Calamity Jane In Her Own Way
Program synopsis: Like most figures of the American frontier, Calamity Jane became even during her lifetime a creature more fiction than fact. Dressed in trousers when that infraction risked a $10 fine, drinking hard in bars where only men were allowed, working as a bullwacker—she was reputed also (by herself or by others) to have been an excellent shot, a Pony Express rider, a camp follower, an Army scout, the wife of Wild Bill Hickok who bore his child and captured his murderer with a meat cleaver, a nurse of smallpox victims, and even the savior of a runaway stagecoach. It was all sensational and some of it even true. Returning to the Black Hills in 1901 from her appearance at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, Calamity Jane stops off in Missouri (where she was born Martha Canary in 1856) to tell it like it is.
Program requirements: no lectern; acting space 10 x 10; microphone if acoustics require (lavaliere preferred, otherwise hand-held)
Running time: 40 minutes + Q & A
Martha Canary (Calamity Jane)
A Brief Biography
Martha Canary was born in 1856 on a farm near Princeton, Missouri. By the time she rode into Deadwood, Dakota Territory, with Wild Bill Hickok in 1876, she had become Calamity Jane. And within the next year or two, dime novels had spread her name and reputation throughout the United States.
Her reputation is at least as inflated as that of any of the other Western frontier figures. She wasn’t a scout for the Army, a Pony Express rider, or a rescuer of an overland mail attacked by Indians. She probably didn’t dig for gold or work on the railroad. She wasn’t married to Wild Bill Hickok—or to anyone else.
Calamity earned her living occasionally mule skinning for the Army and bullwacking, driving a team of 20 oxen between Pierre and Rapid City during the late ’70s and the ’80s. There are plenty of photos of her in women’s dress, but she dressed and drank and cussed like a man when she was working and when she pleased.
Unlike Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and Sitting Bull, Calamity was a flop on stage. She never made it to the big time: Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show. Newspapers in Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Colorado gave her plenty of coverage: shouting and shooting while drunk, borrowing a horse and buggy, throwing stones through windows, nursing sick miners, fist-fighting with women, selling liquor to Indians, leading a quiet life on a ranch. Just coming to town was news.
One serious biographer dismisses Calamity as “a well-meaning but good-for-nothing frontierswoman.” And a contemporary mused: “Now who in the world would have thought that Calamity Jane would get to be such a famous person?”
Poor Martha Canary. She got her wish: to be buried by Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood. But even in the Great Beyond she couldn’t escape the myth-makers. Within ten years of her death August 1, 1903, her exit was popularly transformed to August 2, 1906—exactly thirty years to the hour after Wild Bill’s murder.
Calamity Jane In Her Own Way
Intellectual Property of Leah Schwartz
Well, now, ain’t you a fine gathering of pasty-faced pillars of [city] society here. Sitting there looking just as pretty and proper as Mrs. Astor’s plush pony. Ain’t a sinner among you. I’ll bet butter don’t even melt in your mouth.
You don’t look like a whole lot of fun to me—about as dull as a widow woman’s ax. You look, I would say, very respectable. I never got along with respectable.
Let’s just give this here a try, folks. I’m stuck with you and you’re stuck with me. You took a whole lot of trouble carrying me all the way out here from your railroad depot.
I ain’t nothing special, but I reckon I’m good enough for you ’cause from the look of things in this town I’m about the best you can afford. I’ve been out East to cities big enough to get Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, and I can see you ain’t got a chance of that. So here I am—best you could get for your nickel: Calamity Jane, Heroine of the Plains!
Now’s the time for me to crack my bull whip, 60 foot long, and show you how I could pluck a horsefly off the ear of the lead ox in a team of 20 back in my bullwacking days. Here’s where I flash my knife and shoot my pistol and whoop and holler like a real genuine frontier character.
Well, you ain’t agonna get what you paid for ’cause your prissy gatekeeper confiscated all my possibles at the door. “No weapons of any sort, dear.” Which didn’t make me nearly so mad as when she took my bottle of whisky—and my tobacco “We don’t chew here, dear, and the ladies wouldn’t like it if you use spirits.” I give her a mouth full. Coulda done a whole lot better job on her if I’d been drunk, but she already took care of that.
