September 25, 2014 1 Comment
Here’s my latest in The Wall Street Journal, a review of “The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane,” which does much to separate fact from fiction.
On Aug. 2, 1903, a day after she died in faraway Terry, S.D., Calamity Jane’s obituary appeared in the New York Times. The subhead described her as a “Woman Who Became Famous as an Indian Fighter” and as someone who had “Served with Gens. Custer and Miles.” The article went on to explain how Calamity Jane had been a leading U.S. Cavalry scout, a mail carrier through hostile Indian territory and the woman who had been present when the card cheat Jack McCall, in 1876, shot Wild Bill Hickok in the back of the head in a saloon in Deadwood, S.D.—after which she had single-handedly used a meat cleaver to capture him.
Most of these claims were untrue, but the Times wasn’t alone: Newspapers across the country repeated as fact the bravura stories that had come to make up the legend of Calamity Jane, many of which had first been recited by Calamity herself.
Her real name was, improbably, Martha Canary. She was a farm girl from Princeton, Mo., whose parents chased the Gold Rush to Utah in the 1860s. After being orphaned in her early teens and drifting from one mining camp and boomtown to another, she began to tell tall tales to anyone who would listen, including the dime novelists of the 1870s and ’80s whose job it was to feed heart-quickening copy about the Wild West—true or not—to Eastern readers.
Calamity’s improvised life story was codified in the mid-1890s in a ghostwritten autobiography, really a piece of publicity that was prepared ahead of her cross-country tour with the Kohl & Middleton Wild West Show. An extended appearance at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., thrust her further into the national psyche and ensured that her legend would live on.
In “The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane,” Richard W. Etulain, a former director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for the American West, conscientiously and engagingly tries to separate fact from fiction. After poring through census records, newspaper stories, diaries and eyewitness accounts, he concludes that Calamity Jane’s autobiography “wilded up her life” by taking liberties with the facts. “Her claims of having served as George Custer’s scout in Arizona in 1870 and 1871, at the age of fourteen and fifteen,” he writes, “are a bald falsehood since Custer was not in the Southwest during this period.”
Mr. Etulain also dismisses her “brags” of later being with Gens. Custer and Nelson Miles, because they were not involved in the Indian outbreak during which she claimed to have ridden alongside them. Even the origins of her name are suspect. In her autobiography, she said that she became Calamity Jane when she saved “Capt. Egan” from an attack by Nez Perce Indians during an expedition to the Black Hills in 1875. In gratitude, Egan had supposedly declared: “I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.” But the dates and details don’t match with what we know of the attack. Besides, as Mr. Etulain reports, Egan later said that “there was not an iota of truth in Calamity’s tale.”
It is true that she was on the Big Horn and Yellowstone Expedition in 1876—one of many Army efforts to corral Indian tribes onto reservations—but in what capacity is uncertain. Her true role is “hazy,” Mr. Etulain politely notes. “During this march,” she had claimed in her autobiography, “I swam the Platte river at Fort Fetterman as I was the bearer of important dispatches. I had a ninety mile ride to make, wet and cold. I contracted a severe illness and was sent back in Gen. Crook’s ambulance to Fort Fetterman where I laid in the hospital for fourteen days.” Mr. Etulain can’t find any evidence for such details and concludes that she joined the expedition not as a scout but probably “as a teamster or bullwhacker, or even as a camp follower or prostitute.”
As for the events in Deadwood in 1876, Calamity did arrive there with Wild Bill Hickok after she had been foisted on him by Army officials in Wyoming. They had found her, Mr. Etulain writes, “in drunken and nearly naked circumstances.” Hickok was reluctant to take her along on his travels—a venture into the Blacks Hills consisting of “a half-dozen stout wagons pack with supplies, and containing enthusiastic men overflowing with hope-for possibilities.” But one of Hickok’s partners on the trip agreed to “look after her.”
As it happens, Calamity knew Hickok for only five weeks, though popularizers, Mr. Etulain notes, have portrayed the two of them as a couple in biographies, novels and movies. Contrary to the Times obituary, “Calamity was most assuredly not with Hickok on the fateful day of 2 August 1876,” when he was killed by McCall in the Deadwood saloon. Still, she transformed her nonexistent role into one of her greatest deeds: “I at once started to look for the assassian [sic] and found him at Shurdy’s butcher shop and grabbed a meat cleaver and made him throw up his hands.” McCall did flee to a butcher shop but was cornered by other gamblers and surrendered.
Even as Mr. Etulain dismisses Calamity’s tales of derring-do, he uncovers a feminine aspect to her nature lurking beneath the manly ranch-hand attire. He recounts a story about her and William “Billie” Lull, the manager of the Porter Hotel in Deadwood, who nursed her back from a near-death bout of mountain fever. When he left Deadwood to go back east, Lull wrote years later, “for the first time in her life there was a Tear in her Eyes as she bid me goodbye.” The Lull-Calamity friendship, Mr. Etulain writes, “provides intimate glimpses of Calamity missing in most accounts.” Mr. Etulain’s excellent book is a reminder that history can be a version of myth—in this case, a harmless and entertaining myth that we may be reluctant to give up.
Mr. Yost is a writer in Chicago. His latest book is the e-book novel “Cooper’s Daughter: A Rick Crane Noir.”