THE ENGLISH WESTERNERS' SOCIETY

 

MARCH 2016 BOOK REVIEW

This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Spring 2015, Volume 61, Number 2)

THE LIFE AND LEGENDS OF CALAMITY JANE

By Richard W. Etulain, University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. 381 pages, illustrations, index, essay on sources.

One of the ironies of the history of the American West is that one of the most apposite phrases that described the transition of certain characters and events from history to legend and mythology comes from a work of fiction. 

In 1962, John Ford made a film of a short story by Dorothy M. Johnson, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. As the story concludes, newspaper editor Maxwell Scott explains to Congressman Ransom Stoddard, as played by James Stewart, that, "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." Since 1876 the stories of the legend of Calamity Jane have overshadowed the real life of Martha Canary.

Richard W. Etulain’s new book sets out to achieve two goals; to get to the truth of the life of the woman who became Calamity Jane, and at the same time to analyse the layer upon layer of fiction and legend that has accrued to the woman since she rose to prominence in the 1870s. In both ventures Etulain is successful, although I suspect that the first exercise may be of more interest to EWS members than the second. What little substance there was to the history of Calamity Jane is thoroughly told, and the legend rapidly evaporates under Etulain’s scrutiny.

Etulain carefully reconstructs the life of the woman born Martha Canary in about 1856, in Princeton, Mercer County, Missouri, the daughter of Robert Wilson Canary and Charlotte Burge. By about 1863 Robert, Charlotte and their children were in Virginia City, Montana. What happened to the Canary parents remains a mystery. Etulain admits that he has to fall back on Calamity’s highly dubious 1896 autobiography for the assertion that her mother died in Montana in 1866 and her father in Salt Lake City in 1867. Martha re-enters the record in 1869 when she was found by a census-taker in Piedmont, Wyoming, but she then disappears again until 1874. Fragmentary details of where she might have been during this period come from her nephew, Tobe Borner, the son of her sister Lena. He places her in several of Wyoming’s boom towns – Atlantic City, South Pass City and others. Calamity’s autobiography also refers to her time in Forts Steele, Bridger and Russell. During this period Martha may have engaged in prostitution. By 1875 she was tagging along with the Newton-Jenney expedition into the Black Hills and had acquired the nome de guerre Calamity Jane, although there is still no satisfactory explanation as to exactly how, when or why Martha became Jane. In later years Jane would claim to have been a scout for Crook, Custer and others; claims that Etulain shows have no basis in fact, and were rebutted by those who were well-placed to know the facts even when she was alive as well as shortly after her death in 1903.

Jane’s life went into overdrive in the summer of 1876. On about July 1 a party on its way to Deadwood, South Dakota, met and took Jane in. The party was led by James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock, and “Colorado Charlie” Utter. Although Jane and Bill knew each other only briefly, and were never a romantic item, other than in the minds of filmmakers, this brief meeting set the template for much of the fiction about Calamity in her later life and long after her death.

During 1875-76 stories of the unorthodox woman now calling herself Calamity Jane circulated throughout the west. They came to the attention of dime novelist Edward L. Wheeler who was looking for a female character to feature in his Deadwood Dick series. So the legend grew; Jane’s already tall stories that circulated in the west were amplified through Wheeler’s dime novels. By 1896 Jane was attempting to exploit the legend, publishing an autobiography and touring with the Kohl and Middleton Dime Museum. Jane may have wanted to tour with a Wild West show, such as those of Buffalo Bill and Paynee Bill; what she got was Kohl and Middleton, who put her alongside circus and sideshow acts.

Before long Jane was back in the west constantly travelling through Wyoming, Montana, and South Dakota. She was an entertainer, cook, laundress probably a prostitute and many other things in the latter part of her life. Etulain points out that despite the wilder tales of her activities, there are also stories of her kindness and her tending for the sick. Along the way she acquired a number of husbands, although there is only evidence of one marriage, and at least two daughters. She died in Terry, South Dakota, in August 1903.

The second part of Etulain’s book concentrates on the rise of the legend of Calamity Jane, beginning with her appearance in dozens of dime novels even while she was still alive. After her death there were a few attempts to chronicle her life, but it was the legend of her association with Wild Bill that propelled her back into the public eye. Beginning with the 1913 film, “In the days of ’75 and ‘76”, and continuing through “The Plainsman” (1936), and “Calamity Jane”(1853) the story of Jane’s romantic association with Wild Bill grew beyond all recognition of the meagre facts of their very brief association. In later years, what Etulain describes as a “new Gray Calamity” appeared in fiction and on the screen, as seen in the movies “Buffalo Girls, Wild Bill” and the TV series “Deadwood”. Etulain concludes that while the writing may have been earthier than earlier portrayals of Jane, the history is no more accurate. This second part of the book comes dangerously close to being a catalogue of appearances of Jane in fiction and poor-quality history, rather than an analysis of how and why the character thrived.

Etulain inadvertently provides the answer towards the end of the book. He notes that British writer Andrew Blewitt covered just about all there was to say about the history, fiction and legend of Calamity Jane in his nine page essay “Calamity Jane” published in the English Westerners’ Brand Book in January 1963. Etulain also applauds the recent work of James D. McLaird as the most authoritative and thorough sources on the real life of Jane: “Calamity Jane: A Life and Legend”, University of Oklahoma Press, 2005, and “Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane: Deadwood Legends”, South Dakota State Historical Society Press, 2008.

In the end there was less to the real Calamity Jane than meets the eye. She comes across as a sometimes tough, sometimes fragile character, never settled in the world in which she found herself. While there remains unanswered questions and gaps in her life, they are of interest to the historian interested in the life of the real Martha, minor Black Hills personality; they have no bearing on the character created from the stories and the alter-ego Martha Canary created in 1875 and who long-since parted company with her creator. Part of the pathos of the latter years of Jane’s life are her attempts to capitalise on her creation, but by that time the fictional Calamity Jane was far beyond the reach of the real Martha Canary. If the development of the legend from scant reality is of interest to you then I recommend this book to you. If the reality of the life of Martha Canary is of interest then the first half of the book is a valuable addition to the literature, but I found myself looking for Blewitt’s essay and McLaird’s books for the overview and detailed analysis of the history of this unorthodox woman.

Mike Bell

 

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