Today we pay respect to Martha Jane Cannary.
Martha Jane learned her nursing skills out of necessity after both of her parents died in 1865 when she became the sole breadwinner and head of a family consisting of six children under the age of 11. Martha took any and every job that most men thought too hard, but Martha was intent on taking care of her siblings.
She learned that being a woman, especially an adolescent one, was a hard life, so she set out to prove she was harder. She learned to fight, shoot, cuss, and drink harder than any man who knew her. In 1870 with her siblings “all growed up,” Martha took a job with the 7th Calvary under Gen. George Armstrong Custer as a Forward Scout.
Scouting was a job not conducive to wearing a dress. Martha Jane began wearing a standard male Army uniform and later, after discharge, men’s clothes. She also developed a reputation as the most reckless, skilled rider, and best shot in the 7th Cavalry. There were few doctors on the frontier, so Martha Jane was also the person to go to if a trooper had a minor injury. She could set bones or mend a wound with the best of them.
As the West was increasingly “won”, the Army needed fewer Scouts, Martha Jane , as a female was one of the first to be let go. She moved to Deadwood the late 1870s and began keeping company with Wild Bill Hickock and every other legendary cowboy in Deadwood. Many historians believe she married, or at least, had a child with WIld Bill.
She went to work as an entertainer with the Wild West Show, picking up the nickname “Calamity Jane,” on the way.
She was known to go into the local saloon, usually full of visitors to The Wild West Show; inevitably, some stranger would question if she was a man or a woman. Calamity Jane would challenge the man and several of his friends to “a shootin, drinkin, or fightin contest.” Sometimes all three. Generally, the saloon sustained severe damage, as did whoever accepted her challenge.
Martha Jane’s Nursing skills were put to the test after she took a job with the newly formed Pony Express. The unsuspecting town of Deadwood was about to experience a Smallpox outbreak. The virus spread swiftly through the compliment of Express Riders, leaving eight of them at death’s door.
Knowing all of these men would die within a few days, and knowing the risk of contracting the sickness, the decision was made to simply leave the 8 to die. They would come back and burn the building down later. Martha Jane wasn’t having it.
One record I researched for this piece mentioned that her vocabulary was “not fit to be written on paper,” but went on to say, she made her opinion unmistakably clear. Martha Jane volunteered to stay with the dying men. Everyone understood that they would all die within two weeks and that she would likely die shortly after the men did.
Martha Jane’s friends were NOT going to die alone, suffering if she had anything to do with it.
She went to work making the stricken cowboys as comfortable as possible. She reached way back in her memory grasping at everything she learned about keeping a person alive. Her years as a Scout meant she spent a great deal of time with the other Scouts, most of whom were native Americans. I’m sure some of her healing skills came from the Natives she road with.
She treated the lesions using a concoction of Tartar Sauce, Honey, Epsom salts, and the fever with whiskey, the whiskey was taken internally, and much of it by her. She kept the sores clean and tended to whatever the dying men needed. She was diligent about making sure the men were hydrated and were eating even though they had no appetite and were too sick to drink on their own. A concept most doctors never considered in the 1870s
Five of the eight stricken men recovered, and Marth Jane Cannary never contracted the disease. The three that died knew something few men ever saw—the gentle side of Calamity Jane.
Calamity Jane went on to be an American hero, legend, and beloved child’s story. But she was also a Nurse.
In 1903, Marth Jane Cannary died from complications due to alcohol abuse. She was 51.
Today’s Nursing Trivia –
The highest-ranking African-American woman in the US military was a Nurse.
Hazel W. Johnson-Brown became the first African-American woman general in history. A nurse by profession, she was appointed as the Chief of Army Nurse Corps and later also appointed as the Dean of the Walter Reed Army Institute School of Nursing.