rider and even the brave rescuer of a stagecoach after its driver was killed. 

She was a “new” kind of frontier woman.  She could belly up to the bar with the best of them, chewed tobacco, played poker and gambled. 

Separating fact from fiction is not easy.  Most of Calamity’s adventures were probably fictional but she would probably enjoy knowing she was and is a symbol for the “Old West” cowgirl. 

One thing for certain Calamity was a tough and capable woman who did everything with a flair.  No one knows for certain how Martha Jane Canary became Calamity Jane.  She said “Calamity” referred to the trouble she always seemed to be getting herself into.

On her own from age 15 after her parents died in 1866 and 1867 Calamity defied the law and earned a semblance of freedom as an orphan and an ability to earn a livelihood by dressing in men’s clothes.

She was a “new” kind of frontier woman.  She could belly up to the bar with the best of them, chewed tobacco, played poker and gambled. 

But Calamity also possessed a flip side.  When a smallpox epidemic broke out in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1878 the local women refused to treat the infected because of fear of catching smallpox.  Calamity stepped in and cared for the sick day-and-night for weeks.     

She lived all over the northwest and became a heroic character in western dime novels. She capitalized on her fame by selling pictures of herself and appearing in Wild West Shows.

A wife and sometimes mother of two she worked as a waitress, laundress, dance hall girl and prostitute.  More often than not she was probably wearing a dress and not the buckskin outfit she donned in publicity photos. 

Calamity released her autobiography in 1896 and played up her heroic deeds.  After her death at 47 her exploits were exaggerated even more and new ones were invented.

At any given time in history Calamity Jane emerges as a female gunfighter, pony express rider, military scout, nurse and feminist.                    

Today tourists flock to the Black Hills to visit her grave.  In 1989 the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., discovered Calamity Jane’s buckskin outfit in its collection.  Her coat, vest and trousers are a part of the Frederic Remington collection of western memorabilia.  The items are important because she left behind few personal possessions.   

 “Now who in the world would think that Calamity Jane would get to be such a famous woman,” said a pallbearer at her funeral.   

Those who knew Calamity best said she was basically a kind woman and except for her eccentric habits, a common woman.

On Jan 25, 2019, Old West Events featured Calamity Jane items in its auction. 

Here are some current values.

Calamity Jane

Cabinet Card; printed on bottom Mrs. Burke: 6 3/8 inches by 4 3/16; inches;  $1,888.

Cabinet Card; printed on bottom; Gen. Crook’s Scout; 1895; 6 ½ inches by 4 ¼ inches;  $2,360.  

Cabinet Card; may be only copy in existence; 6 ½ inches by 4 ¼ inches;  $2,655. 

Cabinet Card; taken by R.L. Kelly Pierre S. Dax; circa 1901; 6 ½ inches by 4 ¼ inches;  $3,835.

Photograph; Calamity Janes; copyright by H.R. Locke; 1895; 10 ¾ inches by 7 7/8 inches;  $11,800.  

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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