Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok – A shotgun wedding?

Time Before Now – September 1873Wartime hero, Ulysses S. Grant,  was still embattled as president, fighting for his Reconstruction-era policies.   A $100 fine (more than $2,200 today) was levied against suffragist, Susan B. Anthony, for voting in the Presidential election.  She never paid.  Jesse James and company pulled off their first train robbery in Adair, Iowa; Henry Ossian Flipper of Georgia was the first Black Cadet at West Point Military Academy and  Susan Blow (right) of St. Louis, became the nation’s first Kindergarten teacher.

September 1, 1873

On this day the storied Calamity Jane claimed she wed the love of her life, Old West gambler, gunfighter and sometime lawman, Wild Bill Hickok. (Right)

Rumors of a romance between the frontier pair has been perpetuated by both Deadwood and Hollywood.  It may have been pure fantasy but a few known facts have irrevocably linked them in life and death. 

Calamity Jane, (right, at age 21)  was born Martha Jane Canary in 1852 on a farm near Princeton, Missouri.  Her parents appear on Princeton’s 1860 census and lists her father, Robert Canary, as a gambler and her mother, Charlotte, a prostitute.  Nearly everything else is told by Calamity herself in the Kohl and Middleton Dime Museum in 1896.

According to Calamity, Robert moved the family to Virginia City, Montana, in 1866, Charlotte, having died along the way.  The next year he again pulled up stakes for Salt Lake City, Utah, and promptly died himself.  It left 15-year-old Martha “Calamity Jane” to rescue and raise her five younger siblings.  

Virginia City, Montana, 1860’s.  Now a ghost town.

Loading the lot of them into a freight wagon, she made the 100-mile trek to Fort Bridger, Wyoming, probably using a portion of the Mormon Trail, and caught the train at Fort Bridger to Piedmont.    She washed dishes, worked as a waitress and a dance hall girl before hiring on as an ox team driver which offered better pay.  

 In 1874, according to Calamity, she jumped off into uncharted territory for women of her day, signing on as an Army scout at the 2nd Cavalry’s new outpost, Fort Russell.  Her adventures from this point on have been embellished and discounted by turn, none more contested then her nuptials to Wild Bill.

Officer’s Row, Fort Russell, late 1860s

In one of her more famous feats, according to Calamity, she developed pneumonia after riding 90 miles, cold and wet after swimming the Platte River to deliver dispatches to General George Armstrong Custer.  Contemporary sources claimed the account is a complete fabrication, but verified that she did indeed suffer a dangerous illness in 1875.

She recovered in time to join the Henry Newton-Walter Jenney Party, a quasi-scientific expedition into the Black Hills led by the government’s chief geologist, Dr. Walter Proctor Jenney.  While Newton-Jenney gave a nod to broad scientific exploration, it was mostly about discovering if there was in fact gold as General Custer claimed. 

The expedition itself was a gold mine of Western lore.   The party’s roster of history-makers included expedition surveyor and frontier doctor, Valentine McGillycuddy, (left) Moses (California Joe) Milner, scout  for both Custer and Kit Carson and the alleged bride-groom, Wild Bill Hickok.     

 Two years past the date of her claims of matrimony, none of the contemporary traveling companions made note of any special relationship between Hickok and Calamity.   

Calamity had signed on as a laundress, according to some sources, but had already achieved celebrity sufficient to rate a banner headline in the Black Hills Pioneer newspaper on July 15, 1876, “Calamity Jane has arrived.”

While in Deadwood, Calamity was at least part time in the employ of Dora DuFran, (right) a well-known madam and  friend of Wild Bill’s.

