She was born Martha Jane Canary in 1852, but she is better known as Calamity Jane. How she got her nickname, Calamity, is the subject of debate. According to her own account, she got it during an Indian battle at present day Sheridan, Wyoming when she rescued the wounded Captain Egan after he was shot. Calamity claims to have ridden up to the Captain just as he was falling off his horse. Calamity Jane pulled him onto her horse and rode with him to safety. Upon his recovery, Captain Egan is claimed to have said, “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.”
One problem with this account is that some people claim Calamity Jane never rescued Captain Egan and never even fought in any Indian wars. It is simply a made up story. A more likely explanation for her name is that she supposedly threatened men that if they offended her they would “court calamity.” That explanation makes a bit more sense.
Calamity Jane was known for being kind and generous, even though she was generally very poor herself. She was also known for being rather wild. A Captain Jack Crawford said of her, “She was simply a notorious character, dissolute and devilish.” (Wikipedia)
There are several stories of Calamity Jane that come down to us with some degree credibility. One occurred in the old mining town of Castle City, Montana, now a ghost town. Calamity came to Castle City in the late 1880s or early 1890s to run a restaurant. She had already tried her hand in the food industry before, but lost her business because of her inability to control her drinking. But now at Castle City, during the hey day of the mining business, she would try her hand again. This time she had more motivation to stay straight, since she now had a daughter, also named Jane.
Jane did stay straight, for a while, but the wild side of life called to her again, and proving too difficult to turn down. Leaving little Jane with a friend in a house of ill repute in Castle City, Jane ventured off to a nearby town to party and whoop it up for a few days. One night she and a man she met at a bar retired to a barn to continue their party a little more privately. But, the woman who owned the barn didn’t cotton too much to that plan, and she ran Calamity and her beau off with a pitchfork. Calamity ended up in another saloon that night, and that didn’t turn out much better for her. She ended up drunk and was arrested by the local sheriff. Since the jail was full of men and couldn’t accommodate a woman, the sheriff locked Calamity up in a shed.
The next morning Calamity Jane heard a boy walking past the shed, and, calling to him through the door, offered him a silver dollar to buy her some whiskey. Interestingly, she didn’t offer to pay him to break her out, but to get her a drink. The boy bought the whiskey and let it in through a hole above the door. He also kept the change.
When Calamity was released she returned to Castle City and her daughter. She ran her business well for awhile, but again that call to the wilder side of life made its voice heard. Calamity packed up and headed for Deadwood, SD, another boom town known for its vice and wildness. Jane had her daughter taken from her here, and I don’t know if she ever got her back.(Ghost Town Trails, 80-81). Supposedly, after her death on August 1, 1903, there were a number of letters Calamity had written to her daughter found in her possession, letters she never sent. Some say she couldn’t have written them because she was illiterate. Perhaps she had dictated them to someone else. Who really knows? But, if those letters were there, they are a testament to a mother who tried, and wanted, to love her daughter, but just wasn’t able to.
Calamity Jane lived up to her name. She may have brought calamity to the men who offended her; she certainly brought it to herself and her little girl. While her life story is both interesting and exciting to read, her sad life is also a testament to the aphorism (and biblical truth) that we reap what we sow. It is also a sharp warning to us that we best sow carefully, and with the approval of God.