Calamity Jane Hellcat in Britches by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Brian Lebel.

Myths have a way of making a senseless world seem sensible. That was especially true for Wild West legend Calamity Jane. Nicknamed the “hellcat in red britches” Jane’s world was anything but easy. 

In the dime novels Calamity Jane was always at the right place at the right time. The bad guys never had much luck coming up against her, that’s how the stories go.

She was a young girl wandering around the 19th century trying to find her place in a man’s world without a family and home--and she was probably illiterate. 

The stories emerging around her life are mostly mythical.  But if you take away the make-believe parts of this gun-toting cowgirl who traveled all over the northwest, she still shows up as an amazing independent spirit.

Very few people even knew her real name—Martha Canary.  People just called her Calamity Jane.  They say her name came from getting herself into so much trouble.

Women in the 19th century could be fined for wearing men’s clothes.  But doing so allowed them access into a world where they could own property, vote, and be more than just a silent accessory on the arm of a respectable gentleman.

Prim and proper Jane was not. A sharp-shooter, she drove supply wagons, prospected for gold and worked as a scout.  She also gambled and bellied up to the bar with the best of them.

Hidden behind the manly dress and behavior was an innocent young girl.  When a smallpox epidemic broke out in Deadwood, South Dakota, the women of the town refused to treat the sick and dying in fear of catching the disease.  Jane stepped up and cared for the ailing for weeks.

Behind the scenes she was a sometimes wife and mother of two working as a waitress, laundress, prostitute and dance-hall girl. The male costume garnered her acknowledgment as well as a livelihood.  People were curious about Calamity Jane not Martha Canary.      

She became a heroine in western dime novels which were popular in her day. She capitalized on her fame by selling photos of herself and appearing in Wild West shows. She even wrote an autobiography playing up her larger-than-life attributes.

In the dime novels Calamity Jane was always at the right place at the right time. The bad guys never had much luck coming up against her, that’s how the stories go.

Action figures in the dime novels always possessed the highest virtues. Cool under pressure, focused and the women usually ended up in the arms of the handsome male lead--never stepping too far out of accepted female roles.    

In the end the ambitious stories about Jane are probably more fiction than fact. Today tourists still flock to her grave in the Black Hills where she is buried side-by-side with Wild Bill Hickok in Mount Moriah Cemetery.    

“Now who in the world would think that Calamity Jane would get to be such a famous woman?”

That’s what one of the pallbearers said at her funeral. To those who knew her best Jane was basically a kind woman with eccentric habits. 

On Jan 21, Old West Events featured a selection of Wild West character items in its Mesa, Ariz., auction. 

Wild West

Kit Carson CDV; by Brady; 3 7/8 inches by 2 ¼ inches;  $4,720.

Buffalo Bill Cody Photograph; inscribed by Curt Alexander; Cody with his Winchester; signed;  1909;  $5,015.

Calamity Jane Cabinet Card; by C.E. Finn of Livingston, Mont; dressed in buckskin and holding a Sharps rifle with a revolver on hip; 6 ½ inches by 4 3/8 inches;  $6,050.

Pat Garrett Arrest Warrant; territory of New Mexico; for buying and receiving stolen cattle;  March 30, 1882; 34 inches by 16 inches framed;  $12,390.           


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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