by Linda Moore, Curator of Collections
On Mother’s Day in 1941 the popular “We the People” radio program hosted a daughter whose claims about her parentage incited a debate among western history scholars and buffs which continued throughout the next decade and remains unsettled even today. Though none of the major figures involved in this controversy ever lived in Fort Collins, Colorado a set of artifacts upon which the proof of some of its most hotly debated points rests happened to land in our Museum. Most of them are still here.
On the program, Mrs. Jean McCormick announced that she was the secret daughter of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, and substantiated her claim with a marriage certificate, letters, and objects she claimed her parents had given her, such as a diary, a diamond brooch, a lock of hair, and a prayer book with an inscription by Calamity Jane. Of these artifacts, the diary was especially unusual. It was an empty, old-fashioned photo album with entries addressing “Dear Janie” handwritten across its pages. McCormick claimed that this volume had been written by her mother over twenty-five years while she traveled and worked around the West. It included an account of a secret frontier marriage between Jane and Wild Bill; and of the birth of their daughter, Jean McCormick herself, in an isolated cabin in the heart of Yellowstone country.
McCormick’s radio revelations made her an instant celebrity. In June she was invited to participate in the “Wild Bill Frontier Celebration” in Abilene, Kansas, where she rode in the parade as the buckskin-clad daughter of Hickok and Calamity Jane. Throughout the summer McCormick attended many similar western celebrations and rodeos, and even traveled to La Crosse, Wisconsin to attend a Hickok family reunion.
Not everyone embraced Jean McCormick as the legitimate daughter of these famous western figures. Many historians came to believe that she had composed the diary herself and was, in fact, continuing to add and edit pages. Others felt McCormick was not clever enough to pull off such a hoax. Still others trusted her sincerity and embraced her as a legendary figure of the West in her own right.
The Board President of what was then known as Fort Collins’ Pioneer Museum, Carl Anderson, was among the historians who trusted McCormick’s story. He apparently contacted her, and eventually she entrusted her family relics to the care of the Museum. “Mrs. McCormick chose our museum as a fitting place to exhibit relics of her father and mother,” Anderson later explained, “it being dedicated to the preservation of the history and traditions of the Old West.” Anderson published a series of articles about the intriguing life of Calamity Jane using excerpts from the diary and, despite protests from the many who doubted their authenticity, the other objects became popular components of the Pioneer Museum exhibit.
In 1951 Jean McCormick contacted the Museum by letter, abashedly requesting the return of a few of the objects: “I have a chance to sell Calamity Jane’s diary and the other articles I shall name… I have sold every thing I possessed just to live. I am sure you will be kind enough to do this for me.” Museum records document the return of four objects to McCormick in response: a diamond brooch, a sugar and creamer set, a leather case of Hickok’s, and Calamity Jane’s diary.
Less than two years after writing this letter, Jean McCormick died in poverty. The diary she had retrieved from our Fort Collins museum resided, it seems, for some time in a museum in Billings, Montana. Recently, the diary was offered for sale on the international market. Blog back in next week for the continuing story of this intriguing woman and the artifacts that have helped preserve her story.