Everyone knows the name Calamity Jane. Scores of dime novels and movie and TV Westerns have portrayed this original Wild West woman as an adventuresome, gun-toting hellion. Although Calamity Jane has probably been written about more than any other woman of the nineteenth-century American West, fiction and legend have largely obscured the facts of her life. This lively, concise, and exhaustively researched biography traces the real person from the Missouri farm where she was born in 1856 through the development of her notorious persona as a Wild West heroine.
Before Calamity Jane became a legend, she was Martha Canary, orphaned when she was only eleven years old. From a young age she traveled fearlessly, worked with men, smoked, chewed tobacco, and drank. By the time she arrived in the boomtown of Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876, she had become Calamity Jane, and the real Martha Canary had disappeared under a landslide of purple prose.
Calamity became a hostess and dancer in Deadwood’s saloons and theaters. She imbibed heavily, and she might have been a prostitute, but she had other qualities, as well, including those of an angel of mercy who ministered to the sick and the down-and-out. Journalists and dime novelists couldn’t get enough of either version, nor, in the following century, could filmmakers.
Sorting through the stories, veteran western historian Richard W. Etulain’s account begins with a biography that offers new information on Calamity’s several “husbands” (including one she legally married), her two children, and a woman who claimed to be the daughter of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity, a story Etulain discredits. In the second half of the book, Etulain traces the stories that have shaped Calamity Jane’s reputation. Some Calamity portraits, he says, suggest that she aspired to a quiet life with a husband and family. As the 2004–2006 HBO series Deadwood makes clear, well more than a century after her first appearance as a heroine in the Deadwood Dick dime novels, Calamity Jane lives on—raunchy, unabashed, contradictory, and ambiguous as ever.
“Talk about myth busters! Richard Etulain’s probing research, lively style, and scholarly maturity has resulted in a believable portrait of Calamity Jane the woman and an insightful analysis of Calamity the legend. This book is not to be missed by those interested in the West, its women, or its larger-than-life characters.” Glenda Riley—author of The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley
“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.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Few characters in western history have been more elusive than Martha Jane Canary/Calamity Jane. In this book, Richard W. Etulain has doggedly tracked her down and told her story, and that of her evolving myth, better than anyone else. He reminds us, too, that her mysteries remain, which of course is part of her enduring appeal.”
—Elliott West, author of The Essential West: Collected Essays and The Contested Plains: Indians, Goldseekers, and the Rush to Colorado
“Richard W. Etulain's newest book is a model of biographical scholarship. In The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane, he recounts a pair of compelling stories--the first a narrative about a remarkable western woman, the second the history of her reinvention in popular culture over the past century. Etulain peels away the myths as if he is restoring a painting.”
author of Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West