I ain’t a lady. Can’t afford it. I dress like a man and talk like a man anytime I got to work like a man. Well, I talk the way I want to whatever I’m wearing. And I dress the way I want to, even beings years ago a woman wearing pants risked a $10 fine out in Montana and Dakota.
You got different rules here than I been used to out West the last 40 years. I been fired for not cussing enough. When I was mule skinning with General Crook’s army out in Wyoming during the Centennial campaign against the Indians back in ’76, I come under suspicion of womanhood. They finally figured I couldn’t be a man cause I wasn’t cussing like a genuine driver worked for the Patrick and Saulsbury Black Hills Stage Line—which I did. So there I was, revealed to be a woman. You couldn’t have a woman hanging around the United States Army corrupting them soldiers, distracting them from hunting Indians. So Three Stars Crook sent me back to Fort Fetterman in the snow—it was March—figuring I guess that if I thought I was man enough to skin mules for the Army I was man enough to make it back to the Fort alone.
And I did. That meant I missed seeing Colonel Joseph J. Reynolds burn up an Indian village on the Powder River in a night raid, making off with 700 Indian ponies. Missed being there when the Indians stole the ponies back that very same night. And I missed seeing fine United States Army columns camping out in Montana snows without even any tents.
I give them a second chance. I was in General Crook’s supply train when he set out the second time, better weather, end of May. Letting him have a second opportunity to appreciate my services. They done it again, sent me back. I was hauling well enough ’til they remembered a woman couldn’t do it, leastways a decent one. So I left them again, all riding up through Powder River country, Three Stars Crook marching from the south to meet General Gibbon from the west, General Terry from the east—accompanied by Colonel George Armstrong Custer. All of them hunting for an Indian camp gathering that summer somewhere in the Powder River country, all three armies scared the whole gathered Indian nations was gonna slip through their trap, each commander even more scared that one of the others was gonna find the camp first and whip them Indians and reap the glory he was sure the Almighty had meant to be his alone.
And General Crook won, you might say. He got found by the redskins he was hunting and got all but whipped by Crazy Horse and a band of Lakota and Cheyenne up on the Rosebud, biggest set battle between the United States Army and the Indians so far.
The United States wanted them Black Hills back. You can’t blame them. They’d found gold in California, gold in Colorado, gold in Montana, and the Soldier Chief—that was one of the Indian names for Colonel Custer—Soldier Chief had took a fine party into the Black Hills back in ’74. By golly. he found color there too.
The Black Hills was Paha Sapa. They was sacred lands to the Sioux. Sioux got them fair and square by treaty in ’68, which was a pretty good deal for the Federals since the Sioux had thought the Hills was theirs anyhow, not to mention the rest of Dakota, Wyoming, Montana. But come Centennial summer, 1876, and that Centennial Army Campaign was aimed to give the Indians one last push and end all the inconvenience they’d been causing settlers and miners.
Them Indians knew something was in the air. They gathered every summer, kin tribes and friendlies, but that was the biggest Indian gathering for years. It was Miniconjou, Oglala, Hunkpapa, Sans Arc, Arapaho, Cheyenne—even old Ink Panduta and some of his Santee warriors was there. Sitting Bull, old for it, done the Sun Dance himself and bled and danced into a vision of white men, soldiers without ears, falling upside down into his camp. And Yeller Hair Custer fell right into it. Custer’s Crow scouts found the vision traced in the sand on a riverbank when they was hot on the trail, tracking the Indian gathering. They warned him. Soldier Chief thought he knew better. He smelled a good fight. Custer drove that Seventh Cavalry so hard their legs was shaking with tired when they dismounted to face their last on the Little Big Horn. Every man jack of them was killed—269 soldiers and Custer. They got whipped all right, and mutilated, most of them—Custer with his eardrums run right through. The Lakota had heard enough promises from the white man. That was their way of saying “You just didn’t listen.”
That was something, that Centennial Campaign. I sure tried to get in on it, but looks like I wasn’t invited and decided not to come and wasn’t wanted after I got there.
