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Calamity Jane: The Myth and the Reality

Elements of Calamity Jane's story might be too good to be true.

They say she could ride before she could walk and shoot before she could talk. Like a hurricane on foot, she created adventure wherever she went.

While it's hard to separate the fact from the fiction with a woman like this, one thing is for sure: as a marksman, she was the best of the best, and as frontier woman, she was unmatched.

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The Early Years

As with most infamous figures in American folklore, Calamity Jane had a shockingly normal birth with a shockingly normal early childhood.

Born as Martha Jane in 1852 to Robert Cannary, a farmer in Princeton, Missouri, Jane was the oldest of five siblings in what promised to be an utterly average life. At least until the 1865 Gold Rush.

The promise of fortunes pushed Robert Cannary to leave behind the family farm and head out to Salt Lake City, Utah. It was a daunting and dangerous voyage, but young Jane wasn't bothered by it. In fact, she often drove the family's wagons herself.

Within two years of moving to Salt Lake City, both her parents died of disease. In her first great act of embellishment, Jane took to telling people they had been scalped by Indians.

The Myth Herself

In 1870, despite being only eighteen years old, Jane is said to have joined General Custer's regiment, or so her autobiography claims. More likely she served as a scout for the less infamous General Crook, campaigning against the Arizona Indians.

It was during this time that she began to dress as a man and take on more masculine jobs.

What about the source of the "Calamity" nickname? As is common in the life of this exceptional woman, there is no clear cut answer.

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Some say it's because she threatened any man who bothered her with calamity. Others say because her life had been so tumultuous. The most likely answer was because of the ruckus she was sure to raise any time her considerable shooting and riding skills were brought into question.

These shooting skills would serve her well. As an orphaned woman in the Wild West, Calamity Jane had to take on no end of odd jobs usually reserved for men, from mule skinning to railroad working. There are even claims she occasionally worked as a prostitute. And it is well known that she often worked the most dangerous job of all: that of a mail carrier for the Pony Express, where she not only had to shoot, but she had to be ready to do so while protecting her packages from atop a galloping horse.

Her skills were even briefly showcased in the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show but, sadly, she was soon terminated due to her frequent drunkenness.

On Camera

Calamity Jane remains a popular figure in the folklore of America and, in the last century, has been portrayed time after time on film, largely highlighting her years in Deadwood opposite the equally formidable Wild Bill Hickok.

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The most famous of portrayals of Calamity Jane include Doris Day's performance in the 1953 film Calamity Jane and Robin Weigert's in the hit drama Deadwood.

For all the debating over whether or not elements of Calamity Jane's story were fact or fiction, one thing remains true: they're great stories, no doubt about it.


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Calamity Jane: The Myth and the Reality