May 1st marked the birthday of a woman by the name of Martha Jane Cannary—eldest child of a gambler father and a prostitute mother. She had two brothers and three sisters. As the family traveled from Martha Jane’s birthplace in Missouri to Virginia City, Montana, her mother fell ill with pneumonia and died. A year later, her father also succumbed to death, leaving Martha Jane, who was just fourteen years old at the time, to take charge of her five younger siblings and support her family. The six siblings settled in Piedmont, Wyoming, where Martha Jane took whatever jobs she could find—from dishwasher, to waitress, to nurse, to ox team driver, to sometimes prostitute. She would have turned 167 this year.
Why am I telling you about an obscure woman who died long ago?
Because she is better known as “Calamity Jane”—and she is also the historic western figure who I loosely based my heroine on in Taming Petra, one of four stories from the novella collection titled Cameo Courtships.
The Real Calamity Jane: Fact or Myth?
|Calamity Jane in her buckskin trousers|
and jacket, carrying a Sharps rifle.
Calamity Jane is a larger-than-life western figure who is said to have been a whiskey-swilling army scout, Indian fighter, and sharpshooter, a contemporary of Wild Bill Hickok and Buffalo Bill Cody. Her biography is littered with fantastical stories of great exploits, though many are questioned for their factualness. For instance, Calamity Jane once said that her nickname came about in this way:
It was during this campaign [in 1872–73] that I was christened Calamity Jane. It was on Goose Creek, Wyoming, where the town of Sheridan is now located. Capt. Egan was in command of the Post. We were ordered out to quell an uprising of the Indians, and were out for several days, had numerous skirmishes during which six of the soldiers were killed and several severely wounded. When on returning to the Post we were ambushed about a mile and a half from our destination. When fired upon, Capt. Egan was shot. I was riding in advance and on hearing the firing turned in my saddle and saw the Captain reeling in his saddle as though about to fall. I turned my horse and galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling. I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Capt. Egan on recovering, laughingly said: "I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains." I have borne that name up to the present time.
~Excerpted from “Life and Adventures of
Calamity Jane” by Martha Cannary Burke
Many disputed the claim above as untrue, even before it was dictated into the promotional pamphlet from which it was taken (Jane was functionally illiterate, so others had to write for her). Some folks went so far as to say that she never saw a day of service with the US Army, so the veracity of the claim falls in great question. Another claim of how the moniker came to be associated with this woman is due to her threat to men that if they crossed her, they were courting calamity.
|James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok|
Another area where people have cried foul is in her association with James Butler Hickok. Some sources say she first became acquainted with Wild Bill somewhere in the early 1870s and rode into the Deadwood, South Dakota, on his wagon train in 1875. Others say she rode into the area with the Army in 1875 and met Wild Bill in Deadwood soon after. She claims to have had a relationship with Hickok and was even married to him in 1873, and that the pair had a daughter who was later given up for adoption. To date, no one has found official records of a marriage between Calamity Jane and Hickok—and others have gone so far as to say that Hickok had no use for the woman. A woman, Jean Hickok Burkardt McCormick, did present herself in the 1940s, touting herself to be the legal offspring of Jane and Wild Bill—but her claims were soundly refuted. James Butler Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried next to each other in Mount Moriah Cemetery, South Dakota, but even that is cause for dispute. Not the location of their burial plots, but the reasons they are buried in adjoining spaces. Some say Jane was laid to rest next to Hickok because of the great love they shared. Others rumor that it was only because those around her in her last moments chose to grant Jane’s final wish. Still others have circulated the idea that their close proximity was one last joke played on Hickok, forcing him to lie next to the woman he couldn’t abide in life even in his death.
|Calamity Jane visiting the gravesite of Wild Bill Hickok in the 1890s.|
Despite the many discrepancies surrounding the true-life figure of Calamity Jane, there are some points of her character which aren’t so disputed.
· She was known to wear men’s trousers, surely adding to the outrageousness of her persona.
· She was said to have had a kind and generous spirit, often helping the sick and poor she came across.
· Whether she did all the outlandish things claimed by others, as well as herself, she was well liked in the west, for the most part.
It’s Your Turn: Do you believe Calamity Jane was all she is reported to have been—army scout, Indian fighter, sharpshooter, angel of mercy for the poor and sick, and more? Or do you believe her to be just another larger-than-life western figure whose reputation has grown into the stuff of tall tales and myth? If the latter, does it bother you that she is touted as an “Old West Hero” even today? Leave your answer, including your email address, for the opportunity to win a signed paperback copy of Cameo Courtships.
Jennifer Uhlarikdiscovered the western genre as a pre-teen when she swiped the only “horse” book she found on her older brother’s bookshelf. A new love was born. Across the next ten years, she devoured Louis L’Amour westerns and fell in love with the genre. In college at the University of Tampa, she began penning her own story of the Old West. Armed with a B.A. in writing, she has finaled and won in numerous writing competitions, and been on the ECPA best-seller list numerous times. In addition to writing, she has held jobs as a private business owner, a schoolteacher, a marketing director, and her favorite—a full-time homemaker. Jennifer is active in American Christian Fiction Writers, Women Writing the West, and is a lifetime member of the Florida Writers Association. She lives near Tampa, Florida, with her husband, college-aged son, and four fur children.
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by Susanne Dietze, Debra E. Marvin, Jennifer Uhlarik, and Kathleen Y'Barbo
In 1851, a special cameo is gifted by Queen Victoria to Letitia Newton, who though considered an old maid, meets the perfect gentleman minutes after donning. Told by the Queen the cameo is to be shared, Letitia gifts the "Victoria Cameo" to a woman in her family, hoping adventure and romance will follow each of its subsequent wearers.
PINNED ABOVE HER HEART by Susanne Dietze
1851 – Pittsburgh, PA
After receiving the Victoria Cameo, aspiring journalist Clara Newton works to expose a smuggler, but reporter Byron Breaux must break the story first or lose his job. Working together is out of the question until they learn secrets that threaten Clara’s father. . .and her heart.
TAMING PETRA by Jennifer Uhlarik
1875 – Colorado Territory
Trouser-wearing frontierswoman Petra Jayne Hollingsworth has no intention of donning the heirloom cameo, but when a crooked brothel owner steals the treasure, securing its return becomes Petra’s highest priority. Assisting her, Reverend Dustin Owens is appalled to learn the price of its ransom is that Petra must work in the brothel. He may save the woman’s virtue, but can he help Petra regain her cameo and rediscover her faith?
MEET ME AT THE FAIR by Kathleen Y’Barbo
Spring 1885 – New Orleans during the 1884 World’s Fair and Cotton Exposition
It takes a Pinkerton to find a Pinkerton, and Ethan Butler has been charged with finding Elizabeth Newton. Just when he locates her, the cameo he is to deliver is stolen. It appears his previous case has discovered his presence in New Orleans, but he can’t return to that case until the cameo is found. With Miss Newton as a reluctant partner in crime fighting, can Ethan Butler locate the cameo and its thieves without losing his heart?
LENDING MY HEART by Debra E. Marvin
1895 – Pittsburgh, PA
The arrival of a handsome Scottish administrator ruins Miss Bertie Hart’s dream to oversee the new Carnegie Library children’s department. Yet bristly Mr. Russell Smart’s working-class determination and his love of books make him the perfect partner to better the lives of Pittsburgh’s poor. As for a partner in life? Not even her Victoria Cameo can narrow the social chasm he and her father keep between them.