That’s all right. I got me some action the year before, when I was in disguise for real, when my Sergeant, Sergeant Shaw, had me all dressed up like a trooper so I could go along with him into the Black Hills with the Jenney survey party, mapping out what Colonel Custer said his party had found there the year before. I got found out about as quick then, too, but I worked it out. Colonel Dodge was in charge of the 400-man military support, protecting the survey party because they was, after all, on Sioux land in the Black Hills and had no business there, gold or not. I must of looked good. Colonel Dodge walked past me one morning not four days out—what could I do but salute—and all right, too, ’cause he saluted back. But some of the cavalry who was onto me and Shaw begun to snicker. Dodge caught on and sent me back to Fort Laramie. I went, but not too far. Just rejoined the troop columns every time they moved and had myself a fine summer, my first in the Black Hills.
Damn, it would of been fine even without Sergeant Shaw. Them Black Hills must be about the most beautiful spot on God’s green earth. Up north on Bear Butte they got flowers like I never seen before—and I crossed the plains 40 years ago. There’s such colors and such perfumes, so many different kinds—men was saying they’d give a hundred dollars just so their wives could see all them riches for just one hour. I didn’t have to give no hundred dollars, though. I had all them flowers and Sergeant Shaw too.
That wasn’t the riches the survey party had come for. They was there to find the gold Custer said his men found laying right down in the grass roots. I don’t know what they saw. I must of missed it. I sure never got rich on any of it. I missed Powder River, missed Rosebud Creek, I sure never got close to Yellow Hair Custer’s Seventh Cavalry getting whipped by 2000 Indian warriors on the Little Big Horn. I always been a day late, a dollar short, and going in the wrong direction.
I made my way to Deadwood in considerable style after I got mustered out of Crook’s teamsters and headed for Cheyenne. Had myself a damn fine summer, even if I did miss all the action the Army was trying to fire up. I met up with Wild Bill Hickok on the road, and me and Wild Bill, Kitty Arnold, Colorado Charlie Utter and his brother Steve, we got ourselves fine new buckskins with enough fringe to make a rope, new Army Colt pistols all around, never mind how. We rode into town and we made us some noise.
Deadwood wasn’t much—little old dirt town barely six months old—one long street of false front tents and sheds of charlatans. Out to fleece the miners who was out to fleece the Sioux—all in the name of color in them Black Hills. There was plenty of saloons, though, and we knew what to do in them. They had better whisky than them hog ranches sprung up around every Army fort after the government got religion and forbid drink on fort premises. We come into town noisy and we stayed that way.
Wild Bill Hickok was fine as frog’s hair. Some people will tell you we was sweethearts, him and me, and that we had a baby girl. I oughta know, and if I wanted you to know, I’d tell you.
Noise is about all there was of us. Wild Bill Hickok was a shooter in his heyday, but by then his eyes was going. I never saw Custer shoot, but they say he couldn’t hit a tent and him inside it—and Wild Bill was about in that condition. Not that he always shot the man people thought he ought to aim for when he was law down in Abilene. That job wasn’t even what it oughta be. There was a certain amount of law to be done, that’s for sure, but in between Wild Bill was expected to repair the sidewalks and remove dead animals from the street. And he soon showed such a loose trigger he was let go anyhow.
He was mostly traveling around making a living playing cards. He was good, but there was plenty with nothing else to brag about happy enough to brag they’d lost at cards to Wild Bill Hickok. I liked him all right. I was mad enough to spit nails when he got shot. Was a man there, Jack McCall, meaner than an acre of snakes. People said he was hunting Wild Bill for shooting his brother down in Kansas. I don’t know. Jack McCall shot Wild Bill in the back of the head when he was playing cards in Nuttall and Mann saloon. Bullet went right through Bill’s brain and come out his cheekbone. Left his cards alone but hit another player sitting across, wounded him. There them cards laid on the table—black aces and 8s—ever after known as the dead man’s hand. And people will tell you I chased Jack McCall through Deadwood to Shurdy’s butcher shop, cornered him with a meat cleaver because I’d left my pistol hung on my bedpost. How we strung Jack McCall up right there and give him justice. That’s not true. People think it . . . because I said it maybe or maybe because I let them put it in my Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane pamphlet they had me do up when I appeared upon the stage five years ago in ’96. I was mad all right. I was ready to saw his arm off and beat him with the bloody stump. But I never laid a hand on him. Jack McCall was tried and hung fair, all lawyered up and judged. People prefer a little lie.