After Hickok was shot by Jack McCall in Deadwood’s Nuttel & Mann Saloon on August 2, less than a month later, Calamity took on the role of the grieving widow, stating she had married Hickok in 1873 and given birth to a daughter, Jean, a scant 25 days later.  Historians are quick to question her story, however.  Hickok was verifiably appearing with Buffalo Bill’s “Scouts of the Prairie” in 1872 and 1873 while Calamity was in Montana.  (Right, Hickok, Jack Omohundro and Buffalo Bill Cody)

 After Hickok’s death, Calamity did take a stab at domesticity.  She married a Texan named Clinton Burke and in 1881 bought a ranch near Miles City, Montana. The union lasted seven years and a daughter named Jane was born in 1887, apparently placed in foster care soon after.

Calamity joined Buffalo Bill’s show in 1895, spinning tales of her frontier adventures and reportedly drinking heavily.  She participated briefly in the 1901 Pan American Exposition.  Popular with the public, she  was sacked soon after for drunkenness and erratic behavior.  

By the beginning of the 20th century, Calamity had returned to Dora DuFran’s brothel in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, not as a working girl but as a laundress.  She died of complication from alcoholism in 1903 in Terry, South Dakota, falling ill on the train back to Deadwood.

Fast forward to September 6, 1941.   The U.S. Department of Public Welfare did grant benefits to 67-year-old Jean Hickok Burkhardt McCormick (right) as the daughter of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill, providing as evidence entries in a family Bible and her mother’s diary.  Born in Benson’s Landing, Montana Territory, September 25, 1873, she was adopted by James O’Neil and his wife.   

Listed as McCormick’s possible half sibling, 10-year-old Willie Wilson, whose mother, Anna “Indian Annie” Wilson, (left) also claimed to have been married to and abandoned by Hickok in Elsworth, Montana. Willie died of diphtheria in September of 1878, his mother seven years later at the age of about 37. (Left, Annie and a daughter, Daisy, circa 1878)

On March 5, 1876, the 39-year-old Hickok did in fact legally marry Agnes Thatcher Lake. (Right)  Ten years his senior, Lake was a renowned circus equestrian and the owner the struggling Lake Circus when the pair wed in Wyoming Territory.  Five months later Hickok hopped a wagon train to the Black Hills, leaving his new bride in Cheyenne.

Reportedly Agnes traveled to Deadwood to have Wild Bill properly laid to rest.  There were at least no public reports of dueling widows at the gravesite. (Right, Calamity at Wild Bill’s grave)

Calamity’s burial in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery was less seemly,  apparently arranged by a trio of Hickok’s friends.   Buried next to Hickok, they claimed that Wild Bill “couldn’t stand Calamity Jane,” and it was simply a posthumous joke.   Few others found it amusing.

The Silver Screen has been kinder to Calamity’s legend than her life.  Glamorized versions of the frontierswoman have been played by a number of Hollywood beauties including Jane Russell, Yvonne DeCarlo and Doris Day. (Right) 

While it’s yet to be proven whether Martha Jane Canary was ever the blushing bride of smooth-talking Wild Bill, it does appear Wild Bill was less than fastidious in his relationships with the fair sex.

The Adams Museum, downtown Deadwood, S.D. and its Legends Gallery brings together memorabelia and artifacts from Wild Bill, Calamity Jane and a variety of other famous Deadwood immortals.  Mount Moriah Cemetery is the final resting resting place for the fabled pair and a favorite visitor spot.  The musuem is open daily 9 to 5, May through September, 10 to 4, Tuesday through Saturday in October through April and closed for winter holidays. Admission is a suggested donation of $5 for adults and $2 for children.  

For more information go to, call (605) 722-4800 or write Deadwood History, Inc., PO Box 252, 150 Sherman St, Deadwood, SD 57732.

The Mount Moriah Visitor Center  is open every day from 8 to 6 from Memorial Day to mid-October.  Winter visitors may experience limited maintenance.  Proceeds from the $2 admission fee is used for maintenance and improvements of the cemetery.  For more information on Mount Moriah go to      

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

Head On West strives for historic accuracy and relies on anumber of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on signifcant facts, the various points of view will be cited.