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Historians Steal Sunset from ‘Jerks of the West’

October 28, 1989

HELENA, Mont. (AP) _ Calamity Jane was an ″uneducated, uncultured woman,″ and some frontier heroes were shameless bigots, according to an iconoclastic conference titled ″Speaking Ill of the Dead: Jerks in Montana History.″

Nearly every event in the life of the true Calamity Jane - Martha Jane Canary - is clouded by contradictory evidence, Dan Gallacher told the annual Montana History Conference on Friday. Even her birth date and parents’ names are suspect.

Much of the legend of Calamity Jane as a swashbuckling frontier woman who rode with General Custer and captured Wild Bill Hickock’s killer was built by Canary herself, who fed lurid stories to newspapers that didn’t care if they were true, he said.

Friday’s panel on jerks in the state’s history also featured the ″Golden Hatchet Award,″ which went to Lyndel Meikle, whose research showed that many of Montana’s founding fathers were racist and sexist.

The panel drew a crowd of nearly 200, and may become an annual part of the conference.

Conference organizer Jennifer Jeffries Thompson was pleased, but also distressed that the scholarly work of the meeting would go unnoticed.

The same sort of thing happened in September, she said, when a society program was upstaged by the Great Montana Centennial Cattle Drive.

″This is the cattle drive of the history conference,″ Thompson said.

Gallacher, a historian with Historical Research Associates in Missoula, said much of the legend of Calamity Jane can be flatly disproved.

Her claim to have been a Cavalry scout for George Armstrong Custer in Arizona is easily debunked, he said, because Custer never served in Arizona.

And despite the many tales about her and Hickock - including that she was married to him - the only verifiable fact is that both were in Deadwood, S.D., when Hickock was shot to death in 1876.

″It was pure fantasy that she captured Hickock’s killer, Jack McCall,″ Gallacher said.

Meikle, a ranger at the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site southwest of Helena, dug into official records that revealed the prejudices of delegates to Montana’s original constitutional convention in 1889.

C.J. Hartman, one of Montana’s founding fathers, wanted a requirement that anyone allowed to vote should be able to read English. He saw that as a safeguard against ″the scum of foreign nations″ who were being admitted to the United States, Meikle said.

Delegate Charles S. Warren would have allowed only some foreigners to vote, but not Italians.

The official transcript, Meikle said, notes that delegates laughed and applauded as Warren read an article that he said voiced his feelings:

″It is somewhat uncomfortable to reflect that a citizen of intelligence, property, good moral character and a keen sense of responsibilities and dignities of his duties as an American citizen may have his ballot offset by an Italian.″

Warren’s prejudice against Italians was not unusual, and similar racism was aimed at the Chinese, Meikle said.

Women faced different barriers, she said: ″They were not considered people.″

When a proposal to let women vote was introduced at the 1889 convention, a Mr. Collins of Cascade County requested that its supporters first introduce a motion ″that a woman is a human being or person in the language of the court.″

″To their credit,″ Meikle said, ″the delegates devoted a tremendous portion of their time to the debate on woman’s suffrage. It is not to their credit, however, that they didn’t grant it.″