Like my name: Calamity Jane. Would you of come out here [tonight/today] to hear Marthy Canary, born up in Princeton, Missouri, Mercer County? Would you like it if I told you I have no idea why people call me Calamity? You probably prefer to hear how when I was part of Captain Egan’s troops when we was harrying the Nez Perce Indians up on Goose Creek in Wyoming in the fall of ’73. How, when we was ambushed mile and half from the fort, I heard shots behind me and saw Captain Egan falling from his horse. I wheeled around and got him, grabbed him before he hit the ground, laid him over the pommel of my saddle best I could and held on tight ‘til I got him back safe to the fort. When he had recovered some, he looked up at me from his bed of pain, he smiled at me and said: “I christen you Calamity Jane, heroine of the plains.”
Well, if it never happened, it should of. It’s a shame to let a good story die. I wasn’t there, though. And neither was Captain Egan. And I got the wrong year and the wrong Indians. But I got no other reason to tell you why I’ve been Calamity for 30 of my 45 years.
You get tired of it. I wouldn’t mind being Marthy to somebody now and again. I haven’t been called that in an awful long time. There’s no purchase in it, though. When Mrs. Josephine Brake, saying she was a famous writer and very important, come out to Montana and found me in Livingston to put me in the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, last summer, she didn’t ask for Marthy Cannery. You’d think she’d of checked how bad I done five years ago in ’96 when I appeared for Messers Kohl and Middleton in Minneapolis, Chicago, and points east, Mr. Burke my husband coming along with me then, all expenses paid. I didn’t do too good—and for sure Buffalo Bill Cody never found a place for me in his Wild West Show—though he did lend me money for passage back West when I run afoul of the law in Buffalo this summer and had enough. I wouldn’t be here now if he didn’t. And I wouldn’t be here now if I’d gone straight back instead of stopping to drink up my traveling money and get myself broke enough to have to stand up here like some damn fool monkey and sell my life story.
Look, I have weaknesses. People don’t want to see what they’re looking at. What’s there ain’t enough. I’m 45 years old and behind my back I hear I look 80. I didn’t get this way sipping tea. You’d think Mrs. Brake would of taken pause when she found me, sick and stinking in the back room of a whore house out in Livingston. I looked like I been chewing tobacco and spitting against the wind. That didn’t bother her none. She was full of promises: we would live genteel; I would make a fine living selling my Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane pamphlet to the Exposition crowds in Buffalo.
I figured why not? I can’t dance and it’s too wet to plow. And to set her mind at ease, I promised her that on our train ride East I would take no drink unless I told her first. And that’s what I did. I kept her well informed and me well liquored, a bargain that made me a great deal happier than it made her. By time we got to St. Paul, Mrs. Brake was agitated and I was loud, but she had grabbed a bear by the ears, and there was nothing for it but to ride me all the way to Buffalo.
I’m too old to drive a team like I done 20 years ago. I drunk up everything I ever earned. I got no family. I’ve cared for kids but never mine. I never got close enough with clergy to lock up with any of my husbands legal-like and just as well ‘cause none of them stuck around too long. I’ve got to trade upon my name, and that ain’t even my own. I’m hired to tell you about the West, and anything you want to hear about it ain’t even true.
It’s 1901. The frontier century just ended–and you sat right here in Missouri and missed it. I should feel sorry for you? I should raise your hair about my adventures? How I was a scout for the Army, nearly died of pneumonia swimming an icy river to deliver messages back at the fort, rescued six passengers in the overland mail when Indians shot their driver, rode for the Pony Express, fought Indians hand to hand, built the railroad, dug for gold, found romance and an easeful life in country so beautiful you could die.
What world are you living in? Who do you think I am? I never done none of them things you know about me. And ain’t no amount of times I can tell you to make you remember day after tomorrow what was and what wasn’t. You got an idea in your head about what life was like where you ain’t been, and it takes more than me saying what was to shake it.
