My novel, “Calamity Jane- How the West Began” gives an explanation for how Martha Canary got her nickname; that it came from a well-documented episode of her and her siblings being taken in by the Fergus family after being neglected by their parents. Is that where the name comes from? There is no evidence to support my story, but I will explain here why I think it lies within the realm of possibility. Late in her short life, an autobiography was ghostwritten for the illiterate Martha Canary, entitled “Life and Adventures of Calamity Jane, by Herself.” Here is what she says of her nickname, in the context of an 1873 military campaign, a decade or so after the events of my novel:
“It was during this campaign that I was christened Calamity Jane. It was on Goose Creek, Wyoming, where the town of Sheridan is now located. Capt. Egan was in command of the Post. We were ordered out to quell an uprising of the Indians, and were out for several days, had numerous skirmishes during which six of the soldiers were killed and several severely wounded. When on returning to the Post we were ambushed about a mile and a half from our destination. When fired upon Capt. Egan was shot. I was riding in advance and on hearing the firing turned in my saddle and saw the Captain reeling in his saddle as though about to fall. I turned my horse and galloped back with all haste to his side and got there in time to catch him as he was falling. I lifted him onto my horse in front of me and succeeded in getting him safely to the Fort. Capt. Egan on recovering, laughingly said: ‘I name you Calamity Jane, the heroine of the plains.’ I have borne that name up to the present time.”
Historians doubt this account. James McLaird, in _Calamity Jane the Woman and the Legend_ (p. 32) refutes it thus: “…although Egan was wounded in several Civil War engagements, there is no indication he was shot while stationed in the West. Journalist M.L. Fox in 1903 recalled that Egan’s wife wrote a letter to the _Chicago Tribune_ after learning about Martha’s claim to have saved her husband. According to Mrs. Egan, her husband ‘was never rescued by ‘Calamity’ and… no such incident ever happened.’”
Further doubt is cast on this account by the fact that other episodes described in “Life and Adventures” seem to be falsehoods, or in the vernacular of the day “stretchers.” The account must have been on shaky ground in its own time as well, given that McLaird can detail a half-dozen other contemporary explanations for her nickname, one of which is that it came from her being orphaned at a young age, which is the one most similar to the tale I have spun in my novel. Some of those theories of the origin of her name must be false as they give an explanation that is based on an event that occurred later than the nickname was known to have been applied. That is the flaw in the theory that the nickname comes from her actions during a smallpox epidemic. At any rate, since the explanation Calamity herself gives for her name seems to be false, and none of the other theories is definitive, my explanation that it stems from a night she went begging in the streets is, I would say, within the realm of the possible. Certainly that event would have been the first time she would have come to widespread public attention, as it was published in the newspaper shortly after. If anyone had appropriately attached the term ‘calamity’ to her situation at the time, it might have stuck. This event must have stuck in Jane’s memory for the rest of her life, but she does not mention it in her autobiography. Perhaps she does not address that event out of shame, and for the same reason did not want to associate her nickname with that night.
This is a good place to confess to other ‘stretchers” on my part- the detail of when Calamity switched to wearing men’s clothing and her age. In my
story Jane switches to men’s clothing as a teen, which is earlier than Calamity relates herself in her autobiography. Speaking of the year 1870 (p. 7 of her autobiography) she says: “Up to this time I had always worn the costume of my sex. When I joined Custer I donned the uniform of a soldier. It was a bit awkward at first but I soon got to be perfectly at home in men’s clothing.”
Another fib on my part is that I chose Jane’s age as fifteen for the sake of story, so that her character is believable. In reality, she was younger on arrival to Montana. In the first paragraph of her autobiography, Jane says she was born May first, 1852. That would make her twelve at the time of the well-documented episode of begging in the streets, not fifteen as I have made her. Even her age is controversial, but twelve is the oldest she could have been probably. According the 1860 census (“The Life and Legends of Calamity Jane” Etulain, p. 11), Jane was four years old when the census was taken. In an 1869 census, she is listed as being fifteen (Etulain p. 27). By those accounts, Jane would have been somewhere in the neighborhood of seven and ten when begging in the streets. I favor Jane’s stated birthday, not only to better fit with my story, but because Jane describes herself on the trip to Montana on the first page of her autobiography thus:
“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 I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl my age.”
Twelve even sounds young for such a character.