Birthday Girl! Calamity Jane (May 1, 1852–August 1, 1903)

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Here’s a Western role model for boys and girls! Martha Jane Canary might have been born with a sweet name, but she ended up known as Calamity Jane–one of America’s legendary figures of the frontier. She’s also one of the few Wild West figures with a reputation as being a pretty good human being. Of course, most of what we know about Calamity Jane’s life is courtesy of her own self-promotion. She was a pal of Wild Bill Hickock, and they both made a living later on in life by touring around on their fame.

We are pretty sure that she really was born on May 1, 1852, in Princeton, Missouri. Old census records also show that she really was the oldest of six children. (Some old records spell her last name as “Cannary.”) Sadly, her mother died along the way when the family packed up in 1865 to travel by wagon train from Missouri to Virginia. That trip also gave the teenager her start as a woman of the West, as she tells in her own words:

By the time we reached Virginia City, I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age. I remember many occurrences on the journey from Missouri to Montana. Many times in crossing the mountains, the conditions of the trail were so bad that we frequently had to lower the wagons over ledges by hand with ropes, for they were so rough and rugged that horses were of no use. We also had many exciting times fording streams, for many of the streams in our way were noted for quicksands and boggy places, where, unless we were very careful, we would have lost horses and all.

Then we had many dangers to encounter in the way of streams swelling on account of heavy rains. On occasions of that kind, the men would usually select the best places to cross the streams; myself, on more than one occasion, have mounted my pony and swam across the stream several times merely to amuse myself, and have had many narrow escapes from having both myself and pony washed away to certain death, but, as the pioneers of those days had plenty of courage, we overcame all obstacles and reached Virginia City in safety.

By the time she was 20 years old, Calamity Jane was a regular presence in military battles against the American Indians who would conduct raids against the settlers. (That’s a touchy subject, as is some other parts of Calamity Jane’s past that should be saved for when the kids are older.) Calamity Jane made a lot of unconfirmed claims, but we know that she really was a scout for the Army and different wagon train expeditions. That’s enough to make her an American original and very unique figure in the Wild West. She’s since been portrayed in all kinds of films–and, you know, those movies cleaned her up real good. Here’s one of our favorite Calamity Jane depictions. It might not be historically accurate, but it’s sure fit for kids…