Monday, March 20, 2023

Western Cattle Queens: Calamity Jane

The Wild West had a way of producing tough women, and none grittier than the cattle queens who rode, roped, and endured the privations of the trail as well as any man. Facing challenges, hardships, and perils—sometimes with children at their side—they garnered grudging respect in an era of shifting cultural roles. Some accrued wealth, while others paid with their lives. These women overcame cultural expectations to live on their terms. The halls of history must ring with applause.

This blog series celebrates the cattle queens mentioned in The Whispering Wind, the final installment in the Montana Gold western historical romance series.

Calamity Jane
Martha Canary (aka) "Calamity Jane" (1852-1903), full-length portrait, seated with a rifle as General Crook's scout.

Calamity Jane has gone down in Wild West history for her horsemanship and courage. Jane did most things well, including running a ranch during the cattle queen phase of her life. Afflicted by the restlessness common to western emigrants, she lived a wild life, used rough language, and was no stranger to whiskey.

Jane penned much of her own legend, mixing fact with fiction. This makes it difficult to discern truth from fabrication. We do know that she was born Martha Jane Cannary in Missouri on May 1, 1852. She was a young teen in 1865 when her family migrated to Virginia City, Montana. Unfortunately, Jane’s mother died of pneumonia shortly after the journey. Her father took Jane and her five siblings on to Utah, where he died later that year (1866).

Calamity Jane in a dress
Calamity Jane, circa 1885-1890, 
DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University
After Jane became head of her household, she returned with her younger siblings to Wyoming. In Fort Bridger, Jane worked at a variety of jobs—including ox-driver, cook, waitress, dishwasher, nurse, dancehall girl, and—according to some, a prostitute.

Jane had become a good marksman and excellent rider during her family’s five-month trip from Missouri to Montana. These skills led to her becoming an army scout under General Armstrong Custer in 1870. Women’s clothing wasn’t well suited to her new line of work, so Jane donned men’s clothes instead. Maintaining a masculine appearance helped her gain acceptance from the men with which she worked.

The story behind Jane’s nickname is lost in history. Jane insisted that an officer she rescued during an Indian attack bestowed the moniker on her. Since other details of that story remain in doubt—including whether she ever fought Indians, it’s hard to know what to believe. Another story claimed that Jane had stated that any man who crossed her would meet with calamity. It may have simply come from her penchant of getting into trouble.

Jane hit it off with James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok, and traveled with him and friends in the mid-1970’s. to Deadwood, South Dakota. She became a pony express rider and carried mail through treacherous country.

Some believe that Jane and Wild Bill were lovers, but there is no clear evidence of that. Jane may have been in love with Bill, but he was already married and was probably not interested in Jane. After Wild Bill was shot while playing poker, Jane chased his killer. Wild Bill’s murderer escaped her wrath but eventually hanged for the deed.

Jane stayed on in Deadwood and offered her services as a nurse during a smallpox epidemic that broke out during the winter of 1878. She returned for another stint with the army, hired on to drive freight wagons, and finally showed her prowess at ranching.

Jane was 33 when she married Clinton Burke in 1885. Jane gave birth to a daughter, but it is unclear what became of the child.

By now a legend in her own time, Jane followed the advice of friends to use her fame to make money. She began touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and made other public appearances. Ill health forced her return to South Dakota, where she died. The year was 1903, and Jane was 51. She is buried, by her request, beside “the only man I ever loved”—Wild Bill Hickok.

Calamity Jane at Wild Bill Hickok's grave
Martha Canary (aka) "Calamity Jane" (1852-1903), full-length portrait, seated with rifle as General Crook's scout.

Calamity Jane is one of the strong women that Phoebe Walsh, heroine of The Whispering Wind, mentions while persuading her uncle to hire her as a ranch hand. Much like Calamity Jane, Phoebe is independent, courageous, a skilled rider, and a sharp shooter. The only problem with working for her uncle is that Will Canfield—the man who kissed and then rejected her—will be her boss.

The Whispering Wind is available for pre-order. 
Learn more.

What's New with Janalyn Voigt

The past month has been a whirlwind. Offering The Whispering Wind for presale is like preparing two consecutive book launches spaced a month apart. For an author, it involves communicating with a launch team, writing guest features at blogs, keeping track of giveaway winners, obsessing over sales ranking while advertisements run, and telling people about the book on social media. By the end of it all, most writers are sick of thinking and talking about their books.  I believe in this story, and that makes it all worthwhile.

About Janalyn Voigt

Janalyn Voigt's unique blend of adventure, romance, suspense, and fantasy creates worlds of beauty and danger for readers. Writing in the historical romance and medieval epic fantasy genres, Janalyn is represented by Wordserve Literary. When not writing, she loves to discover worlds of adventure in the great outdoors.

Learn more about Janalyn Voigt and her books.


  1. Thank you for posting today. Calamity Jane was quite a character! I wonder how her siblings fared in life.

  2. That's a good question, Connie. None of them had a very good start.