"Legend" is a word tossed around too easily and misused too often. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a legend is "an unverified story handed down from earlier times, especially one popularly believed to be historical."
In titling his latest book, James D. McLaird demonstrates he knows what the word means. Wild Bill Hickok & Calamity Jane: Deadwood Legends explains that much of what we think we know about Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane in Deadwood is, in fact, the stuff of legend.
An emeritus professor of history at Dakota Wesleyan University and author of an earlier biography on Calamity Jane, McLaird wastes no time conveying his point. On the first page of the introduction, he tells the reader that Wild Bill and Calamity Jane "accomplished little of significance to deserve their prominence" in the history of Deadwood. Still, the goal of Wild Bill Hickok & Calamity Jane: Deadwood Legends isn't to demolish the celebrity of Wild Bill — whose real name was James — or Calamity Jane — whose real name was Martha Canary. Instead, as a historian is inclined to do, McLaird examines their lives using facts, not mythology.
Essentially, Wild Bill and Calamity Jane become their era's equivalent of mass media darlings. Hickok garnered his national reputation thanks to a February 1867 article in Harper's New Monthly Magazine and ensuing dime novels. McLaird notes, though, that the magazine article's tales of Hickok's derring-do "bore little resemblance to actual events, and some episodes were entirely fictionalized." Similarly, the connection between Hickok and Calamity Jane is more tenuous than commonly thought.
The two met for the first time in July 1867, when Calamity Jane hooked up with a group heading to the Black Hills that included Hickok. Less than a month later, Hickok was dead. Although known in the area because of previous trips there and as a dance-hall girl, Calamity Jane's national fame didn't begin until after Hickok's death. Like Hickok, a magazine article and, more important, a series of highly popular dime novels published between 1877 and 1885 featuring "Deadwood Dick," in which she was a character, pushed her into the spotlight.