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Separating the truth from the legend

The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane (The Oklahoma Western Biographies) - Richard W. Etulain

Martha Jane Canary -- the woman better known as Calamity Jane -- is one of those figures who is both famous and obscure at the same time. A national figures in her early twenties, she was subject matter for several authors, all of whom drew upon their imagination rather than the facts when constructing their accounts. Jane herself contributed to the obfuscating of her biography, as her own accounts (including a short dictated autobiography) often were a mix of truth and fantasy with no way of readers to distinguish between them.


Establishing the correct details of Calamity Jane's life remains a challenging prospect, largely because the paucity of reliable sources and the challenges in verifying them. This leaves gaps in Richard Etulain's coverage of Jane's life, as he freely admits. What is left, though, provides an account of a tough, hard-living woman whose peripatetic life was often defined by her alcoholism. Born in Missouri, she was orphaned at an early age and left to tend to her younger brother. A fortuitous journey to Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1876 brought her into the national spotlight, as her brief association with Wild Bill Hickok and her own remarkable behavior drew the attention of several writers at a time when Americans were becoming fascinated by events on the frontier. Though she benefited from the fame in a number of ways, her legendary reputation did not alleviate her problems with alcohol or poverty, and she died at the age of 51 in 1903.


Etulain's book would be worthwhile reading just for his effort to separate the truth of Martha Canary's life from the legend of Calamity Jane. Yet its greatest strength is his coverage of the construction of that legend, Starting with the Deadwood Dick novels of Edward Wheeler, he chronicles the fictional depictions of adventures, both during her life and in the decades that have followed since her death. His analysis shows the evolution of her image, one that often reflected more the mores of the times than any effort to recount the truth. Together they make for a solid study of the life and legend of a woman whose fame has far outlasted the short and often tragic life that she lived.