My name is Marthy Canary. I was born in Missouri in 1856. We went out West when I was eight years old, my father and mother, three younger sisters and two younger brothers and me to the gold diggings in Alder Gulch in Montana. And that summer crossing the plains was the best five months of my life.
It started me to moving and I been moving ever since. I never was a house person, never liked obeying rules. I loved animals, being outdoors. Crossing the plains, I saw Indians behind every rise and clump of grass long before I knew what an Indian looked like. And when we did see some they didn’t scalp or nothing. They wouldn’t go away, though, til you give them some coffee or some sugar. I felt buffalo, biggest thing I ever saw or heard. You didn’t even have to look or listen to know they was passing somewhere. Just feel. Feel the ground, the air. It was like the world was moving.
I got used to horses for sure that summer. Many a time I rode somebody’s horse into a river and across and back again and again across before them wagons was all forded. I drove a team anytime anybody would let me, eight years old. I explored and ran generally wild. Them plains like to went on forever and I would of been glad if they did. The grownups was so busy and so worried that looking after children was an afterthought. On Windlass Hill out in western Nebraska, down to Ash Hollow, they had to let the wagons down over top of the cliff on ropes. I laughed. Such a sight. I could get by with anything I wanted to while something like that was going on.
I guess my father thought to strike it rich. He talked about it all summer off and on—all the men did. How big a strike it was likely to be. How quick you could make it once you got there. Who was related to who that had made how much money, and how you paid for groceries in gold dust it was so plentiful, and everybody had it. If that kind of talk don’t light your fire, your wood’s wet.
We followed the Oregon Trail, then the Boseman Trail through Wyoming. When we got to Montana country, Virginia City, it was fall and setting in cold. I never saw such a dirty, ugly, crowded place in my life, but I’ve seen it over and over since. Miners need hardware, liquor, and loose women—and if I’d been old enough to notice, I think I’d of seen Virginia City had plenty of all three. When they open up the trough to feed, you gotta be all elbows and ankles. There was a trough, all right, but I don’t think my father got close or done it right. He might of made it, but my mother died the year we got there. And he must of thought that was a good idea ’cause he up and died the next.
When the ox is in the ditch, you do what you have to. I was 10, 11 maybe, had some practice mothering the year between, but it was too much for me. I had some luck begging if I carried the baby along. I did what I could to feed us for a while, but we broke up. I wouldn’t know them now from Adam’s off ox. I earned the living that I could.
There was no ladies in Montana to need a helper. When I come to Pierre over in Dakota the men begged me to be a nurse to Mrs. Fales, sick with mountain fever, and I done that. With about no other women in town, I passed for a lady or close enough. That was about the only time being a woman helped me get a decent job. And I got a name for nursing here and there, but mostly not for pay, just ordinary helping out. But people don’t want to hear about that. They want to hear how during the smallpox epidemic of ’78 in Deadwood I stuck my six-shooter in the nose of the grocer bending over his counter totaling up my bill and told him to fill my crocker sack up with food for them miners sick with smallpox out in that cabin that nobody else would nurse but me. Nobody had to steal food for sick ones out my way. Everybody opened up for a need like that.
I think I’ve got the ordinary amount of human virtues. I know I’ve got enough vices. I just all in all never fit in anywhere. When I lived in whorehouses, I was the cook and not one of the girls. And I can still red up a kitchen. My food is so good, you put it on top your head, your tongue’ll slap your brains out trying to get it. Especially when I’m sober. When I was working I could stay sober a long time. Then I couldn’t. I was always hired back when I was finished drinking and willing to work again.
Drinking wasn’t easy. Women weren’t allowed in saloons—still ain’t. When I wanted whisky many a time I had to use my pistol to teach a new bartender I was serious and he’d better let me drink there. I’m pretty loud when I’m having a good time, but if you don’t go to church I say you ought to be able to make your own joyful sound when the spirit moves. Carrying my tin growler
down the street enjoying my drink or looking for it made the ladies frown, so it was best I holed up with the men in a saloon.
