Category Archives: Montana Ghost Towns

The Elusive Offspring: Who Were the Children of Calamity Jane?

c 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins

Portions of this article originally appeared in All About History magazine.

No other woman in the American west possesses a more enigmatic legacy than Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary. Between her birth in the 1850’s and her death in 1903, Jane left a dizzying trail as she blazed around the west. She has been labeled a scout, freighter, and gambler, a drunken dance hall queen and prostitute. And though it is difficult to picture her in the domestic arena, Jane was also a mother.

To date, four children have been credited to the lady, although some of the claims have come from the children themselves. In 1941, Jean Hickok McCormick appeared in Billings, Montana. She said she was the daughter of Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, and was born in a cabin near Livingston, Montana in 1873. After a brief visit from Hickok, who then rode off into the sunset, a sea captain named James O’Neil happened to find her.

McCormick claimed that O’Neil offered to adopt her, taking she and her mother to meet his wife in Omaha. From there the O’Neils took the pair to the family home in Richmond, Virginia, and ultimately raised the Jean in Liverpool, England. McCormick had a lot of written “proof” too, which was largely believed by those who met her. In more recent times, however, Calamity Jane biographer James McLaird disproved McCormick’s claim by researching when and how her fantastic autobiography unfolded.

Then in 1996, a second daughter was revealed. She was Maude Weir, born in 1881. In her book Calamity Jane’s Daughter: The Story of Maude Weir, Weir’s own daughter, Ruth Shadley, said her family secretly knew that Maude’s real mother was Calamity Jane. But although there was an uncanny resemblance between the two, plus stories of Jane visiting the child, Shadley lacked any documentation to back up her claim.

In reality, Jane’s first verified child was born in November 1882 when she was living with rancher Frank King near Miles City, Montana. Area newspapers reported that Jane named the boy “Little Calamity.” A freighter named Evans recalled watching Jane smother the baby with kisses, calling him “Muzzie’s yittle snoozey [sic] darling.” Jane later told others that Little Calamity died. Within a month of the birth, newspapers tracked her to a hurdy-gurdy house in Livingston.

Last, there is Jessie—the most credible of Calamity Jane’s daughters. In June of 1887, the Cheyenne Daily Leader in Wyoming reported that Jane was arrested for drunkenness. In court she presented the judge with a doctor’s certificate indicating “she was in a rather delicate condition,” an early euphemism for “pregnant”. Several sources, including Jessie, verify the child was born on October 28.

For the next several years, various witnesses saw Jane, who towed Jessie around with her as she drank her way across the west. At Castle City, Montana in 1893, when Jane was running a restaurant, she had with her “the daughter of one of her soldier friends in Texas” who probably was Jessie. While at Castle City Jane went to Gilt Edge, some two hundred miles away, where she was jailed for being drunk. Upon being sprung, Jane whisked into Castle City, picked up the girl, and went on her way.

More concrete evidence of Jessie came from Charles Zimmerman, who remembered Jane and her daughter’s frequent visits to his family’s ranch near Billings, Montana in 1893. Zimmerman said that despite their closeness in age, he and Jessie “didn’t say much to each other.” In December, the Rawlins Republican reported that Jane visited town with “a little girl she had stolen.” The child was no doubt Jessie, who was next seen with her mother in Ekalaka, Montana in 1894 by at least two people.

When Jane arrived in Deadwood, South Dakota in 1895, she told others that she needed money to enroll Jessie in a convent school at Sturgis. Her friends held a fundraiser for her and the benefit proved a “howling success”—until Jane began treating her generous friends to drinks. By the end of the night most of the money had been spent, and Jane was “roaring drunk”.

That winter, writer M.L. Fox met Jessie when she interviewed Jane for an article in Illustrated American magazine. “I’m glad she’s come [home from school] while you’re here,” Jane told Fox, “fer I want you to see her. She’s all I’ve got to live fer; she’s my only comfort [sic].” Fox described Jessie as “neatly dressed” but “shy and embarrassed.” Yet she “had a bright face, and her manners were very good for one whose opportunities had been so few.”

Fox’s visit coincided with the few weeks Jessie actually attended St. Edward’s Academy in Deadwood. A classmate later remembered the children teasing Jessie about her mother, throwing stones at her while shouting, “Calamity Jane! Calamity Jane!” Jessie withdrew from the Academy a short time later, but in January of 1896, Jane was finally able to take her to St. Martin’s Academy in Sturgis. Jane had been hired to travel with Kohl & Middleton Dime Museums; as she purchased her ticket out of town she told railroad agent A.O. Burke she had enrolled Jessie in the school.

