Littleton Coin Company

The Age of Calamity

Calamity Jane - Littleton Coin  Blog

Princeton, Missouri in 1852 was a modest settlement in the Midwest. Situated along a stream, the township had been established just fifteen years earlier by a handful of families. Since then, the town had steadily grown large enough to claim the title of the county seat. 

It was on a farm just east of Princeton on a spring day in early May, the story of Martha Jane Cannary (also spelled Canary), better known as Calamity Jane, began.

Saddle up and enjoy the ride as we learn about Calamity Jane and the three Wild West dollars that would each herald a new chapter of her life.

The Liberty Seated Dollar Years

As the oldest of six children, Martha Cannary had a tumultuous upbringing.

Born to poor parents in a state where the average day’s wage hovered around $1.50, times were tough for the Cannary family. Depending on the job, receiving even a half dime could make the difference in paying outstanding bills or purchasing needed supplies.

In 1863, determined to change their fortunes, Martha’s parents made the decision to head west towards the gold fields of Montana. It would not be long before tragedy struck. Martha’s mother, Charlotte, passed away while traveling across the heartland. After the family’s arrival in Virginia City, Montana her father made the decision to relocate once more. This time the family would try their luck in an up-and-coming city in the Utah territory – Salt Lake City.

Gold pieces - Littleton Coin Blog

Fate was not done with Martha though.

Shortly after the family settled in Salt Lake City, heartbreak would strike again – Martha’s father, Robert, died. At only twelve years old, she was left in charge of five younger siblings and limited job prospects.

Martha’s teenage years would be fraught with struggle as she did what she could to earn money, ideally the Liberty Seated dollar, to support her family.

The Liberty Seated dollars, struck from 1840-1873, were the Wild West dollars of Martha Cannary’s youth. A product of their time, the motto in god we trust was added to the reverse of the dollar after the conclusion of the Civil War. Designed by U.S. Mint engraver Christian Gobrecht, the Liberty Seated dollar could change a struggling family’s fortune. These classic coins saw Martha not only through her girlhood and into adolescence, but also into the age of Calamity Jane.

The Trade Dollar Years

Mining note - Littleton Coin Blog

While how Calamity Jane’s nickname came to be is up for debate, it is generally agreed that she began going by it sometime around 1873. Whether it was given due to her heroics of rescuing a wounded captain from a fight or to impress the man she loved… that has been lost to history.   

After spending her youth traveling, Calamity Jane continued to make her way around the West. She could often be found along the railroad’s construction camps or at military outposts looking to make money. Three short years later, Calamity Jane emerged in the unruly town of Deadwood, South Dakota in the summer of 1876.

Throughout the rest of her life, Calamity Jane would always find her way back to 
Deadwood, a town filled with miners, cowboys, and gunslingers. It was here that a chance encounter would create the legend we know today.

All Roads Lead to Deadwood

Residing in Deadwood was Wild Bill Hickok, the notorious gambler and gunslinger, who would first meet and then become – according to rumor – Calamity Jane’s paramour. After a whirlwind few weeks of knowing each other, Wild Bill would be killed in August of 1876. Shot while holding playing cards, Hickok’s last hand came to be known as “Dead Man’s Hand” by poker players around the world.

Playing Cards - Littleton Coin Blog

At the same time Calamity Jane’s short-lived romance with Wild Bill was going on, there was another story playing out as well. Minted from 1873-1885, the Trade dollar had become the law of the land. Used across the sea in China as an alternative to paper money, these dollars saw the rise of the dime-novels that featured the escapades of Calamity Jane.

Immortalized in dime-novels as “The Heroine of Whoop-Up”, Calamity Jane became a household name. In these stories, her adventures and relationships with some of the West’s most infamous outlaws were told. Tales that involved the legends of the West raked in money.

Calamity Jane, on the other hand, didn’t see any of it.

The Morgan Dollar Years

During the last eighteen years of Calamity Jane’s life, things had changed and not just for her personally. America’s daily commerce now featured the undisputable king of silver – those beloved Wild West dollars – the Morgan.  Designed by George T. Morgan with the help of an American schoolteacher, the hefty coin would go on to capture the collecting world by storm.

Shortly after her marriage in 1885, Calamity Jane welcomed a daughter to the world. However, not the type to settle down in one place, it wasn’t long before Calamity Jane was on the move again ready for her next adventure. 

Horse  - Littleton Coin Blog

In 1895, she joined the acclaimed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It was here Calamity Jane sold her autobiography to fans and performed feats such as sharpshooting while atop her horse. A regular performer in the show for several years, it wasn’t long before the years of drinking and causing a ruckus caught up to her.

“I was, at all times, with the men when there was excitement and adventures to be had,” Calamity Jane said of a life that had been spent searching for the next great escapade.

In August of 1903, at just fifty-one years old, the renowned heroine of the West passed away. Today she is buried next to Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood, South Dakota. 

The following year, another icon of the West disappeared. This time it would be the beloved Wild West dollar, the timeless Morgan, that would make its last appearance. It would not be seen again in production until 1921, seventeen years later.

A true testament to the spirit of the Wild West, Calamity Jane lived life on her own terms and was a force to be reckoned with.

Which of the silver dollars mentioned here is your favorite? Who is your favorite cowboy or cowgirl? Have you visited Calamity Jane’s grave in Deadwood? Tell us in the comments below!

This article was written by Rachael R.

A bibliophile with a love of history, Rachael enjoys spending her time with her nose buried in a book learning about the history behind the coin.


South Dakota Historical Society Press. “Calamity Jane: The Life and the Legend” Accessed March 1, 2024

McLaird, James D. “Calamity Jane: 1856-1903” Accessed March 1, 2024

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