Mrs. Fales liked to say a real lady only gets her name in the paper three times. And I like to say I am about 14 ladies because I have been arrested and published in every town from the Black Hills west to Montana and clear down to Color—not to mention Minneapolis and Chicago and St. Paul and Philadelphia. And now Buffalo, too.
I never got on with ladies nohow, so I don’t count it bad that I ain’t one. Seems like most of them would stick their nose in a grave if they thought there was still hope of warm gossip. I have had ladies cross the street so they didn’t have to be where I was on this side. You’d think they’d be grateful to me. If it wasn’t for me, most of them would be hard pressed to find somebody they could be better than.
I’ve whipped a few women in fist fights, but nobody would call them ladies. Won me some money on it, too, but mostly just got arrested. I shouldn’t of took it out on them, but sometimes you just can’t help it. I look a hachet to a lady clerk at Yegen Brothers store in Billings. Twice. It just kind of annoyed me to act decent all the time. I come close to something serious only once when I rolled a miner for his money. Even the judge agreed I done the reasonable thing—take the money to pay Kitty Arnold’s hospital bill. I had to take it before somebody else did. Durn fool was drunk under the table.
It could of been a lonely life if I’d had to depend on women for company. Lucky for me I got along better with men. I had quite a few husbands. There was Lieutenant Washburne and Lieutenant Sommers, Army men on the move, moving on. Never was a lieutenant didn’t think he was so bright you had to cover him up every morning so the sun would rise. Colorado Charlie was all right, but he was a cowboy. You couldn’t get him to do much of anything if he couldn’t do it from a horse. Mr. White was rich, but it turned out if he had a soft spot it was for himself and not for me. And sweet young Mr. Dorsett. Dorsett and me run a ranch in Montana for a while. Mr. Blake, Mr. Hunt, Mr. King. Sergeant Siechrist thought himself a gentleman. Sergeant Shaw was a lot more fun. And that conniving Mr. Burke. He got a job all right as hack driver when we come back to Deadwood after my showing tour in ’96. Durn fool never turned in his receipts. Just got $175 together and left town.
Mr. Steers was the worst of them, though. Even people who liked him said he was so low down he could crawl under a snake’s belly with a top hat on. He wouldn’t spit in your ear if your brains was on fire. When we was living in Meeker, Colorado, for a while, he stabbed me with a butcher knife handle and hit me on the lip with a rock. The rest of them was all good enough for a while. Good enough to drink with, good enough for a change from being alone in some pretty lonely country. I’ve had old, I’ve had young. Young’s better. And wasn’t none of them meant as much to me as my black horse Satan. And he’s dead.
I know it ain’t nothing to you, but I get disgusted. It’s a bad feeling to have people look at me like I really am the Calamity Jane they read about in dime novels: the White Devil of the Yellowstone. Calamity Jane and Deadwood Dick. Ruined by the man who betrayed me, I run out West lest I lose the remainder of my virtue. I do brave deeds and in between I gaze up at the moon in the lofty summits of the vast Tetons, avoiding pesky Indians, saving pilgrims, and pining for my lost love.
Sometimes I wish I could just be Marthy Canary and they would all just let me alone to go to hell in my own way. I didn’t need no man to ruin me. Hell, I done it myself.
I don’t think I belong back here in Missouri. I’m a moving woman, and I’d best keep moving on. I’m not sure where I can go call home when I get back West. I’ll probably try my luck in Deadwood and Lead again. I’m a name there. People trot me out for visitors to let them get a taste of what the wild West was like back in frontier days. First they’d ask us old-timers to hide when Eastern newspaper editors come touring with their wives. Now that they got streets and clubs and all, they wasn’t anxious to have outsiders see what lowlife they sprung from. But they soon found out that’s just what civilized folk come there to see.
And I no more than drop my name in a railroad smoking car and I got to take a stick to beat off all the volunteers wanting to stand me to a drink. They want a story so bad they don’t even catch that, whatever glory it was out there, I mostly missed it. So I find out what they think and I weave a tale to fit it. Hey, fair’s fair. They’re buying.
Tell you what. I ain’t got no more I want to say to you. You got a question you want to ask before I get out of here, just stick your hand up and I’ll take a shot at it.