Jessie and Jane were back together when they arrived in Billings, Montana in 1898. Classmate Mary Connolly remembered Jessie, saying, “we all played hopscotch and jumped rope on the playground.” But mother and daughter eventually left town again. At Bridger, Montana, Jane moved in with a cowboy named Robert Dorsett.

In 1899, Dorsett took Jessie to live with his mother in Lewiston. But by January 1903 she was back with her mother once more, a fact verified by the Belle Fourche Bee in South Dakota. Six months later Jane visited friends in Deadwood, stating Jessie had married and was living in North Dakota with two children. Just weeks later, on her deathbed in Terry, South Dakota, Jane confessed that she and Jessie were now “estranged” and declined to say where her daughter was living.

Jessie herself later said that the Deadwood Chief of Police wrote to her about Jane’s death in 1903. But thirty years had passed by the time she began making inquiries about Jane, whom she thought was her grandmother. Few could help her verify the truth, and Jean McCormick was of little help. By 1942 Jessie had changed her story, perhaps at McCormick’s urging. Now, she said, both Calamity Jane and another famed woman of the west, Belle Starr, were her aunts. Neither claim was true.

Author James McClaird theorized that Jessie, who had no birth certificate, said what she had to in order to receive financial assistance at her last residence in California. She appears to have finally learned the truth by the time she died in 1980, for her death certificate correctly lists her mother’s maiden name as Canary. It was the last word on a true child of one of the wildest women of the west.

There’s a Reason They Call Them “Ghost” Towns

Perhaps some of the most intriguing things to find at a ghost town are the pieces left behind. These give forth a sense of presence and a vague link to who was there before. In the highest country of the west I have stood, the heel of a woman’s shoe or the porcelain arm of a tiny doll in my hand. In these desolate places I look around me. Even if my imagination lets me see the town or camp or whistlestop that used to be here, I can also see how barren this land must have appeared to pioneers from all walks of life. And yet they came, stayed, lived in these places. They made or brought furniture along, often from far, far away. Shelves and cubbies were built to hold dishes and blankets and books. If a woman was along, tailored curtains were likely to replace rags over the windows, and there might even be a garden of flowers or a landscaped path. Later – a week, a month, a year or decades – they moved out. Those with spirit lovingly packed their belongings and took them along. Others left, intending to come back, and never did. Some just plain walked out the door and left their former lives behind for good. A few died there and their bodies lie under a forgotten stone while their spirits have moved on.

Or have they?

There are places – Jerome Arizona, Old Town San Diego, Cripple Creek Colorado, Virginia City Montana – that rejoice in their haunted histories. Ask the locals, especially the long-time residents, and chances are enough ghost stories will come forth to fill a crypt. Ask the ones who know the back roads, and stories of the long-dead local communities are likely to surface as well. The faded paths of the west are fairly riddled with triumph, but also plenty of tragedy in the way of broken dreams, horrifying accidents, fatal illness and a plethora of other maladies that make history colorful even as it is heart wrenchingly sad. It is of little surprise to learn that the spirits of many remain, looking for that lost child, waiting for a loved one return, or just plain failing to realize they were blown to bits in some mine. Others, I suspect, might just be hanging around for the sheer fun of it, looking after loved ones or trying to bring closure to some unfinished business. That perhaps explains why, for almost a year after she died and sometimes still, I have felt my mother tweak the curls of my hair.

There are stories like that everywhere, told by people who know good and well there really is something hiding in the closet, that there really are such things as ghosts, and that they did indeed see a pair of boots walking themselves down the stairs of an abandoned house. Like them, I believe, if only because enough experiences have come my way to make me know it is so. Like hearing the little girl clapping her hands and singing at the London Mine in Colorado, just like MaryJoy Martin said she would in her book Twilight Dwellers. The supper-time recording of metal pans and utensils being rattled in the Depot dining room at the Cripple Creek District Museum, which could not be explained even when we tore the room apart during extensive restorations. The time my folks found a shoebox hidden in a cupboard at our house in Pasadena, California, where a woman named Norma was said to have died. They were painting the kitchen, lamenting that if they only had $100 they could go somewhere fun for the weekend. The shoebox they found was full of cards. The inside of one of them read, “Go kick up your heels and have some fun. Love Norma.” Inside the card was a hundred dollar bill.

