The American West: How Calamity Jane Earned Her Stripes As An Army Scout

Sporting buckskin and a rifle, Calamity Jane looked every bit the part of a Western frontierswoman. She didn’t take kindly to the word “no" and quickly proved herself as an invaluable Army scout for troops in the Black Hills region.

Candy Moulton

July 07, 20245 min read

Calamity Jane on horseback in 1901.
Calamity Jane on horseback in 1901. (Getty Images)

The Cheyenne-Deadwood Trail came to quick prominence after men traveling with Lt. Col. George A. Custer found gold in the Black Hills in 1874, and like others in the region at the time Martha Canary would soon be traveling the route from Cheyenne to Fort Laramie.

For a time, the young woman worked at the road ranch 6 miles west of Fort Laramie operated by Adolph Cuny and Julius “Jules” Ecoffey.

Exactly when she came by the moniker “Calamity Jane” isn’t certain, but men along the rail line and in the military knew Martha Canary as Calamity in the 1870s. She was at Fort Laramie in 1875 when the Black Hills Expedition under direction of Walter Jenney and Henry Newton organized.

The Black Hills Expedition was charged with determining the quality and quantity of gold in the Black Hills, adding detail to the Custer reports of the previous year.

Dressed For Success

Valentine T. McGillycuddy, a doctor and cartographer with the Black Hills Expedition, first saw Jane strolling across the parade ground at Fort Laramie on May 20, 1875. She was wearing spurs, chaps and a sombrero.

He was with Col. Richard I. Dodge, Henry Newton and Horace Tuttle at the time. Dodge identified her as a “regimental mascot” who “didn’t know the meaning” of the word morals.

Calamity gave McGillycuddy some wise advice when he had to deal with an unruly horse, and she soon pressed him to put in a word on her behalf with Colonel Dodge to be allowed to accompany the expedition into the Black Hills, but McGillycuddy declined.

Don’t Tell Her ‘No’

The young woman may not have known morals, and she also didn’t take kindly to the word “no.” So when the scientific expedition began marching north, an “unaccounted for young private” trailed in their wake. It didn’t take long for the “private” to be identified as Calamity.

As the scientific party traveled, Calamity worked with the civilian teamsters and retained her tenuous position with the expedition, making quite an impression on most of the men.

Acting Assistant Surgeon J.R. Lane provided one of the early, detailed accounts of the female teamster when he wrote in the Chicago Tribune on June 19, 1875, “Calam is dressed in a suit of soldier’s blue, and straddles a mule equal to any professional blacksnake swinger in the army,” he reported. “Calamity also jumps upon a trooper’s horse and rides along in the ranks, and gives an officer a military [salute] with as much style as the First corporal in a crack company.”

Thomas C. MacMillan, writing for the rival Chicago Inter-Ocean, noted her “reputation of being a better horse-back rider, mule and bull-whacker and a more unctuous coiner of English, and not the Queen’s pure either, than any man in the command.”

McGillycuddy himself said she was “the only woman in the party, dressed in soldiers clothes, rode a horse astraddle, could drink and swear ‘like a trooper.’”

He would later write that she was “something like Topsy in ‘Uncle Toms Cabin,’ she was not exactly ‘raised, she growed.’”

  • Cowgirl Calamity Jane at Wild Bill Hickock's grave, a man she claimed was a lover at one point. She would be buried next to him in 1903.
    Cowgirl Calamity Jane at Wild Bill Hickock's grave, a man she claimed was a lover at one point. She would be buried next to him in 1903. (Library of Congress/Corbis, VCG via Getty Images)
  • Marth Jane Burke, aka Calamity Jane, General Crook's scout, famed Western markswoman in these undated photgraphs.
    Marth Jane Burke, aka Calamity Jane, General Crook's scout, famed Western markswoman in these undated photgraphs. (Getty Images)
  • Left: Calamity Jane in 1895. Right: An 1875 portrait.
    Left: Calamity Jane in 1895. Right: An 1875 portrait. (Getty Images)

Friend To Soldiers

The Black Hills Expedition followed the route that would become famous and well-traveled as the Cheyenne-Deadwood Stage Road, as Colonel Dodge and the scientific party headed north from Fort Laramie, established Camp Jenney not far from the present town of Newcastle, Wyoming, and then explored the Black Hills.

Calamity tended wounds and ailments and mended clothes for the men. She also hunted, bringing deer and antelope to camp for shared meals.

“She staid (sic) with us all summer and returned with us to [Fort] Laramie in the Fall,” McGillycuddy said. “She was a typical frontier camp follower, a type by herself, loud and rough in her ways, but kind hearted, always ready to help or nurse a sick soldier or miner, and ready to go on a spree when necessity required or opportunity offered.

“She had no particular use for a citizen,” McGillycuddy wrote, “but anybody with a blue coat and brass buttons could catch Calamity.”

McGillycuddy, the man responsible for charting the major features and drawing some of the first maps of the Black Hills, would name Calamity Peak for the intrepid female.

Back To The Black Hills

McGillycuddy encountered Calamity Jane again in the fall of 1876. By then he was traveling with Gen. George Crook’s troops after the battles with Lakota and Cheyenne Indians at the Rosebud and the Little Bighorn.

Crook’s command eventually engaged in a battle at Slim Buttes, endured a torturous march, survived on horsemeat, and finally reached Crook City. There McGillycuddy said, “our old friend Calamity” met them with troops bringing relief supplies to the Crook command.

By then, McGillycuddy said, she had “blossomed out as a fully equipped border scout, beaded buckskin trousers, blue shirt, broad brimmed hat, winchester rifle, mounted on a bucking broncho, with a supply of fluid ammunition in the saddle bags.”

Calamity would spend some time in Montana but was drawn back to the Black Hills where she died on Aug. 1, 1903. She was buried in the Mount Moriah cemetery in Deadwood.

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Candy Moulton


Wyoming Life Colunmist