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A series where we take a #lookback at the stories and history of our community,
brought to you by Mick Pryor, Financial Advisor with Edward Jones.
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Calamity Jane is a legend of the wild west; she is most associated with Deadwood, Dakota Territory and Bill Hickock, but she had strong ties to the Wind River Country. Jane was a storyteller and frequently built up her own legend with wild exaggerations. It is difficult to untangle the facts of her life from the tall tales Jane told about herself.
Even the date of Jane’s birth is disputed. Jane claims to have been born May 1st in 1852 to Charlotte Burke and Robert Canary. Charlotte was a dance hall girl who also worked as a prostitute. Robert was an itinerant Methodist minister with a gambling addiction. They had a total of 6 children, Jane being the oldest.
The family made their home with Robert’s father near Princeton, Missouri. When Robert’s father died the family became financially unstable and moved in 1866 to the Montana gold fields around Virginia City to try and make their fortune. In Virginia City the children were frequently neglected and hungry and lived by the charity of the community. When Charlotte died of pneumonia in Blackfoot, Montana Robert packed up his family and headed for Salt Lake City. Within a year Robert too was dead.
Jane was only about 14 when she became the head of the household. It is unclear what became of the youngest children, but Jane was able to keep Lena, age 9, and Elijah, age 6, together. Jane packed up her wagon and the family of orphans headed to Fort Bridger, Wyoming Territory.
Jane could neither read nor write, but she did what she could to feed herself and her siblings. Soon the family ended up in Piedmont, Wyoming a town along the route of the transcontinental railroad. Jane found a position at Alton’s boarding house, but because of her wild and unconventional behavior she was soon fired.
She had been caught drinking and partying with some soldiers and wearing the uniform of a soldier. Dressing as a man, much less as soldier, was not only unconventional but illegal. It would not be the last time she wore men’s clothing or passed as a soldier.
At Fort Bridger Jane was fostered by Major Patrick Gallagher and his wife. Major Gallagher was sent to Miner’s delight for a time where Jane worked as a dance hall girl in the gold fields. One of the other saloon girls stole a necklace of gold coins that belonged to Jane. A metal detector may have found this long-lost necklace at Miner’s Delight.
About 1870 John Borner, a retired Civil War veteran broke his leg at Atlantic City. He was earning his living running freight from Atlantic City to Salt Lake City. Jane drove two runs to Salt Lake for him while he healed. In gratitude he helped reunite the children and found jobs for the young family. Jane worked at the Kime Hotel; Lena found a position at Fort Washakie as a helper and companion for the wife of the Indian agent, James Patton.
John Borner married Lena Canary in November of 1875. They homesteaded between Lander and Sinks canyon. Their farm was known as Borner’s garden. Lena also had a laundry business in Lander.
It is probable that Jane and Elijah helped out at the laundry when they were around. Jane never stayed in one place for long, but she visited her family when she could.
Because of her wild behavior John Borner would not allow Jane to spend the night in his house. He saw Jane’s behavior as a bad influence on his wife and children. Jane had a boyfriend in Milford, William P Steers.
On May 30th, 1880 William and Jane married in Pocatello, Idaho. It was a very tumultuous marriage. They were both alcoholics and when they fought they fought with fists and guns and knives. They would be arrested and released and then fight again. There is no evidence this marriage was ever formally dissolved.
Jane had at least 2 daughters, but who fathered them is murky. Jane claimed Bill Hickock was the father of one of her daughters, but most historians doubt this claim.
Tobias Borner, Jane’s nephew recalls a time when Jane got drunk in Lander; Jane took off all of her clothes and walked up and down Main Street singing bawdy songs. Perhaps, someone complained about her male attire. She also admitted to her nephew that she had worked as a prostitute when times were hard.
Jane was wild and untamed, but she is said to have had a kind and generous spirit, feeding strangers in need and nursing the sick and injured. She lived by her wits when there were few opportunities for uneducated women in the West.
Next up for the Fremont County Museums
September 28th, 9am at the Riverton Museum, “J.B. Okie Manor Trek”
Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek
September 28th, 10am at the Pioneer Museum, “CWC Apple Orchard Trek”
Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek
October 17th, 6:30pm at the Riverton Museum, “Haunted Tales of Fremont County” by Alma Law
Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
October 19th, 1-3pm at the Dubois Museum, “Halloween Pumpkin Carving”
Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
October 19th, 5:30pm at the Riverton Museum, “Haunted Trek through Riverton”
Wind River Visitors Council Adventure Trek
Consider supporting The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander or the Riverton Museum with a monetary donation. The museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark. Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.
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