Martha Canary/Calamity Jane’s youth is sparsely detailed in her own autobiography, and little known from other sources. Biographer Duncan Aikman writes in “Calamity Jane and the Lady Wildcats” what he found by going to her hometown in Missouri some years after her death, when there were still individuals alive who remembered her family. From this we hear mostly of her mother’s wild ways, and we learn (p. 24) that they departed for the gold fields “with their covered wagon, two horses, three cows and brace of lean yellow Missouri hounds.”
Calamity gives a short account of her early life in “Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane” (p.1), first stating that she became an expert rider prior to this trip; then: “While on the way the greater portion of my time was spent in hunting along with the men and hunters of the party, in fact I was at all times with the men when there was excitement and adventures to be had. By the time we reached Virginia City [an Alder Gulch town] I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl my age. I remember many occurrences on the journey from Missouri to Montana. Many times in crossing the mountains the conditions of the trail were so bad that we frequently had to lower the wagons over ledges by hand with ropes for they were so rough and rugged that horses were of no use. We also had many exciting times fording streams for many of the streams in our way were noted for quicksands and boggy places, where, unless we were very careful, we would have lost horses and all. …myself on more than one occasion have mounted my pony and swam across the stream several times merely to amuse myself and have had many narrow escapes from having both myself and pony washed away to certain death.”
Those are reminiscences from decades after the events. The one episode of Calamity’s youth that was firmly documented at the time is the one that I portray in the opening chapter of “Calamity Jane- How the West Began.” Here is the account of the Canary children’s desperate situation, as reported in The Montana Post, December 31, 1864: “A most flagrant and wanton instance of unnatural conduct on the part of parents to their children, came under our notice today. Three little girls who state their name is Canary, appeared at the door of Mr. Fergus on Idaho Street, soliciting charity. The ages of the two older ones were about ten and twelve, respectively. The eldest girl carried in her arms her infant sister, a baby of about 12 months of age. Canary, the father, it seems, is a gambler in Nevada [City]. The Mother is [a] woman of the lowest grade, and was last seen in town at Dr. Byam’s office, a day or two since. A calico slip without any additional clothing, was all that defended the poor children from the inclemency of the weather. Mrs. Fergus, Mrs. Castner and Mrs. Moon kindly provided them with food and clothing. ‘Blessed are the merciful.’ There is no way of raising a general rate for the poor, available to the county commissioners, and if it be true that the Idaho statutes are repealed, whereby alone taxes can be levied, our legislature had better show their skill and promptitude, by enacting the necessary laws for an income tax which will yield ample funds both for the purpose and the maintenance of prisoners, for which, at present, there is no appreciation. The Sheriff has provided it on his only responsibility.
“As for the inhuman brutes who have deprived their poor, unfortunate children, the Divine anger will overtake them sooner or later; but meanwhile, the laws of man which they have so audaciously violated should be applied to their case and stern justice meted out to the offenders. We understand the little ones have returned to Nevada [City] where they have existed for some time.”
Calamity Jane as an adult came to be known as a daredevil adventurer, a liar, and a dissolute alcoholic. But she was also known for her unselfish charity. In one episode in her adult life frequently cited by biographers, she helped a local physician care for victims of a smallpox epidemic, at considerable risk to herself. Young Jane must have learned something of charity from the Fergus family that evening in December 1864, something that stuck with her for the rest of her life.