Year of the Nurse | The Tall Tale of Calamity Jane

The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that 2020 is the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife. To celebrate, we’re highlighting individuals that made a major impact on the nursing profession.

Today, we’re telling the story of Old West adventurer and nurse Martha Jane Cannary, otherwise known as “Calamity Jane.”

Calamity Jane is known for her relationships with some of the most legendary figures of the Wild West. While many of the details of her life can’t be confirmed, we’re telling her larger-than-life story as a tribute to every RN that heroically touches lives every day, an equally mythic feat.

Read on to enjoy the jaw-dropping tall tale of Calamity Jane’s incredible life!

Early Life

Calamity Jane was born on May 1, 1852 near Princeton, Missouri. Many of the details of her childhood are unconfirmed, but some accounts claim that Jane was the oldest of seven children.

Her family, following the boom of the gold rush, moved to Virginia City, Montana in 1865 when Jane was 13 years old. During the five-month trip to Wyoming, Jane spent most of her time hunting with the men in the caravan and learning the ways of the pioneers.

It is thought that Jane became ill with smallpox as a child but survived, which provided her with immunity to the disease. This would become a valuable asset for her later on.

Jane learned to ride horses and shoot a rifle, and was soon considered to be an excellent rider and markswoman. She also did not agree with the strict limitations placed on females of her generation.

Both of Jane’s parents died in 1866, just one year after arriving in Virginia City. This made Jane the head of the household, and she was forced to take a variety of jobs to support her younger siblings. She worked as a cook, dishwasher, waitress, ox-team driver, and eventually, a nurse.

Wild West and the Frontier

In 1870, Jane became a scout for General George Custer at Fort Russel, Wyoming. Over the next six years, Jane was a scout in General Custer’s army, delivering dispatches and traveling with groups of soldiers to protect mining towns from attacks by the Sioux Tribe.

Her ability to hold her own with the men of the frontier, incredible shooting and riding skills, and fearless demeanor earned her the nickname “Calamity Jane.”

According to legend, Jane met Old West icon Wild Bill Hickok in 1876 in Fort Laramie, Wyoming. They quickly became close friends, and some accounts claim they were romantically involved until Hickok’s death later that year.

Soon after meeting Hickok, Jane joined a caravan heading to Deadwood, South Dakota, where she began living. In the summer of 1876, Jane worked as a Pony Express rider, carrying U.S. mail from Deadwood to other camps in South Dakota, over some of the roughest trails in the country.

It wasn’t until 1878 that she earned her place in nursing history.

The Deadwood Smallpox Outbreak

In 1878, a smallpox outbreak occurred in Deadwood. Jane’s immunity to the disease allowed her to care for the ill, and she began dedicating all her time to helping those in need.

It was written that Jane “dropped all her vices and spent day and night nursing.” Another witness recalled Jane as “a perfect angel sent from heaven when any of the boys was sick.”

Before the outbreak, Jane was known as a heavy-drinking, rowdy character prone to exaggeration and unpredictable behavior. However, she changed her habits to care for the sick.

Jane advocated for fresh water for the ill, bought groceries, and settled business disputes at gunpoint.

Even in the harsh conditions of the frontier, many of Jane’s patients survived smallpox. Despite her hard exterior, Jane displayed immense compassion and goodwill when she was called upon to become a nurse.


While many of the details of Jane’s life cannot be confirmed, her incredible compassion and commitment as a caregiver in the smallpox outbreak of Deadwood will forever remain a part of her legacy.

Unfortunately, Jane succumbed to her hard-living ways at the young age of 51. She passed away on August 1, 1903, in Terry, South Dakota.

In many ways, the fearless spirit of Calamity Jane lives on in the nursing profession today. GIFTED is honored to support the heroic clinicians who are committed to providing exceptional care, no matter the circumstances.

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