As residents of this part of the timeline, we have a tendency to think of ghosts in the modern day sense, as if they haven’t been haunting people, some of whom are now dead themselves, for years. It is easy to forget that some ghost stories go way, way back. Like the one about the fellows in Cripple Creek who watched in horror as a fellow miner, now dead with his shattered leg slung over his shoulder, arrived above ground in the hoist at the Mamie R. Mine and gave forth an eerie grin. That was in 1898. Or how long that lady of the evening has click-clacked in her high heels across the lobby of the Hotel Montezuma in Flagstaff. She died in the 1940’s. Think of the generations of people who have heard the whisperings and footsteps at the famed Whaley House in San Diego. Some of those tired souls have been put to rest by the occasional friendly psychic or a good sage cleansing, but many more remain.

As much as they scare me if I let them (I recently let myself be chased out of the basement at Ft. Whipple Museum in Arizona as an overhead tapping noise followed me around), I love ghosts. They can’t hurt me I know, and may even teach me a thing or two. I like to think of them as long-lost invisible friends and it makes me feel special to recognize they are there even as others refuse to do so. Technology is already making leaps and bounds, what with EMF meters, infrared photography and ways to actually record the occasional voice of someone who has not been seen since the day of their funeral. Perhaps the day is just around the corner when we can see them more clearly, have a conversation with them, and record their story for them so they will be remembered. Until then, I will continue exploring their former homes and their favorite haunts, waiting for them as they have waited for me.Ashcroft Hotel, Colorado, 2005

Where is our West?

I cannot remember the first time I ever visited a ghost town.

I do know that I’ve been seeking such places, first as part of my family and later as an adult, as long as I can remember. My parents were inherent gypsies. For much of my childhood we spent countless days roaring through the back country of the southwest and even Baja. From the hot and dusty deserts of California to the lush mountains of Colorado, we traversed many a trail gone dim and found history and solace in some amazing places. The family hobby suited us.

At least part of my love for history stems from the fact that my parents had to find some way to keep me and my sister from acting like yard apes in the backseat. My mom would read to us on the road about where we were going or where we were. She always had a history book of some sort on hand, supplemented by local brochures. Because of her, our explorations led us to some stunning places during the 1960’s and 70’s. It was the perfect time to visit long-abandoned towns, ranches and whistlestops before they sank back into the earth and ceased to exist at all.

Some of my favorites: Bodie California, where it took us over two hours to drive 13 rough miles to a place that looked as though everybody just up and left. Animas Forks and a handful of other towns scattered over precarious Engineer’s Pass in Colorado. Also Carson, where I kicked an 1860 gold piece up with my foot. That nameless place in the California desert with just two buildings left, one of them tagged with a bright, mystical sun. Mogollon, New Mexico.

The treks to find these places have almost always began from a small but charming town, and these share an equal place in my heart. As a kid I loved playing Bingo at Lake City, Colorado. We had an awesome cabin at Big Bear California and I had the whole attic room to myself. A favorite memory is the lone road trip I took up the whole western side of Montana. Julian, St. Elmo, Jerome, Pinos Altos…the names run together like old friends who were at my party.

What freaks me right out these days is, it has come to my attention that I’ve been in this nomadic state of living for over 40 years now. I never outgrew it. I still like to climb to the tops of old decrepit mills, step into abandoned houses to see how people lived, dig around in ancient dumps and photograph lone tombstones standing in a field. And I still laugh like hell when the tires unexpectedly sink into mud or I stall out while crossing a river.

The trouble is, the ghostly western world of yesteryear is slowly fading to dust. Today’s rides down the history trails might yield only piles of what was, not what might have been. Sometimes there is only a bare patch of ground left. Other times a cemetery or a few buildings might mark the spot. If we’re lucky, the place has been carefully preserved and watched over. Or even fenced to prevent access. But the numbers of those few survivors are small compared to what has been lost.

The people who remember these places are dying as well. Some of them have been replaced by those who don’t know, don’t care, or don’t want to share history. Fences have been put up, buildings torn down, the land plowed under and new development planted over. Even as history evolves, scrambling to document it and remember it is a race unto itself. Can it be done?

Yes. Because for as many of those new generations who don’t know their history, there are still others who do. These are the preservationists, historians, writers, genealogists and history buffs who spend countless hours researching history, documenting it and then tracking it down. They are the ones who collect old photographs, postcard, diaries, documents and letters. They keep old maps, index newspapers and spend hours on the web. Then they go out and they find these places, standing or not, never quite knowing what the outcome will be, and they explore them and take pictures. They love history. They are like me.

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